Book Review – Port and the Douro – 3rd Edition – Richard Mayson
Most of us like Port, but few of us actually drink it – on a regular basis at least. It’s possibly even more niche than the other great fortified style from the Iberian Peninsula, without Sherry’s trendiness in its favour.
Above all, many of us are curious about Port:
- What’s the difference between Ruby, Tawny, LBV and other labels?
- Why do so many producers have English names?
- And for the very curious: What’s the connection between Dog Strangler (1) and the Bishop of Norwich? (2)
Richard Mayson’s excellent and authoritative book answers these questions and much more besides.
The first chapter gives a condensed history of Portugal, Port and the Douro. Politics, religion, agriculture, industrialisation and international treaties all intertwined in the second millennium CE to create the fascinating landscape we have today.
The second chapter is a detailed exposition of the geography, climate and principal grapes of the Douro. This includes a map of the top 80 or so Quintas (farms or estates) with a review and contact details of each. In conjunction with chapter 8 “Directions in the Douro” this makes a mini travel guide. Would be visitors now have a valuable resource to help plan their trip.
The evolution of Port production methods is treated in chapter 3. Whereas fine “light” wines can enjoy a long fermentation and maceration to extract flavour, colour and tannin from grape skins, Port has no such luxury. With a maximum of 48 hours of skin contact before fermentation has to be arrested, firm and rapid extraction is key – and the tried and tested best method for this is foot treading in a lagare (a big, square, open-topped stone tank).
Throughout this third edition, the main text is interspersed with panels painting light-hearted pen pictures of the “Men (and women) who shaped the Douro”. In fact, these small pieces on their own give the reader some entertaining insights into the whole Port story.
As a patriotic Yorkshireman, I particularly enjoyed hearing of a bluff, straight-talking fellow Tyke (3) who devoted himself to exploring and documenting the vineyards of the Douro itself, rather than focusing on the blending, maturation and shipping from Villa Gaia de Nova. Joseph James Forrester produced some excellent maps of the region, and was also a vocal proponent of light (unfortified) Douro wines. Unfortunately, he was 150 years too early for consumer taste and shipping conditions, so these views were widely derided by the Port establishment.
A lack of available labour in the 1960s necessitated the introduction of mechanised alternative to the human foot, with varying degrees of success. Much of the Douro was without a reliable (or any) electricity supply at that time. Autovinification was an ingenious answer, as it used the pressure created by the natural production of carbon dioxide during fermentation to pump the must over the cap (of floating grape skins). More modern technology has since seen the use of robotic devices which attempt to reproduce the firm-but-not-too-firm extraction techniques of the foot.
Who invented Port? Although “light” wine had been made in the Douro for millennia, it was English Shippers who added spirit to large barrels of wine to stop them spoiling on the sea voyage to England. But that wasn’t the invention of Port! Port production depends on the addition of spirit before fermentation has finished, thereby retaining some of the grapes’ natural sugars as the spirit kills off the fermenting yeast. And that practice was first documented by a couple of wine merchants who found the Abbot of Lamego carrying it out on 1676.
The fourth chapter explains the different types of Port, from the well-established to the new. The following table summarises the main styles:
The best of the best – Vintage Port – gets chapter 5 all to itself. Each year from 1960 to 2015 (in the new paperback edition) is given a mark from nil to five stars as an overall guide, plus a narrative explaining how the vintage unfolded – essentially the weather throughout the year – and the author’s pick of the best bottles. Selected other years going back to 1844 (!) are also included in the vintage guide. Whether this is a useful buying guide depends on the distance of your drinking horizon and/or the depths of your pockets.
Adulation and Adulteration. Without reference to quality, (young) Port’s defining characteristics are that it is sweet, strong in alcohol and dark in colour. Unscrupulous shippers based in Portugal and (especially) wine merchants in England would therefore bulk out real Port wine – or even wine from other regions – with sugar, raisin wine, cheap alcohol and elderberry juice.
Port Producers and Shippers are addressed in chapter 6, some now defunct and many now conjoined into large groups:
Joseph James Forester’s beloved light (everything is relative) Douro wines finally make an appearance in chapter 7. They are made using essentially the same grapes as Port itself, but fermented to dryness, and skipping the addition of spirit. Douro wines only gained their own DOC in 1979. Usually big and bold, when well made they can perform well at the table with many courses, rather than just Port’s traditional role at the end.
As already mentioned, chapter 8 has travel information on hotels, restaurants and local dishes.
Chapter 9 is a short postscript on the future for Port and the Douro. It would be an interesting exercise to look at the predictions in earlier editions!
Overall, this is an essential book for Port and Douro fans, and great reading for anyone with an interest in wine!
(1) The literal translation of the name “Esgana Cão”, the extremely acidic Port grape which also appears as Sercial in Madeira.
(2) Asking a person at the dinner table if they know the Bishop of Norwich is apparently a polite prod to keep the Port moving round the table!
(3) Peter Mayson is a resident of the other (dark) side of the Pennines, so was duty bound to use this description.