Extract: The wines of Portugal by Richard Mayson

13 May 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Atlantic wines
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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Restoring the reputation of Roussillon

12 April 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

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 marketing@infideas.com; 07802 443957

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The changing face of the Rhône Valley

26 January 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

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.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from marketing@infideas.com; 07802 443957

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New book on Portuguese wines from the author of Port and the Douro

12 November 2020 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

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 marketing@infideas.com; 07802 443957

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Wine on the range: why Southwest wines should be on every wine adventurer’s list

21 September 2020 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

Growing grapes in the arid plains of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico or in Colorado’s mountainous terrain has never been easy. Drought, disease and extreme weather events all present problems, but for the ambitious optimists who dare to pursue their winemaking dreams in America’s southwest perhaps the greatest challenge faced is convincing drinkers to try their wines. Despite advertising, the efforts of producer associations and highway directions to tasting rooms, many potential customers may not even be aware that wine is produced in their state. Now, a new book, The wines of Southwest U.S.A., by Texan wine expert Jessica Dupuy, aims to change perceptions and convince wine lovers that these states are producing wines every bit as good as those made by their friends on the west coast.

New book, just in

Hot off the press (ladybird sold separately)

Acknowledging the difficulty of her task Dupuy says, “taking on the project to share the story of wine in a quadrant of America that is most associated with cacti, cattle, and cowboys was a bit daunting.” Dupuy points out that the wine industries of these states are still emerging and working out their identities but she is not the only one persuaded of the potential for great wine in the Southwest. Many of the region’s growers and winemakers have gained experience working in more established regions, not only California but also Burgundy, Italy, New Zealand and more. They could easily have pursued their careers elsewhere but something drew them back to this part of the U.S.

Texas may have the most developed industry of the four, but those of New Mexico and Colorado are gathering pace and Arizona is generating excitement with the quality of its wines. Dupuy takes each state in turn, beginning with its history – the pioneering spirit that informed the development of these states perhaps goes some way to explaining the mindset of today’s winemakers. She then explores the unique growing conditions, the regions (AVAs) and the challenges peculiar to each. The chapters on each state’s wine producers cover around 10–15 per cent of today’s producers and feature those who helped to form its wine industry or who are actively pushing it forward. As Dupuy remarks, “this selection serves as a blueprint for the many great things that lie ahead.” The growth of the wine industry in the Southwest is reliant on people getting out and tasting the wines. To that end Dupuy concludes each section of the book with a listing of some of the places where visitors can best experience the legendary warm southern welcome and sample these wines alongside local food.

For anybody interested in discovering a truly up-and-coming wine region this book makes for fascinating reading.

About the author
Jessica Dupuy has written about Texas wine, particularly for Texas Monthly magazine, since 2007. She is a regular contributor as a wine and food columnist for Forbes.com and has also written for Imbibe, GuildSomm, SevenFifty Daily, Wine Enthusiast, Southern Living, and National Geographic Traveler. She is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a WSET Advanced Certificate holder and a Certified Specialist of Wine and Spirits through the Society of Wine Educators. Jessica has also covered food trends for various publications and is the author of several cookbooks, including Uchi: The Cookbook, The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family and Love and Jack Allen’s Kitchen Cookbook.

The wines of Southwest U.S.A. is published by Infinite Ideas on 24 September 2020.
ISBN: 9781913022112, pb, rrp £30, 234 x 156mm, 268pp.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from marketing@infideas.com; 07802 443957

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Climbing the peaks of South Africa’s new wine scene

2 July 2020 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

Fifteen years ago, when Jim Clarke first visited South Africa, he discovered a country of contrasts. Although the era of apartheid was over, the country was still suffering from its legacy, with a huge gap to be bridged between rich white and poor black South Africans. The contrast in the wines was no less stark – while there were glimpses of the quality that could be achieved many of the country’s wines were at best cheap and cheerful.

Much has changed in both society and the wine industry over the intervening years, as a new book, The wines of South Africa, by Jim Clarke, explains. Where he saw potential fifteen years ago Clarke now regularly encounters truly expressive, quality wines, noting that the quality level in all wines has been raised, and clumsy wines are now a rarity. He says, “Today one can taste through the wines of South Africa and experience the expansive range of expression the Cape’s many terroirs are capable of … the industry is at a point where its right to a seat at the table is undisputed by anyone who has taken the time to taste. South Africa is making great wines.”

Of course, one cannot discuss the wines of a country with a political legacy like South Africa’s without placing those wines in their social context. As a chapter on the country’s history shows, the racist attitudes that led to apartheid, and which still cause inequality, were baked into the republic from its foundation as a European colony. Clarke devotes an entire chapter to the country’s recent transformation, explaining the efforts made by the wine industry to create better conditions for the largely non-white agricultural workforce and encourage more black people to choose wine as a career.

The scenery of the Western Cape is stunningly beautiful and the unique geography, geology and climate conditions here contribute greatly to the wines these days. While in the past, in pursuit of wines appealing to international markets, South Africa’s winemakers aimed to manipulate and obscure the natural expression of the wines, today’s craftsmen and women allow the terroir to come to the fore. By discussing the signature grape varieties and their expression in each region, Clarke says he aims to guide readers towards those wines that suit their tastes.

The book does not attempt to include more than a sample of South Africa’s producers. The profiles here provide a cross-section that demonstrates the range of different approaches and styles on offer, from large, well-established businesses through to smaller or younger producers, and show what is most interesting or representative within each region.

Overall, The wines of South Africa is a must for all those interested in tracing the rebirth of South African wine.

About the author
Jim Clarke became interested in wine after moving to New York City in 2001 and taking a job waiting tables, training as a sommelier on the job and through classes with the American Sommelier Association. A writing competition led to an introduction to South African wine and the start of Jim’s journalistic career. He has written for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, World of Fine Wine, Beverage Media, and Fortune, among others. In 2013 Jim took a position as Wines of South Africa’s U.S. marketing manager. He remains active as a freelance writer, covering wine, sake, and related subjects. He speaks regularly at a number of wine events and judges in several international wine competitions.

The wines of South Africa is published by Infinite Ideas on 20 July 2020.
ISBN: 9781913022020, pb, rrp £30, 234 x 156mm, 324pp.
Also available as an eBook.
Review copies available from marketing@infideas.com; 07802 443957

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