Into the glass
Like all wines, sherry’s raison d’être is to give pleasure. And like all great wines it gives pleasure in complex ways appealing to all the senses. As soon as it is poured into a glass it shows its colour and clarity. A lot can be learned simply by looking at it. Then comes its appeal to the nose. The bouquet of a good sherry strikes the nose while it is being poured into the glass, sometimes even from the next room. The nose is a major organ of tasting, receiving the first sensations. For this to happen the wine needs room for the volatile compounds to collect and concentrate above its surface, contained in the space defined by the glass, which should therefore taper in towards the top and be big enough for the wine only to occupy about a third of it. The little thimbles sold as ‘sherry glasses’ with the wine filled to the brim do not give it a chance. Apart from the bouquet ascending to the nose, the colour and viscosity can be appreciated. These features reveal the character of the wine and lay the foundations for the pleasure it can give in the mouth. There is a difference between aroma and bouquet. The aroma is the smell of a young wine, while the bouquet develops with age as the wine matures, giving a complexity that can be immense, subtle and complex.
Many wine lovers begin by being interested in one or other of the great table wines; they are perplexed by the many styles of sherry and sometimes never seek out ones that really satisfy them. It is essential to try all the styles. The final choice depends on the time of day, the weather, and the other wines that are taken with the meal. Above all, it depends on what one happens to like. It is not easy to advise anyone. There is only one hard and fast rule: judge for yourself and drink what you enjoy. No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented people asking. The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about the styles that suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example first. Then by all means be original; your own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions and should be treated as such.
For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter one when it is cold. It is here that the fuller-bodied wines – amontillado, palo cortado and dry oloroso – come into their own. In the sherry country there is a saying that one should have a glass of oloroso mid-morning to prepare the stomach for the serious drinking of fino before lunch.
Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs. My own preference is certainly for a bone dry aperitif save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting. In choosing an aperitif one must obviously bear in mind the table wine that follows. A very old amontillado would destroy the flavour of a Moselle; it would even overpower many Burgundies. Wine lovers like to arrange a progression of flavours, leading up to a big white wine, like a Burgundy or Rhône, with a light manzanilla or fino sherry; but many white wines, like those from the Saar or Loire valleys, or the north of Spain, are light in themselves and have high acidities so that instead of a progression there is a rather unsatisfactory contrast. Here an amontillado, a palo cortado or a dry oloroso can be better; and sherries such as these with the soup provide just the right degree of contrast when champagne is served as an aperitif. Claret can follow a fino, young amontillado or delicate palo cortado; Burgundy can withstand a somewhat older amontillado or an oloroso; a Rhône wine, a big Spanish red, or a super Tuscan can safely follow an old sherry. Old palo cortados and olorosos, whether dry or sweet, are excellent with cheese, particularly blue and green cheeses, and goats’ or ewes’ milk cheeses such as queso Manchego.
A dessert sherry should generally be more or less sweet, though a dry palo cortado or oloroso can be delicious after lunch on a hot summer’s day. A wine to be drunk at the end of a meal should have plenty of body, and although I have enjoyed an old amontillado after lunch, palo cortado or oloroso is generally more attractive. Earle Welby was undoubtedly right when he wrote that sherry is far better than port after champagne.
Pedro Ximénez had long been used in the sherry country as a blending wine but was seldom drunk by itself, though locally it was thought good for nursing mothers. Then, in the 1990s, shippers began to bottle and sell it. Perhaps they had a surplus, as wines like brown sherry were going out of favour. Pedro Ximénez is slightly viscous, sticky and very sweet, but these qualities give it an appeal of its own. It tastes delicious poured over a vanilla ice-cream and the rest of the bottle can then be drunk with the ice-cream, a food that is usually impossible to match with wine. And when Pedro Ximénez ages it develops real distinction; although still very sweet, its after-taste becomes almost dry, complex and very long.
Sherry is generally at its best with food. In Spain, it is taken with a tapa. The word means a lid, or cover, and is said to be derived from an old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the glass. Bars in Spain compete with one another in providing good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pâté, fried squid, fancy sausages (notably chorizo), egg including cold Spanish omelette, meatballs, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialities. Fino sherries are particularly good with food. My own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich. It even tastes good with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, something which defeats most wines.
While the second edition of this book was in the press I got married and proudly took my wife to a vintage feast in Jerez. Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner. We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs. I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino. ‘A whole bottle, for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast. But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second. It is, after all, very little stronger than many table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the Andalusian air.
Sherry is a white wine, and the general rules for serving white wines apply. A fino tastes better if it is chilled but not frozen and this is especially so in hot weather; wines of greater body need only be slightly cool, for instance at cellar temperature; and dessert sherries are best served on the cool side of room temperature, though cream sherry nowadays is sometimes served ‘on the rocks’ as a refreshing drink. On no account should any sherry be warmed.
Sherris-sack was first drunk from silver vessels – and they usually held a man’s measure. Then, during the seventeenth century, Venetian glass was introduced into England, and it was generally drunk from flute glasses. A wide choice of wine glasses is available today; many of them are aesthetically very beautiful, but few are suitable for drinking wine out of, and the small so-called ‘sherry glasses’ are by far the worst of all. Among the worst are those that narrow towards the middle: so-called Elgin glasses and schooners. The former are said to have been designed by an extraordinarily mean peer who wanted his guests to think they were getting a good measure when they were not. One of the best things about sherry is its deep, penetrating fragrance that prepares the palate for the flavour of the wine; the bouquet of a good sherry is so attractive that one can enjoy it without tasting the wine at all. Sherry needs a big glass with plenty of room for the full fragrance to gather within it. Tulip-shaped wine glasses filled only half-way are very good, but the special tall tasting glasses, known as dock glasses and used in the wine trade, are better still. The ISO glass, now widely available, is a good example. These are from five to seven inches high and gently taper in towards the top; they should only be filled to the height of one inch or two. A smaller version which is good is the copita. But good glasses not only show up the beauty of a wine, they also reveal its faults. There is a saying in Jerez: solo hay dos clases de Jerez, el bueno y el mejor – ‘there are only two kinds of sherry, the good and the better’, but there are a few sad exceptions in the cut-throat competition of today, and most of these find their way to public bars, where small glasses may perhaps not always be out of place.
What happens to sherry after it has been bottled depends very much on its style. A fino is never at its best after more than three months in bottle and this is especially so with wines sold en rama. Light amontillados also deteriorate and coarsen in bottle, but rather more slowly. Strange things can happen when dry sherries are kept for a long time. In my own cellar I laid down some fine palo cortado rather more than thirty years ago. For the first three or four years it improved; then it went through a bad patch that lasted for six or seven years. After that it came out on the other side, showing great age and elegance that improved annually until the wine had about twenty-five years’ cellaring. Then it began to go off.
An unsweetened oloroso remains unharmed for several years. If the wine is sweetened, its behaviour is quite different. Light amontillados do not improve but they last far longer than finos and can safely be kept in bottle for two or three years. The development of a medium-quality amontillado in bottle over a long period of years is extremely speculative. Many years ago I inherited three bottles of an identical, slightly sweetened amontillado that had been in my grandfather’s cellar for twenty years. One had absorbed all its sugar and had become a bone dry, very smooth wine of outstanding character, while the other two were dreadful. A really first-class amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso, if it is initially sweetened, develops in bottle and steadily changes. It gradually consumes its sugar, and becomes remarkably smooth while the bouquet and flavour grow exceptionally. Such wines are said to have ‘bottle age’. Given long enough in the bottle, a dessert oloroso can become absolutely dry, though this may well take fifty or sixty years. I have tasted a sherry that had been in bottle for over a hundred years, and it was truly remarkable. One of the finest dessert sherries I remember was a good oloroso my father bought before the war; it was still very sweet thirty years later, but had developed a remarkably mellow and complex flavour with a remarkable nose. Such wines develop with every year in bottle, and they have long been sought after by wine lovers. They should be kept at the very least ten years if the quality of bottle age is really to be appreciated. Then they are glorious.
Once the bottle has been opened, fino sherry oxidizes and gets coarse very quickly: the more delicate the wine, the more noticeable this is. A natural fino should be drunk within three days of opening the bottle, unless it is kept very cool, for instance in the door of a refrigerator, when it lasts twice as long; anyone who takes longer should buy half-bottles. Alternatively, as soon as a bottle of sherry is opened, half of it can be decanted into a clean half-bottle which, if immediately and tightly corked, preserves it almost as well as if the wine had not been opened at all, as there has been hardly any time in the air for it to become oxidized. Nowadays there are gadgets that help: one of these evacuates the space above the wine, while another fills it with inert nitrogen and carbon dioxide; both reduce oxidation.
The same thing applies to the other styles of sherry provided they are completely dry. Oxidation completely spoils them and since few people could wish to drink these wines very cold, the easiest way of ameliorating it is not available. They should be drunk within a week. The more body or sweetness a wine has, the longer it lasts and, at the opposite end of the scale, a brown sherry can safely be left for a month even in a decanter. Decanters are far less airtight than corked bottles, and sherry tends to deteriorate more quickly if it has been decanted. This does not generally matter, as a good wine seldom gets the chance to last for more than a day or two, and decanters are very decorative, but they are only really useful when the wine has been in bottle for two or three years and has thrown a slight deposit.
Strong wines such as sherry attack their corks, which crumble and leak, utterly spoiling them. This can be avoided if the bottles are stored upright, and this is always done in bodega reference rooms, where the wine is generally stored for three or four years. If it is kept upright for longer, there is the danger that the cork may get too dry and cease from being airtight, though I have never known it happen to a bottle of sherry. It is the reason why table wine bottles are binned horizontally, though. For sherry to be laid down, upright or horizontal, it should be corked with long corks of the first quality, like those used for vintage port. Nowadays metal screw-tops with thin plastic seals inside are rapidly taking over. This reduces the risk of oxidation and works very well, though when they were introduced in the 1980s the plastic was not entirely inert and I have known an amontillado become positively nasty after a couple of years. I would not expect this to happen now.
Sherry, like other wines, should be stored in a dark place, as light catalyzes oxidation. The traditional sherry bottle is made of very dark, almost black, glass and that helps. ‘Market forces’ however are calling for clear bottles. Wine in such a bottle should be kept in a dark place and certainly never exposed to direct sunlight.
There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that, ‘Drinking makes such fools of people, and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’ A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard: wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger. Taken the right way, it is wholly good. During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion; he drank a few glasses of sherris-sack every day, and wrote in his memoirs: ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients so much needed.’ There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of 125. He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.
In Castile and the north of Spain sherry is given as a tonic to expectant mothers. When George C. Howell, of New York, examined the ages and habits of the sherry shippers in Jerez, he found that 10 per cent were light or very light drinkers, and the other 90 per cent were heavy drinkers; 10 per cent died before the age of seventy, and the other 90 per cent lived longer; 15 per cent lived to be ninety. If a sherry shipper dies aged less than seventy, his colleagues regard it as a case of infant mortality. Henry Swinburne recorded the curious fact that, ‘The earth in the cemeteries of Xeres, has the quality of preserving corpses incorrupted for years and ages.’ Some doubt has been cast upon the accuracy of this observation, but if indeed it was true, I am sure the quality of the earth had nothing to do with it: by the time a Jerezano dies, he is safely pickled by a lifetime of steady drinking.
When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he sometimes gives it a shake and throws a little on the floor before filling his glass. There is a good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork. But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being. Then he does the really important thing: he drinks the rest of the bottle. But he bears in mind the rule of St Gildas the Wise: ‘If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper.’
Extract (edited) from Sherry, Julian Jeffs (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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It was Mark Twain who observed ‘the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’. As far as I am aware Twain never visited Portugal but his quip about the weather in San Francisco might also be applied to Oporto and the north of Portugal. Anyone who has ever been to San Francisco in July will understand that the fog that rolls in off the Pacific overnight has a huge bearing on the climate of northern California and the style of the wines produced there. Substitute the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific and the reasons for this climatic anomaly are much the same. During the height of summer the waters of the north Atlantic are still so cold (typically 16–18°C) that they cause a bank of fog to build up just off shore. It lurks there after sundown and rolls in silently during the early hours, the only noise being the sad boom of the fog horn on the molhe (breakwater) at the mouth of the Douro. Like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the narrow estuary serves to funnel the fog upriver. At times it will cover more than half of northern Portugal, reaching fifty miles inland before gradually retreating back towards the coast as the sun burns through. In high summer the coastline from the Aveiro lagoon to the mouth of the River Minho and beyond is often shrouded in clammy fog until midday or even mid-afternoon.
The Atlantic Ocean exerts an influence over Portugal in its entirety. Even the Alentejo, 100 kilometres or more from the coast is, to some extent, under the sway of the prevailing Atlantic westerlies. But the oceanic influence is strongest on the littoral, a narrow strip of coastal plain 20 to 60 kilometres wide extending from the northern frontier with Spain, all the way down the Atlantic coast, before turning along the Algarve, where the maritime effect becomes more Mediterranean. To the north of Lisbon, the littoral is shaped by a series of interlocking river basins. Travelling from north to south, the lower reaches of the Minho, Lima, Cavado, Ave, Douro, Vouga and Mondego, and the ribeiras (streams) that drain the hills of Estremadura, provide ample sites for cultivating vines.
Climate is the uniting factor for a seemingly disparate group of wine regions with varying fortunes. In the north lies Vinho Verde, the most Atlantic of all Portuguese wines, covering a granite landscape that feels very much part of northern Europe. It merges, in places almost imperceptibly, with the Douro and then with Lafões on the River Vouga, which leads the Aveiro lagoon. Bairrada, a wine region which (climatic vagaries permitting) is now proving itself to be capable of excellence, sits in between this and the university city of Coimbra. This is an area traditionally dominated by the red Baga grape. The heavily irrigated lower Mondego valley provides a natural gap in the vineyards before they recommence around Leiria. Lisboa, the wine region that is now named after Portugal’s capital, used to be known as Estremadura and before that the Oeste. This is still Portugal’s most productive wine region, with the district of Lisbon itself capable of producing nearly a million hectolitres in a fruitful year. The Lisboa vineyards extend from the rural hills north of Leiria down the Atlantic coast into the suburbs of the capital. In the nineteenth century there was an internationally known fortified wine named ‘Lisbon’, which was a competitor of the better known wine from Porto. In the early twentieth century three very different enclaves representing white, red and fortified respectively – Bucelas, Colares and Carcavelos – were demarcated. Carcavelos succumbed almost totally to the westward expansion of Lisbon in the 1980s but has been saved from extinction and is now showing its worth once again. Bucelas and Colares are both undergoing a modest but welcome revival of fortune.
Just over a third of Portugal’s wine comes from these Atlantic vineyards but, partly due to the unpredictability of the climate, both quantity and quality can vary alarmingly. Average annual rainfall, perhaps the most representative measure of climatic differentiation within Portugal, is high throughout, from around 750 millimetres per year just north of Lisbon up to (or even in excess of) 2,000 millimetres in the northern mountains that form the boundary between the so-called litoral and the interior. But this is not generally a region of extremes: winters are mild and wet and summers are warm and mostly dry. Average annual temperatures range from 15°C in the south to 11°C in the north, in the mountains that create the rain shadow over inland Portugal. But when it comes to rainfall timing is everything. Most rain falls during the winter months but an Atlantic depression causing drab, damp weather in May and June is not uncommon. This reduces yields dramatically as well as increasing the risk of disease in the vineyard. A local proverb highlights this risk: ‘Maio é couveiro não e vinhateiro’ (May is a month for cabbages, not vines). However, late spring frost, a significant problem inland, is rarely a threat on the coast. High summer is usually dry, but while dry enough to cause hydric stress in those vineyards rooted in shallow soils there is still sufficient moisture in the air for disease to be a problem. Severe stress causes the vine to shut down as photosynthesis is limited and grapes stop ripening evenly. This difficulty is summed up in another local saying: ‘em agusto secam os montes, em setembro as fontes, em outubro tudo’ (in August the hills dry up, in September the springs, in October everything). During September growers play a tense waiting game, balancing the ripening of their grapes with the looming threat of autumn rain. The summer weather often breaks around the September equinox and the expectation of a fine crop can be cruelly dashed at the last minute when the heavens open and the rain continues to pour down for the two or three weeks pencilled in for the harvest. White grapes are now being picked earlier (sometimes from late August) but some indigenous red grapes are slow to ripen. In some years, growers on Portugal’s Atlantic seaboard are tempted to pick early, often before their grapes have reached optimum ripeness, and this shows up with a green streak in the wines.
Atlantic Portugal is undoubtedly a challenging place to grow grapes and make wine but thankfully there are plenty of growers and winemakers who feel that it is worth the effort. Although total production has been shrinking, a new generation of growers is discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) their own terroir. ‘This is not the place to be an absentee farmer’, as one quality-conscious grower in the Lisboa wine region asserted. With perceived climate change, grape growers are taking their holidays earlier. The variability of the weather means that snap decisions have to be taken in the vineyard in order to protect the crop and produce worthwhile wine. Some extremely worthwhile and sometimes age-worthy wines – red, white and occasionally fortified – are being made all the way down the Atlantic seaboard (which now also includes isolated vineyards on the maritime stretches of the Setúbal district and the Alentejo, covered in Chapter 5). There are also volume wines being made to meet key price points on domestic and international markets.
With a few exceptions the wines from Portugal’s littoral share a family resemblance. Levels of alcohol are rarely head-splittingly high and a streak of enervating acidity is never very far from the surface. In fact some winemakers are actively looking to produce wines with lower levels of alcohol at the same time as achieving physiological ripeness. Wines from vineyards closest to the sea may even capture a touch of Atlantic salinity. The Portuguese often use the term astringente (astringent) not as a pejorative but in its positive sense to describe that combination of firm tannin and acidity that is the hallmark of Portugal’s best Atlantic reds. Astringency gives the wines longevity, perhaps equalled only by the best reds from Bordeaux. Although the grapes are different there can be a real affinity with Bordeaux, a trait that was not overlooked during the phylloxera years, when this part of Portugal supplied the French with large quantities of red wine. It has taken over a century for wine producers in the Bairrada and Lisboa regions to rekindle their pride. Sometimes this is misplaced by producers who try to obtain a high price for something rather mediocre. But there are now many who are getting the balance right: in the vineyard, in the winery and increasingly with their sales and marketing. They are almost always the ones who have been prepared to reunite the vineyard with the bottle, seeing things through from the setting out of a new vineyard to presenting their wine at a tasting in Lisbon, London or New York. The key to making good wine in Atlantic Portugal is to be in control.
Extract from The wines of Portugal © Richard Mayson (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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The coastal region of Roussillon, in France’s southernmost corner, has long languished in the shadow of its better-known neighbour, the Languedoc. But a new book, The wines of Roussillon, by Rosemary George MW, argues that after decades in the wine wilderness the region can now display to the world an impressive range of fine table wines and Vins Doux Naturels.
Roussillon’s reputation was founded on the popularity of its Vins Doux Naturels. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these wines, particularly those of Rivesaltes, were celebrated by aristocracy, gastronomes and writers such as Voltaire, but since the 1980s their popularity has declined. The region became a victim of its own success and its winemakers quickly had to learn how to make and sell table wines, or vins secs as they are known here. Before the 1980s, vins secs formed a very small part of Roussillon’s wine production. Its winemakers are still honing their vin sec craft and the wines are relatively unknown – the oldest appellation, Collioure, is only 50 years old. The challenge faced by the region’s wine growers is therefore to restore the Vins Doux Naturels to their rightful place among the great fortified wines of the world whilst also creating a market for their table wines.
George describes the Vins Doux Naturels as “truly wonderful original wines” and would like to see the market for them grow. The problem seems to be one of perception, with even the region’s producers not knowing what to make of them – George tells us they serve whisky and pastis rather than Rivesaltes at their cooperative meetings. As for the reputation of the region, George finds it difficult to comprehend why, with wines of equal quality, Roussillon does not have the cachet of its Catalan cousin Priorat: “Like those of Roussillon, the fortified wines of Tarragona had a reputation, which has been superseded by the neighbouring table wines of Priorat. Why has Roussillon so far been unable to make a similar shift in reputation?”
Luckily, the region is home to some committed and innovative producers. As with many regions world wide, climate change has made viticulture difficult. Roussillon suffers particularly from drought, but the region’s growers have developed original ways of handling this, from seeking alternative, cooler sites or planting in more moisture-retentive soils (the region is blessed with a huge range of soil types) to installing solar panels to shield the vineyard and reduce evaporation. The wind-dried climate makes the region favourable for organic growing and non-conventional viticulture is increasing in popularity here – a quarter of the region’s vineyards are now farmed organically. George allows the growers themselves to provide most of the explanation of the region’s challenges and opportunities. Through them, and in George’s descriptions of their wines, we can see there is great potential in Roussillon if only it could become better known. This book takes a big step towards raising the region’s profile.
About the author
Rosemary George MW was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine (in 1979). The author of thirteen books, she has been a freelance wine writer since 1981. Her very first book, Chablis and the Wines of the Yonne, published in 1984, won both the André Simon and the Glenfiddich awards. For The Classic Wine Library she has written The wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois, Wines of the Languedoc and The wines of Faugères. She contributes to various magazines, such as Decanter and Sommelier India and is the current President of the Circle of Wine Writers.
The wines of Roussillon is published by Infinite Ideas on 19 April 2021.
ISBN: 9781908984944, pb, rrp £30, 234 x 156mm, 294pp.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org; 07802 443957
Last month the 28th title in The Classic Wine Library, Wines of the Rhone, was published. Each new title increases the series’ reach and opens up another region for wine-loving readers. This year we will be bringing you more titles that aim to expand your knowledge across continents, including The wines of California and The wines of Australia as well as a new book on the sparkling wines of the world, called Fizz!, and more coverage of France with The wines of Roussillon.
The Guardian found our growing series ‘impressive’; so what is it that makes The Classic Wine Library so special?
To start with, each book provides the most up-to-date information on its given country or region. Authors go out of their way to taste the most recent wines from the place in question and bring you information on new producers, the best wines of the moment and what’s happening in the region now. Some, like Jessica Dupuy (The wines of Southwest U.S.A.) and Konstantinos Lazarakis MW (The wines of Greece) live in the region they write about, while others have been visiting for many years and make multiple trips while writing their book. Some even move their entire life to another country just to bring you the best book on the subject. Here, you can read Matt Walls’ account of his two years in Provence writing Wines of the Rhône.
Our authors are chosen because they are acknowledged experts in the wine region they write about. They are in demand when it comes to wine tastings, with eight of them taking the role of Regional Chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2021 and series co-editor Sarah Jane Evans MW being one of the event’s co-chairs. As well as writing for the Classic Wine Library, our authors, many of whom are Masters of Wine, have written extensively on wine in other publications and are adept at sharing their wine expertise with the public. Listen to these recent interviews with Jessica Dupuy, author of Wines of the Southwest U.S.A. and series co-editor Richard Mayson, author of Port and the Douro and The wines of Portugal.
If you are aiming to expand your wine knowledge, head over to the Classic Wine Library shop and browse the entire series.
The Rhône is renowned for famous appellations such as Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. But being well-known does not necessarily mean that the wines of the region are set in stone. Like any other region, the Rhône has had to develop to keep up with tastes in wine and innovations in winemaking, and these days climate change is forcing further evolution on the region’s winemakers, as a new book from The Classic Wine Library reveals.
Two years ago, when Rhône specialist Matt Walls first started writing Wines of the Rhône he hoped it would provide a welcome respite from the political upheavals around the world, particularly in his native Britain and in France. He soon discovered a world of constant change, requiring many alterations of his text over the course of its writing (including the addition of a new appellation just weeks before the book went to press).
The evidence for changing climate, which comes both from the accounts of growers and scientific observation, has seen wine producers change their approach both in vineyard and in cellar. With harvests getting earlier, this can lead to uneven ripeness and growers having to choose between unripe flavours and very high alcohol levels, so one key development has been a change in the varieties favoured in various parts of the region.
Market demands have altered, with more consumers seeking organic and natural wines, and some newer appellations, such as Cairanne, born in 2015, have baked restricted use of additions such as herbicides and sulphur into their specifications. But the climate here does not necessarily favour natural wines, or even organics, for while dry weather can mean a reduced need for chemicals in the vineyard, climate change also means inconsistent conditions, which have on occasion seen growers faced with a choice between spraying or a failed crop. Some winemakers find it hard to see a long future for the region, and while Walls praises the efforts of its producers to adapt, he criticizes what he sees as a lack of foresight in terms of addressing the climate change itself, e.g. through the use of green energy or more lightweight bottles and packaging.
Regardless of what the future may hold there is still much to enjoy, and Walls is a highly knowledgeable guide to the region, deftly detailing the terroir and the typical wine styles of each appellation, from the famous crus to hidden gems. Arguably, the best way to understand a region is through its producers and here Walls has enlisted the help of around 200, interviewing many, tasting their wines and presenting profiles detailing what to expect from the wines of each (including some tips on bargains to be had). There is something surprising and exciting here for everyone, from the Rhône newbie to the long-time fan.
About the author
Matt Walls is a freelance wine writer and consultant based in London and Avignon. He is a contributing editor at Decanter and writes regular articles for magazines and websites such as Foodism, Club Oenologique and timatkin.com. He won the Best Newcomer award at the 2013 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards for Drink Me!, his first book on wine, which has sold over 10,000 copies. He publishes a popular wine blog, www.mattwalls.co.uk, for which he won International Wine & Spirit Competition Blogger of the Year in 2015. When not writing, he advises restaurants on wine lists, hosts tastings, judges food and wine competitions and develops wine apps. Matt is interested in all areas of wine, but specializes in the Rhône. He is Regional Chair for the Rhône at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Wines of the Rhônewas published by Infinite Ideas on 25 January 2021.
ISBN: 9781999619329, pb, rrp £30, 234 x 156mm, 390pp.
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Portuguese wine and British drinkers have a relationship going back centuries. In the latter part of the twentieth century the picture of Portuguese wines held by most Brits was most likely a combination of quaffable pink wines, sunny reds drunk on holiday and Christmas Ports. But one Englishman was paying a bit more attention. Richard Mayson first visited the country as a child and was instantly enchanted by the place and its people, later developing a fascination with its wines. Having lived and worked there, including at one time owning and managing a vineyard in the Alentejo, he is ideally placed to introduce readers to the great variety of wines produced in Portugal.
In The wines of Portugal, Mayson demonstrates a clear love for both the wines and the country. After placing the wines in their historical context, the award-winning writer goes on to explore the grapes, of which Portugal has around 250 indigenous varieties, before explaining the demarcated wine regions. For a small country Portugal has a remarkable range of terroirs and wines. The book is divided along broad geographical lines into four main chapters: coastal Atlantic wines, wines from the mountains (largely in the north of the country), southern plains wines and wines from the islands of Madeira and the Azores. The wines range from the young, fresh, Atlantic-influenced Vinho Verde of the north-west to the “ripe and easygoing” reds of the Alentejo in the south, where the use of traditional talhas has been revived. But there are also the two famed fortified wines, Madeira and Port, and sweet wines such as those from Sétubal, which Mayson recommends as an ideal accompaniment to Christmas pudding. While the contribution of Mateus and Lancers to the revival of Portuguese wines should not be forgotten, there are now producers creating interesting, crafted rosés, and the recent fashion for sparkling wines has seen winemakers in all regions creating fizz worth celebrating.
Reading the story he tells here, wine lovers will find it difficult to resist dreaming of wine holidays in spectacular Douro scenery or planning sunny coastal trips with a wine angle. Mayson is adept at explaining how grape variety, terroir, social changes, tastes in wine, vineyard management and cellar practices all interact to create the wines being produced today. Drawing these elements together in a compelling narrative he says, “Wine brings all these strands together: why is one wine different from another? The answer comes from the innumerable physical and human variables embodied in a deep sense of place. That, in short, is what makes wine so fascinating.” Readers who enjoyed Mayson’s two previous Classic Wine Library books, Port and the Douro and Madeira: The islands and their wines, should add this new book to their Christmas lists.
About the author
Richard Mayson entered the wine trade as a result of living and working in Portugal and spent five years working for the Wine Society before becoming a freelance writer. He is the author of six wine books. In 2014 Richard was the Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year and in 2015 Madeira: The islands and their wines was shortlisted for the André Simon Award. Richard has contributed to a number of publications, including the Oxford Companion to Wine, the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine and the World Atlas of Wine. He writes regularly for Decanter and the World of Fine Wine and chairs the Port and Madeira panel for the Decanter World Wine Awards.
The wines of Portugal is published by Infinite Ideas on 12 November 2020.
ISBN: 9781999619305, pb, rrp £30, 234 x 156mm, 366pp.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org; 07802 443957