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

For the rest of the 18th-century, the Port industry struggled to rebuild the port trade with Britain. By the mid-1900's, Portugal was shipping about 3 million gallons of port per year to Britain. The major port houses we know today had been established — Warre, Croft, Taylor, Sandeman, Offley Forrester, Kopke, van Zeller, Burmester, Graham, Guimaraens, Cockburn, and Dow. This was the "Golden Age of Vintage Port" and in it many vintages were declared. The last great vintage of these years was 1878. Then phylloxera, the root louse that was devastating Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other vineyards in Europe, came to the Douro Valley. By grafting their vines to American rootstock they were able to turn the tide. By 1890, most all of the vineyards were replanted in this way or not at all. But they were now ready for some great years in the 20th-century.

Since the phylloxera, the port houses have declared fewer vintages, but the quality is better. Today, both local and domestic investment in the region is focused on quality not quantity. More and more people are discovering port. The French drink the most port in general, but the British and secondly, the Americans, consume the most vintage port.

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The Douro Valley was probably the world's first officially demarcated wine region. It is no doubt the world's most difficult wine growing region. Demarcated in 1756, it is a region that spreads out over 618,000 acres. Of this area, there are only 10 to 12% or approximately 82,000 acres, of cultivated vine planted on the harsh, rugged mountains that rise up from the Douro River and its tributaries. At times the inclination increases from 35% up to 70%. Some grapes are grown as far up as 1800 feet, but the best grapes are grown at the lower elevations. There is a local saying that the best port comes from the grapes that can hear the river flowing.
Douro Valley
The region, referred to locally as "the Douro," begins at the Serra do Marão, a range of mountains 40 miles inland, and extends almost 100 miles to the Spanish border. At its widest point it measures only 16 miles. The mountains create a weather barrier, sharply cutting the rainfall that is received to the east of them. The climate of the Douro becomes one of extremes. The summers are extremely hot and dry often reaching 110°F, and the winters can be quite cold as the mercury sometimes drops below 0°F.

The Serra do Marão mountain range was for so long an obstacle, that the region has always been a remote one — a feeling and look it still retains to this day. Settlements are few and far between. Transportation and communications require patience.

There is almost no soil on these mountains. What is there is a hard schist that retains little water and features few nutrients. In fact, it is very acidic due to high potassium and low calcium and magnesium content. And it contains excessive aluminum which is toxic to the roots. But man's fierce dedication, determination and hard work has turned what might look like a lunar landscape, into a first class wine growing region.

Over a period of 300 years, a gritty, choking, soil has been created by smashing up the schistose rocks to a depth of three feet. The sides of the mountains have been fashioned into terraces most often by the use of pointed iron tools and dynamite. Grape vines cling to these terraces and follow the contour of the mountain. Their search for water may push the roots down 65 feet through the fissures in the schist. This is truly a wine born of adversity.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

The Port wine region is divided into three sub-zones — the Baixo (lower) Corgo, the Cima (higher) Corgo, and the Douro Superior. The three regions are determined by natural conditions. The westernmost Baxio Corgo is the smallest region, yet due to its close proximity to the Atlantic ocean it gets the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and thus is the most abundant. It tends to produce the lightest wines like ruby and tawny ports. It produces almost 50% of all port made.

Upstream, the Cima Cargo is more than double in size with approximately 235,000 acres. About 14% is planted with vines. This sub-zone is demarcated from where the Corgo River intersects the Douro to the Cachão de Valeira Gorge. Here, where rainfall is significantly less – about 28 inches a year – is where most of the high quality tawny, LBV, and Vintage port is made. Surrounding the town of Pinhão, are most of the famous wine growing properties or quintas. This region accounts for about 36% of the port produced.

The last region is the Douro Superior and extends to the Spanish border. It is the largest of the three sub-zones with 271,700 acres. It is the most arid and the least developed. Only about 13% of all port is produced here. It will be interesting to see what developments will come to this zone in the years ahead.