Known and appreciated all over the world by millions of people, Port wine is one of the most important symbols of Portugal and one of its greatest ambassadors.
Tasting a Port wine is an invitation to taste a little of this country's history and culture.
Its distinctive character results from the combination of the unique Douro terroir, the region where it is produced, and centuries of tradition and learning in the art of making good wine.
With several hundred years, the history of Port wine brings together several ingredients of a good storyline: a beginning shrouded in a certain mystery, a path marked by wars, alliances and some controversy to the mix, many challenges and overcoming and, finally, achieving glory.
Follow us in this text and find out a little more about the
origin of Port wine.
The first reference to Port wine
Port wine is exclusively produced from grapes of the Douro region - the oldest demarcated region in the world - located in Northern Portugal.
It is estimated that vines were planted in this region over 2000 years ago. There are several archaeological discoveries that bear witness to this ancient cultivation along the banks and slopes of the Douro River.
Although the exact date of its origin is unknown, the first official reference to Port dates back to 1675. It appears in a document that records the first exportation of wine with that designation, at a time when it was already internationally sought after.
In fact, although it was produced in the Douro, these wines from the region became famous due to the exports that, at the time, English, German and Dutch merchants were making from the city of Oporto to the whole world. For this reason, the wine became known by the name "Port Wine", the place where it was historically shipped.
Another interesting historical factor that today defines the identity of Port wine is the addition of brandy that some producers used to add to the wines destined for export. This technique had the purpose of inhibiting the activity and multiplication of micro-organisms responsible for undesirable reactions in wines, thus ensuring a better preservation of the wine during sea voyages. In years when the grapes reached a high sugar concentration, wines were naturally sweeter and with a higher alcohol content than the other wines, which won over a large number of wine lovers.
Although this fortification process was a little different from the one used nowadays, this practice later became widespread and became an indispensable stage in the production of Port wine as we know it.
The United Kingdom's contribution to the internationalisation of Port wine
In the last third of the 17th Century, European politics ended up giving rise to an important chapter in the history of Port Wine.
The growing tensions between France and England culminated in an English embargo on products from the rival country, including the famous French wines.
Forced to look elsewhere for wine, English merchants saw Portugal as an interesting alternative. Firstly, because there were already strong commercial relations between the two countries, greatly fostered by the Treaty of Windsor. Signed in 1386, this agreement established a political, military and commercial alliance between England and Portugal. Among other things, the treaty gave merchants from each country the right to live and trade equally in both territories, which led many Englishmen to decide to settle and start living in our country.
Faced with this great business opportunity, English merchants living in Portugal quickly took advantage of the situation, resulting in a significant increase in Portuguese wine imports to England. It was discovered that the fine wines from the Douro met the preference of the demanding English palate and, as such, the United Kingdom became the main market for Port wine producers. This is one of the reasons why many Port houses were founded by Englishmen living here.
A few decades later, in 1703, the Methuen Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Cloth and Wine, was signed. The new agreement provided for the free entry of English cloth into Portugal and, in exchange, reduced customs duties on Portuguese wines arriving in England. As a result of the implementation of this treaty, Portuguese viticulture was strongly boosted and the Douro region was no exception.
Benefiting from the prestige that was recognised to English commerce, Port wine gained strength in international markets and was also imported by countries such as Holland, France and Germany.
The creation of the world's first Demarcated and Regulated Region
The exponential growth of Port wine exports brought with it a series of problems. Firstly, because demand exceeded supply. To make up for the shortage and increase profits, low quality wines, adulterated wines and even forgeries started appearing on the market, using wines from other regions to make Port wine. This context ended up affecting the prestige of this product, which saw its price fall and the number of imports decline.
Faced with this situation, the Marquis of Pombal's government responded with a pioneering quality control policy, aimed at protecting genuine Port wine and preserving good trade relations with international markets.
In 1756, the Marquis decided to fix the production of Port wine exclusively in the Douro region and to create what would be the world's first demarcated and regulated region.
Carefully mapped out, the Douro was divided into two distinct areas: one destined to the production of domestic wine (for consumption in the taverns of Douro and Oporto) and the other to the production of the so-called "feitoria wine", a wine of superior quality, eligible to be exported. The area where this wine could be produced - called "Feitoria" - was delimited by placing 335 stone landmarks (the so-called Pombaline landmarks). Some of these landmarks can still be found along the slopes of the Douro, although the original boundaries of the demarcated region underwent changes in the following centuries.
In the same year, the Companhia Geral de Agricultura e Vinhas do Alto Douro was also founded. This body had the mission of defending the prestige of Port Wine abroad by regulating its production and respective trade.
This visionary policy of the Marquis of Pombal would end up being an important landmark in the history of Port Wine. The re-establishment of the product's quality and the revitalisation of its image in external markets were successfully achieved. Even today, Port Wine is still subject to the most rigorous and sophisticated quality control programmes.
The Rabelo Boat: an icon linked to Port Wine
It was also during the Pombaline period that the identity of another great symbol linked to the city of Oporto and the history of its wine was affirmed: the rabelo boat.
Typical of the Douro River, this boat was traditionally used to transport the wine produced in the Douro farms to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it was stored and aged for later sale and shipment to other countries.
At that time, river transport was a bumpy and dangerous journey due to the turbulent currents of the Douro River (it was only later, with the construction of dams that the waters of this river would become calmer, as we know them today). Designed to adapt to these navigation characteristics, the rabelo boat, with its flat bottom, large rudder and imposing sail allowed faster and more precise manoeuvres.
With the arrival of the train and, later, with road development, river transport provided by these boats went into decline. Nowadays, rabelo boats embellish the banks of the Douro River, in Oporto and in Vila Nova de Gaia, where tourists can admire them and also pay a visit to some of the cellars that still store Port wine. The Cálem and Burmester cellars are among the most sought-after port wine cellars by visitors.
The origin of contemporary Douro
The 19th century was marked by a series of crises that would eventually affect the Port wine sector.
This began with heated discussions between producers and merchants about the role of intervention and regulation that the State should have in this sector.
There was a recession in the world demand for Port Wine and a loss of position in its main market, with the British giving preference to Spanish and French wines. This commercial crisis was compounded by a series of plagues - first powdery mildew and later phylloxera - that devastated the Douro vineyards and destroyed many crops, leading several producers to ruin. This context gave strength to those who advocated the need to liberalise the Port wine sector.
Progressively, the protectionist regime that the Douro had enjoyed since 1756 began to crumble, culminating, in 1865, in the abolition of all existing regulation mechanisms. From the opening of the demarcation line of the winegrowing area, to the end of the exclusivity of the Port wine bar for exporting these wines and the elimination of the inspection and certification processes to which they were submitted.
All this would end up promoting profound changes in the winegrowing of the region, sowing the seeds of the contemporary Douro. Soon, vine growing expanded into the Upper Douro area, generating a reorganisation of the territory, new practices for preparing the land, new methods for planting and selecting grape varieties and ways of perfecting winemaking processes.
The liberalisation of the sector made it possible to reach other markets that are still very relevant for Port Wine, such as Scandinavia, Russia, Brazil and the USA. On the other hand, it also gave rise to a series of perverse effects, namely an overproduction crisis, accompanied by the proliferation of frauds, both internally and externally. Port wine imitations - such as French Ports, Hamburg Ports or Tarragona Ports - became frequent in the main international markets, where they were sold at lower prices and quality, devaluing the image of genuine Port Wines.
The arrival of the 20th Century aggravated the conflict between the sector's agents and made the need for new regulations evident. Ensuring the exclusivity of the Porto denomination of origin for wines produced in the Douro became one of the main demands of the region, along with other protectionist measures.
Some of the principles that had previously marked the Pombaline policy of defending the brand gradually returned, including a new demarcation of the producing region, now also including the Upper Douro, and the creation of bodies such as the Casa do Douro and the Port Wine Institute, responsible for protecting production and promoting the quality of the product, which are still maintained today.
The region once again experiences a period of growth and great technological and scientific development. New ways of making wine appeared and new styles of Port wine were created, giving rise to an enormous diversity of offer. Surprising for the richness of its portfolio, Port wine conquers new connoisseurs and consolidates its reputation as a reference at a global level.
Port Wine: a key element for the region's tourism
Port Wine is today a key symbol for the region's tourism, attracting millions of visitors from all over the world every year.
Besides the famous Port Wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, there are many quintas in the Douro that today have their doors open to the public, providing information on the history of the production of this nectar.
One such example is Quinta de S. Luiz, the birthplace of the oldest Port Wine House (Kopke, founded in 1638), where you can immerse yourself in the authentic atmosphere of a wine estate.
Here, you can follow all the steps of production, from the vineyard to the wine, with an incomparable view over the Douro River and the famous terraces of the region, a landscape recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage of Humanity since 2001.
Long gone are the days when Port was exclusively drunk in moments of celebration.
Showing all its versatility, this wine can now be enjoyed on any occasion. From the traditional way, as an aperitif or digestive, also shining in the company of meat or fish dishes, cheeses, sweets and desserts or even in the form of refreshing cocktails.
Whatever the moment, we have a Port wine for you. Discover the selection of proposals that we have prepared for you in our
UVA Wine Shop