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A Book Review of “Port and the Douro” by Richard Mayson

I did it! I finished the second edition of Richard Mayson’s book, “Port and the Douro”, which has proven to be a comprehensive, clearly written reference book on one of my favorite fortified wines: port!

When I originally proposed this book, I heard several readers share their interest in reading a single subject wine book, but equally, their fear that it would bore them to no end. I, too, feared that I would find myself the next morning with my nose on page three, oblivious as to what the first three pages contained. Then would come night two, when I would reread the same pages to catch up to where I was, only to land myself with nose in crease…again. Hence, I had bigger hopes for Richard Mayson’s book. I wanted his book to give me the same passion and inspiration that I felt with sherry wine. I not only wanted to hear about the process of making port, but I also wanted to absorb the history of the Douro over the centuries: to feel the dry and rough schistous soils; smell the rich, spicy aromas of the quintas; hear the roar of the Douro River barreling down the valley; see the dramatic transition from the dry, arid upper Cima Corgo all the way down to the humid and heavy Vila Nova da Gaia region; and finally, taste the differences between a nutty and dry tawny port wine to a concentrated and complex vintage port wine. I hoped that his book would take me to the center of a Douro vineyard and walk me through the process step-by-step, providing me a solid foundation for me to stand on and say, “ahh, so that’s why a glass of (insert a port wine) (insert a sense) like that!”

A second concern I had after fearing a completely dry and factual text, was that as an ‘expert’ in the port trade, he would inundate me with wine geek speak – forcing me to use another book to help me understand the text I already have in front of me. It is challenging enough to dive into a book that covers a style you’re already unfamiliar with, but if I am required to use a second reference book to understand the first book, I tend to get a little ornery. A well-written book should not only be comprehensive, but written in a clear, concise manner so that someone completely unfamiliar with the topic can learn from it without getting lost.

Fortunately, I walked away very impressed with his book, feeling that Richard successfully walked the line between sharing his personal experience and educational theory on port winemaking. The idea for the first edition of “Port and the Douro” was inspired 27 years ago when he received an invitation to a lunch in Vila Nova de Gaia with Jorge Ferreira, previous director of the port house AA Ferreira. Completely enamored with Oporto, his fascination grew, became more palpable, and eventually developed into a lifelong passion, which expressed in the first edition of “Port of Douro”, published in 1974. Two decades, however, had proved to be monumental for the Douro, motivating Richard to rewrite and revise his book. From new vineyard techniques to new government regulations over the port and Douro wine trade, Douro wines had obviously changed dramatically, but Richard didn’t want to alter the intention of the book. Like the first edition, he’d striven to place greater emphasis on wine itself, giving ample weight and voice to the vineyards, growers and the region, rather than solely the port shippers. Where there is money, there is typically power to influence media, and I am pleased to say that Richard wasn’t swayed. He stayed true to his intention, covering each of the following topics thoroughly and thoughtfully: the history of port; vineyards and cultivation; vines and grapes; the quinta; making port; types of port; a guide to vintages; storing, aging and serving port; port producers and shippers; Douro wines; and the future for port and the Douro.

As a neophyte to port wine, I found his book to be practical, organized, informative, well-written without being clubbed over the head with heady wine jargon, and chock full of quaint little stories he reminisces about while spending time in the Douro. I’ve included one of my personal favorites, perfectly matched to our previous post on Douro grape varietals:

For as long as anyone can recall, Portuguese vineyards have been set out in a haphazard manner, with numerous different grape varieties interplanted in the same small plot. Ask the average farmer how much of this or that grape variety he has growing in the vineyard and he will almost certainly shrug his shoulders and utter the words “nao sei” – “I don’t know”. It is not that he is being coy or secretive; in the most instances he really won’t know. In the Douro, where as many as ninety different varieties have been sanctioned at any one time, there can be twenty or more different grapes growing cheek-by-jowl in the same vineyards. This viticultural anarchy has naturally hampered research.

It is easy for me to appreciate this style of writing. He connected me with the growers, giving me an intimate perspective as to how they perceive their vineyards. He’s interwoven history, helping me to understand the quasi-tolerated viticultural chaos that has bewitched growers for centuries. And I’ve also walked away with an understanding as to how the government is regulating the port industry today. This is interesting!

Additionally, I could use his information on each style of port wine as a foundation in my tasting. If the book were poorly laid out and written, I wouldn’t be able to interplay practice and theory, but in this case, it was effortless. Each style not only came with historical background, but it also came with a general understanding as to how the style is made, why it was made in that way, and where its popularity stands internationally as a port style. Hence, when I tasted Late Vintage Ports, I already had an understanding as to how an LBV accidentally evolved from an intended vintage port, how it is currently made, and what to look for in a solid LBV.

In short, the book a fabulous read. It could be a wonderful present for someone who wants to learn more on the subject, and does a great job walking that fine like between wine lover and wine geek. If you do purchase it, please let me know what you thought!


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