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Nine years ago I interviewed the Englishman at the head of AXA Millésimes, the wine division of the French insurance group. Then 44, Christian Seely spoke entertainingly but guardedly about his progression from Insead business school to Guinness Mahon bank to reviving AXA’s port property Quinta do Noval. In 2000, he was given overall responsibility for AXA’s wine properties in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc, Portugal and Hungary.
When I saw him again last week, presenting a vertical tasting in London of Noval’s most famous wine, Quinta do Noval Nacional vintage port, he seemed to have thrown caution to the winds. Indiscretion followed delightful indiscretion. Perhaps this confidence is due to his success in building, over 20 years with AXA, the long-term capital value of its enviable portfolio (cunningly selling off the underperforming Château Cantenac Brown in Margaux, for example). He now seems fearless, as well as popular, and has branched out into his own personal English sparkling wine, Coates & Seely, with an old Insead chum. The next release will be called Le Perfide. (He wanted to call the wine Albion but found that too many builders and plumbers had appropriated the name.)
Another personal venture, Quinta da Romaneira in the Douro, has been rather less successful. As a luxury hotel in such an isolated location it proved a folly, fuelled presumably by Seely’s personal love affair with the region. But, like a good Insead graduate, he has managed to find a Brazilian wine lover to take over what was the hotel half of the property as his holiday home. The quality of the Douro table wines made alongside port at both Quinta da Romaneira and Quinta do Noval has been improving impressively.
Seely led a group of us through six vintages of the principal vintage port of his beloved Quinta do Noval and then the same vintages of Nacional, the port produced in just a few hundred cases in very few years from a tiny parcel of vines in the middle of the Noval estate. This was the real treat of our tasting: the chance to taste no fewer than seven vintages (the fabled 1963 was served with lunch) of a wine barely seen in the marketplace. When Seely arrived at Noval in 1993 the property’s reputation had declined sharply under the previous owners. Too many vintages of Nacional had been released and, he says, “there were significant hygiene problems with the lagares”, the Douro’s traditional shallow fermentation vessels. Furthermore, he opined, “The things that happened in the 1980s show that even if you have great terroir you can certainly mess it up.”
Seely told us he was determined that Nacional would be released as a vintage port only when the produce of this famous two-hectare plot of ungrafted vines was genuinely outstanding. (“It’s always different but not necessarily better,” he says.) He was lucky that this happened in his first vintage, 1994, but he has had his work cut out explaining to the AXA board in Paris why there was no Nacional between 2003 and 2011 – particularly since Nacional sells out immediately at a release price of about £350 a bottle, six times as much as the regular Quinta do Noval vintage port, and continues to trade at ever more dizzying prices whenever it appears on the market.
Seely told us cheerily that one of the more entertaining aspects of his job, along with dining regularly with billionaires keen to get their hands on his top wines, was denying them an allocation. Henry Tang of Hong Kong was apparently determined that Seely give him some Nacional 2011 when it was released amid much ballyhoo in May this year. “So, did you?” we all wanted to know. Only on condition that he also bought a large quantity of Noval’s Douro table wines and served them to his friends, apparently.
We tasted this great 2011 vintage of both ports as well as 2004, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994. Knowledgeable port fans will notice that Quinta do Noval Nacional 2004 does not officially exist. Launching a vintage port involves a ramified process of submitting it to official if sometimes narrow-minded tasters before it can be “declared”. The 2004 Nacional is undeclared but extant. It is not a popular vintage with other port shippers but Seely fell in love with it and has made a tiny quantity of it just to see how it comes along.
When we got to his 1997s he told us how proud he and the estate’s technical director António Agrellos were when the American wine critic Robert Parker gave both their 1997 vintage ports (“the first vintage in which I was really able to express the special character of the estate”) his top score of 100 points. “We went straight out to celebrate over lunch at the restaurant that Taylor’s then had in the Douro,” he told us, referring to a rival port shipper, adding, almost visibly smacking his lips, “They were all there, so it was highly satisfactory.” In another barb about rivals, he commented on the detail of maximising the maceration of the grape skins that is so important in port production, describing Noval’s robotic experiments in the late 1990s “before the other guys invented robotic lagares in 2000”.
Someone raised the issue of how several of his competitors are now making small-lot, single-vineyard vintage ports, presumably in an attempt to sell them eventually at the sort of sky-high prices that Nacional commands. “It’s sweet that they try,” he cooed, “and they can be very good. But they’re not ungrafted vines …”
The whole point about the tiny parcel of Nacional vines is that they have never been, like most vines planted in Europe, grafted on to phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Some of us who have travelled in Australia and seen the lengths that growers go to there to protect their ungrafted vines from this deadly aphid – with footbaths, special machinery and the like – asked why on earth he didn’t do the same for the Nacional vines, the precious jewel in the crown of his favourite property. “That’s quite a good idea,” he admitted thoughtfully.
Quinta do Noval Nacional
1963, 1997, 2003, 2011
Quinta do Noval vintage port
1994, 1997, 2003, 2011
A bottle of Quinta do Noval Nacional 1997 vintage port, a cause for celebration for Christian Seely and his team, is yours for £1,428.70 at Hedonism Wines in London (hedonism.co.uk, 020 7290 7870)
Tasting notes at JancisRobinson.com