The Infinite Ideas interview with Richard Mayson
Port expert Richard Mayson has taken a few minutes out of his busy schedule to sit down with us and chat about his favourite drink. Here are his thoughts on port-related subjects from the tricks of tasting to the effects of global warming on the wine trade.
Why isn’t port wine produced anywhere else?
It is all a matter of terroir. Nowhere in the world apart from the Douro valley has the same combination of climate, geology/soil types and heritage. With centuries of accumulated history behind it Port is very much the product of a culture that has developed among 34,000 growers and the shippers (many of them well-known) who bring the wines to the market.
What have been the biggest changes in the production of port in recent years?
The main change that has taken place in recent years is the improvement in wine making technology. Until as recently as the 1970s a large amount of port was produced in time-honoured fashion that would be familiar to someone plucked out of the eighteenth century! Better knowledge of grape varieties, matching them to vineyard sites, picking at optimum ripeness and better control of extraction and fermentation have all made port into a much better product. Added to which, with their purchase of vineyards many of the larger shippers are now able to control the whole production process from the grape to the bottle. It is no wonder that the quality of port is better now than it has ever been.
In Port and the Douro you’ve written a lot about the history of the drink, but what do you think lies ahead in the world of port; does it face challenges or do you predict a boom?
Port has always faced challenges and always will. The Douro region is a costly place to grow grapes and wine is subject to the vagaries of fashion. I don’t predict a boom but I do predict a healthy future for those producers making less but better and focusing on quality-conscious markets. There is a real and developing interest worldwide in wines that embody the character of their grower and region. In the Douro small growers and large shippers have been facing up to this and there is much more individuality in their wines.
Do you think global warming has affected the production of port?
I am a global warming sceptic but, as a grape grower myself, it is hard to ignore the fact that something seems to have been going on with the climate over the past decade or more. The Douro is fortunate in having a spread of micro- and meso-climates and there is no reason why the region should not adapt. The grape varieties used to make port are amazingly drought resistant. There have been hot years (like 2003) but also cooler ones (like 2014). Vintage variation is what wine is all about and climate change adds a new and rather fascinating (if slightly scary) element to this.
Do you think that technology has generally been a good or bad thing for port?
Oh undoubtedly a good thing! But it has to be used wisely. When new technology has been rushed in, it has had negative consequences (as in the 1970s when I think there was a dip in the quality of vintage port). The port shippers have in general learnt from this and new inventions (like the robotic treading of grapes) have been introduced gradually.
Port is often regarded as an old-fashioned tipple; how would you convince today’s drinkers that it’s worth trying?
Port is a drink with a long history but it is just as relevant today as it always was. I defy any wine drinker not to be seduced by a glass of ten or twenty year old tawny served cool from the fridge on a warm summer’s day. It is about matching the wine to the mood and port with its multiplicity of styles is more than just a wine for drinking after dinner at Christmas!
Port-tasting is quite a specialised skill. How did you get into it – were you a natural or did you have to learn?
We all have to learn and I am still learning all the time. Every time I taste a new vintage I am learning something new. Taste is about memory and experience. I am fortunate in that I have plenty of both!
Can you tell us about the worst port you have ever tasted?
It would have to be something masquerading as port coming from another country. There are still some very poor, cheap imitations out there though fortunately they don’t tend to make it as far as the UK.
Who is the greatest character you have met during your long career in the port trade? Can you tell us about him/her?
I think it is the late and lamented Bruce Guimaraens who was the wine maker for Taylor and Fonseca until 1995. He made every wine from 1960 onwards including the great 1963, 1966 and 1970 vintages. Bruce was a huge man, in all respects, who knew every inch of the Douro and was treated with great regard and affection by growers and shippers alike. He spoke everyone’s language, in both Portuguese and English. He liked nothing better than a good glass of port and, eschewing the purple prose sometimes favoured by wine writers, he would drain the decanter and say ‘it’s just bloody good vintage port’. He is profiled on page 172 of my book [Port and the Douro].
Other than port what is your favourite drink – not necessarily alcoholic – and why?
I don’t drink much other than wine, water and tomato juice! I hate sweet, fizzy drinks and I don’t drink spirits. But I do like a bloody mary!