Wine Books: Richard Mayson
Fresh out of school, Richard Mayson somehow landed a job in a restaurant in the Algarve, in Portugal. Lunch with Jorge Ferreira introduced him to Port, and he found his calling in life. Decades later Richard not only writes with great authority on this most magical of wines, he even owns a vineyard there.
I don't try to hide the fact that, many years ago, I fell in love with the wines of the Douro. This was, of course, long before the region developed the reputation for the increasingly good table wines it has today, and so we are talking exclusively about Port here. It was the scents of a maturing vintage Port, and the gentle spices that could dance across the palate, that first drew me in. Then came some interest in the history as well, the terroir, the strange circus of grape varieties planted here, and those fabulous terraces of vines. I never laid any claim to expertise in the wines of this region though, far from it, and I always needed some text at hand to help me. In those early years a small pocket guide sufficed, a little book which, sadly, I now seem to have permanently misplaced. I think it may have been by the late John Radford. When Richard Mayson's Port and the Douro came along in 1999, however, published under the wine series umbrella by Faber & Faber, I found I had a wonderful new resource at my fingertips. Over a decade on, however, I thought it was looking a little dated, and so I was glad to learn of this latest work from Richard.
On first viewing this is clearly a very different kettle of fish from the early Faber & Faber version. For those unfamiliar with the old wine series publications, the format was fairly staid, with reams and reams of text within, the relentless flow of words only occasionally broken every 300 pages or so by a map, always black and white, occasionally with obviously hand-drawn embellishments. Port and the Douro was a little different, in that it was also blessed with a few colour plates, but other than that it did not break the mould. This new edition, however, is really quite different. With its colourful dust jacket and hardback cover, it does not look or feel like those older books. And at first glance within it has immediate visual appeal, the text interspersed with liberal use of drawings, diagrams, inserted 'fact boxes', colour plates and other images. Unlike the Faber & Faber books, which were useful as works of reference but rarely sent a tingle of excitement down the spine, I felt immediately drawn in by this book. In fact I was so taken with the new layout within I had to go back to my old Faber & Faber copy to double-check that they had the same author, as this book is no gentle update but a reasonably thorough overhaul of what has gone before, and so it feels very different. Having done this I was soon dipping into its pages, and within minutes I had learnt something new about Port and the Douro; I think that says something important about the information within this book.
The layout and scope here is as we would expect for an overarching regional guide; Richard kicks of with a detailed history of the region and wine, before then dealing with the layout of the land as he goes over the vineyards and quintas with a fine-toothed comb. He talks the reader through making Port, the different styles including a new chapter dedicated solely to Vintage Port, and the producers and shippers are also described. And, in a nod to more recent developments in the Douro, there is a new chapter dedicated to the table wines of the region. Scattered throughout the book are the aforementioned 'fact boxes', and these were very effective in sucking me in; they inform regarding significant figures in the region's history in a mini-series entitled Men Who Shaped the Douro, while others describe in detail everything from the myths of the lagares and the use of baga to organic viticulture and the antics of the prankster William Warre.
As for the meat of the book, the actual text, how much has been updated? Quite a lot I feel; looking at the producer profiles first, taking Croft as an example, the first two paragraphs relating to the firm's history have not changed (that's history for you!) but then the new edition delves deeply into the firm's reputation, and looks at more recent developments too. This is certainly no simple reprint it seems. A look through the vintage summaries in the Vintage Port chapter would seem to confirm this; pick any one vintage and we can see that, although the star-rating and vintage 'soundbite' remains unchanged, Richard has rewritten his assessment of all the vintages. Some see only minor updates, such as 1980, whereas others, such as 1987 (I checked on these two vintages at random) see more extensive overhauls. And throughout, Richard's tone remains down-to-earth despite his obvious authority and knowledge when it comes to this wine region. This is a book that offers much that is new and I'm delighted that I will be able to have it to hand when I next open a bottle.