Port Wine: Portugal's Douro Valley, Making Port Wine & the History of Port

Port is a fortified wine from the remote vineyards in Portugal's Douro Valley. Here, in the Douro Valley, time has almost stood still. You will not find the latest wine making techniques and fancy equipment. Instead, you will find a wine industry much the way it was over a hundred years ago. Yet, in spite of it, or because of it, vintage Port is one of the world's greatest wines.

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Port takes its name from the city of Oporto that is situated at the mouth of the 560-mile long Rio Douro or River of Gold. Although many port-style wines are made around the world – most notably Australia, South Africa and the United States – the strict usage of the terms Port or Porto refer only to wines produced in Portugal. It is these wines that we will explore here.

Pronunciation Guide

Baixo-Corgo [BY-shoe-Korgo]
Barcos rabelos [BAR-kos ha-BEL-os]
Cima-Corgo [SEEMA-korgo] 
Colheita [col-YATE-a]
Engarrafadores [engarra-fa-DOR-ez]
Lagar [la-GAR]
Porto [PORT-o]
Quinta [KEEN-ta]
Tinto [TEEN-toe]
Touriga Nacional [too-REE-gah na-SHUN-al]
Tinta Roriz [teen-ta HOR-eez]
Vinha [VEEN-yah]

The History of Port
The history of Port begins in the 17th-century. The Portuguese of course, had been making wine for hundreds of years since the Romans introduced wine to the Iberian Peninsula in the first century B.C. And they were making quite a bit of it. By the beginning of the 17th-century, they were shipping as many as 1,200,000 cases of wine down the Douro River to Oporto each year. From there it was sold throughout Portugal, to the Dutch, and to the British. But it was the geopolitics of Europe in the middle of the 17th-century, that caused the British to develop Portuguese wine into port.

In 1678 Britain declared war on France and blockaded French ports. This created an instant shortage of wine. Britain has been the traditional trading partner and ally of Portugal since 1373 when an agreement was signed pledging "perpetual friendship." It was natural then, that the British wine merchants turned to Portugal to find an alternative to the French wines they preferred. Unfortunately, wines of the quality they were looking for were not readily available. Wine making in Portugal had not become the serious endeavor it was in France. So if the British wanted good wine, they were going to have to oversee its production themselves. And this they did.

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Traveling inland along the Douro River, they found darker and more astringent red wines in contrast to those they had seen near the coast. In order to stabilize them for shipment to England, merchants added "a bucket or two" of brandy to the barrels of wine before sending them off. This early wine from Oporto was not highly praised back in London. Any popularity it enjoyed was due more to its availability than anything else. As a result, sales fluctuated with the warming and cooling of Britain's relations with France.

The opening of the 18th-century brought with it the War of Spanish Succession. Britain and France were once again on opposing sides. In 1703, Britain and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty providing for, among other things, bolts of cloth from England for pipes of wine from Portugal. This paved the way for the enormous expansion of port trade in the 18th and 19th-centuries.

Duoro RiverBy this time, a good number of port houses were already well established in Oporto. Many of the British wine trade, most often Scotsmen, had founded branches of their companies there. At first opening only transport offices, they soon were risking capital to buy the standing harvest. In turn the first 30 years of the 18th century saw an unprecedented expansion of wine making in the Douro Valley. Wine production in the Douro Valley was revolutionized – vineyards were literally built out of the mountain, resin-treated goat skins were traded for wooden barrels, transportation of the barrels down-river was organized, and the shippers built warehouses or "lodges" in Vila Nova de Gaia to store their wines.

No one knows exactly when port, as we know it, was created. The first wine from Oporto was really just red table wine. A story is told of a wine merchant in Liverpool, who in 1678, sent his sons to Portugal to find a wine source. In the Douro Valley they came upon a monastery in Lamego. The abbot was adding brandy to the wine during rather than after fermentation thereby producing a port-type wine. In any event, sometime during the end of the 1600's or beginning of the 1700's, someone came up with the idea of stopping the fermentation with brandy while the wine was still sweet, fruity, and strong.

Marques de PompalIn 1727, the British port shippers in Oporto formed an association called the "Factory House," to gain some bargaining strength with the growers. They hoped they might pressure them into keeping prices down. Its original purpose lasted only a short time. Then, later in 1814, it became a jealously guarded private club, much like those in London. It still stands, largely unchanged for over 200 years, in one of the busiest parts of the city – a symbol of the British historic presence.

All was going well until in the 1730's, the port industry was faced with scandal. The prospect of easy gains caused some of the less scrupulous vintners began to add sugar and elderberry juice to give sweetness and color to otherwise overstretched wines. Inferior wine and overproduction caused the price of port to fall. To cope with all the complaints and accusations, the Marquês de Pombal created the Old Wine Company. Its creation, while greatly improving quality, effectively ended the virtual monopoly of the British. This new company had far-reaching powers. It was in its charter to regulate the quantities produced, fix the maximum and minimum prices for both buying and selling, and arbitrate all disputes. It also set up in 1756, the growing region for the production of port. All vineyards outside of this official region, along with all of the elderberry trees in northern Portugal were uprooted.