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History of Port Wine

A History of Port Wine

Today's post on the history of Port wine in Portugal is authored by Odile Bouchard of Quinta do Tedo - take it away Odile! 

Portugal’s most influential 21st-century poet, Miguel Torga, a local Duriense, or “Douro Valley resident”,  described Portugal’s Douro Valley as  “geological poem.” Perhaps you can already SEE why, but only a visit to Douro Valley will help you EXPERIENCE why.

The history of Portugal's Douro valley is tied to the history of Port wine which begins with a tale of the Portuguese and the English ...

Douro Valley

The Rugged Slopes of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora in the Douro Valley

HISTORY OF PORT WINE - THE PORTUGUESE & ENGLISH

Lucky for us, Port wine labels and the brands that make them are surprisingly easy for English speakers to digest as they are written in English, not Portuguese. In fact, Port wine was historically made by the Portuguese to be consumed by the English.

Portugal and England have had a strong relationship since the mid-17th century, after Eleanor of Aquitaine severed France’s ties with England, sending the English somewhere other than Bordeaux to satiate their vinic needs.

English Pub
Port wine can be found in restaurants, homes and pubs across England

A SHIFT FROM VINHO VERDE TO THE DOURO VALLEY

Their first point of contact with Portugal was Viana do Castelo in the north, Portugal’s most important Port back then.

From there they sourced weak red wines made with light and astringent Vinhão, one of Vinho Verde region’s few native red grapes that produced something similar to the claret (aka pale) wines the English were used to from Bordeaux.

Eventually, the English ventured south in search of something stronger, which they found in the richer, more complex and alcoholic wines from Douro Valley’s hot and arid climate; they looked no further!


TRADE INCREASES

The 1703 Methuen Treaty came with a three-fold decrease in duty charges on the trade of Portuguese wines and English textiles.

Eventually, English, as well as Scottish, German and Flemish traders, installed themselves in the city of Porto and, instead of transporting Douro Valley wine over the mountains by oxcart to Viana do Castelo, they sailed it downriver on flat-bottom rabelo boats to Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Douro River from the city of Porto.

They aged the wine in cellars there before shipping it overseas, hence the name Port linked it to its departure from Porto’s main port.

Rabelo Boat

Rabelo Boats in Porto's Waters

FORTIFICATION & SUGAR; PORT AS WE KNOW IT IS BORN

Before the 19th-century, traders were fortifying their Douro Valley dry wines with aguardente, a neutral grape brandy, to protect it from spoiling as it floated under the hot sun from the Douro Valley to Porto and then overseas. Would you not imagine dry red wine with 20% alcohol tasting, well, rather bad?

It wasn’t until an extremely hot harvest in the 1820s that Douro’s grapes produced more sugar than their yeasts could ferment and the wine was fortified semi-sweet.

 

Quinta do Tedo's Port, Fortified with Brandy

The English found this version of Port much more palatable and demanded the Portuguese pick their grapes riper and fortify their wine before it was fully fermented - that’s Port as we know it today! 


ELDERBERRY, CRISIS & REGULATION

As English demand for Port grew, the “clever” Portuguese began blending it with cheaper grapes from other regions and even deeply-coloured elderberry juice to bulk up their production and thus profits… or so they thought.

The English quickly lost their appetite for and trust in this adulterated, low-quality Port and demand decreased, driving the Port industry, which had become reliant on the English market, into a state of crisis.

That’s when Portugal’s Prime Minister, Marques de Pombal, came to the “rescue”, ripping out the elderberry trees, supervising the movement of grapes in and out of Douro and physically delineating the boundaries within which Port could be made with 300+ feitorias (or granite stone pillars).

Douro Valley became the first-ever demarcated and controlled wine region in the world! 

We hope you enjoyed this brief history of Port wine. Check out our next blog post,  a deep dive on the Douro Valley's Port wines and still wines. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Odile Bouchard

Hi! I'm Odile; I am half-French, half-American and grew up between Burgundy, Napa Valley and Tuscany - wine and travel run deep in my veins. My family owns Quinta do Tedo in the Douro Valley, one of Farah Trading Co's favorite producers!

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