Portugal is the Riesling of wine producing countries – it’s the perennial misunderstood and under appreciated nation that much of the wine trade continues to position as ‘up and coming’. Huge tracts of the wine drinking public still believe it only produces sweet fortified wines, cheap Vinho Verde and mass produced rosé. There are reportedly sommeliers in the US who don’t realise it’s a separate country to Spain.
For all these reasons, it’s great that there’s a new book in the English language about Portugal’s wines. Richard Mayson’s The Wines of Portugal is the latest arrival in the Classic Wine Library series, published by Infinite Ideas. As with all the books in this series, the presentation is (to put it politely) workmanlike, with a mere eight pages of colour photos and a layout that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s schoolbook. Let’s move swiftly onto the content.
Mayson is an acknowledged expert when it comes to Portuguese wine, with a long track record and impressive list of titles to his name – including dedicated volumes dealing with Port and Maderia. This book isn’t totally new, but more like an update of what began as Portugal’s Wines & Winemakers (published 1992 by Ebury press, with a second edition published in 1998) and was then reworked as The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal (published 2003 by Mitchell Beazley). So what we have here is effectively the fourth edition of Mayson’s guide to Portuguese wines.
Structurally, the book has’t changed radically from its earlier guises, however the text has been completely overhauled. It kicks off with a fairly lengthy summation of Portugal’s history. This is vital to any understanding of how Portugal got to where it is today – and to some extent why it still tends to hide its light under a bushel.
The history gets a little dry in places, but it’s sprinkled with invaluable analysis and eye-catching facts. The realisation that Lisbon and Tejo lost around half their vineyard surface since 1989 is shocking.
The detail on the Salazar regime (the so called ‘Estado Novo’ which held Portugal in its dictatorial embrace between 1933 – 1974) is key. Salazar’s introduction of cooperatives – which destroyed any impetus for quality production – had a massive influence on how the Portuguese wine industry would develop in regions such as Dão and Lisboã.
Vines and regions
The second chapter tackles “vines, grapes and wines”, with exhaustive detail on Portugal’s many indigenous grape varieties plus some of the most planted international varieties – the latter very much playing second fiddle these days. There’s a brief box-out concerning organic and biodynamic cultivation. It was a surprise not to see mention of the biggest player here – Esporão completed the conversion of its entire 700 hectare vineyard holdings to certified organic viticulture in 2019.
A well put together summary of Portugal’s DOCs and Vinho Regional regions, with two clearly designed maps, completes this chapter.
The book then tackles the country region by region, grouped logically into four sections: atlantic wines, mountain wines, wines of the plains and island wines. Quite why rosé and sparkling wines are hived off into separate and rather perfunctory chapters is a mystery to me.
Mayson doesn’t devote space to port wines or port production in the Douro, referring us instead to his separate book “Port and the Douro”. Some may feel this is a fair division. Others may be disappointed that a book claiming to cover all of Portugal’s wines actually only deals with its non-fortified examples. Similarly, he omits any detail on Madeira’s crown jewels in the chapter “Island wines”, referring us instead to his companion volume.
Calling “Island wines” a chapter is generous. It runs to a scant four pages, with the briefest discussion of Madeira’s largely insignificant still wines and a bit about the Azores, mainly focused on Pico. Still, it’s an improvement on the 1992 book, where the terminal decline of winemaking in the Azores warranted only a cursory paragraph!
Mayson profiles a short selection of wineries and winemakers for each region. The choices are largely logical and even-handed, if predictable. Mayson seems most comfortable writing about larger more established producers, noting in his introduction that there are now “many wine labels that come and go, buffeted by the whims of fashion, and I have left these out”.
He also has a bit of a prod at natural wines, of which he is clearly not a fan, saying “I have yet to be convinced by these wines. Perhaps this is a case of going back too far – or maybe I am just not sufficiently hip”. Mayson then singles out António Maçanita as an example of a leading natural winemaker, an odd choice as Maçanita has hitherto been more of a defender of interventionist practices such as the use of selected yeasts.
All of this gives the impression of a safe and relatively conservative guide to Portugal’s wines – which is probably just fine for WSET diploma or Master of Wine students who want a concentrated hit of the factual stuff. The risk is that some of Portugal’s most exciting younger winemakers or more recent developments are sidelined.
In his chapter on the Dão region, Mayson devotes plenty of space to one of the region’s icons – Quinta da Pellada – and also name-checks some of my favourites: João Tavares de Pina (confusingly referred to by the name of his estate, Quinta da Boavista, which does not appear on any of his labels), Casa de Mouraz and Julia Kemper.
However, there is no mention of António Madeira, a French-Portuguese wunderkind who has breathed new life into some 20 abandoned vineyard plots and has been making sensational, sought-after Dão wines since 2011.
Writing about Aphros, a well known biodynamic producer in Vinho Verde, Mayson omits Vasco Croft’s acquisition of half a dozen talhas which he has used to make the Phaenus series of white, palhete and sparkling wines since 2015. These are now effectively the estate’s most premium and arguably most exciting wines.
The Alentejo chapter has a good rundown of the talha wine tradition, but again feels a little behind the curve. There is no mention of the “amphora day” festival organised by Herdade do Rocim, a high profile festival of talha and related clay wines from afar that has now taken place twice (2018 and 2019), nor of the tascas or the lively November festivals in the Vidigueira and Cuba areas, where talha culture has really exploded back into life over the past decade.
Admirably, Mayson does not skimp on obscure but fascinating Atlantic regions such as Colares, Carcavelos and Bucelas. He’s a little brief on Tras-os-Montes, a region which is slowly building a solid cadre of producers such as Arribas Wine Company or Quinta de Arcossó.
Mayson’s prose throughout is crisp and concise – there is no doubt that you are in the hands of a pro. Furthermore, over 30 years of visiting Portugal provide an impressive perspective and insight into the changing times – the dusty track at Esperao in the 1980s which is now practically a motorway, the entire trajectory of Dirk Niepoort’s career.
That said, despite a personal connection to the country (he used to own a vineyard in Portalegre), Mayson doesn’t quite manage to show us the Portuguese soul. This is a well executed textbook that will please existing Portugal fans, but may not necessarily win it new advocates. It lacks a bit of human warmth and, for a book that was written in the first six months of 2020, doesn’t entirely seem to have its finger on the pulse.
The Wines of Portugal was published by Infinite Ideas on November 12th 2020.
I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher.
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