A Brief History of Port Wine

Nestled deep within the rocky hills of Douro Valley in northern Portugal, vines of indigenous grapes grow—later to endure the centuries-old process of becoming Port wine. This rich in taste and color wine is fortified, sweet, and exclusively made in the Portuguese mainland and Azores Islands. Traditionally, Port wine boasts a deep red hue, but there are many types and colors to it—including white, rose, and the aged Tawny Port. The layers of this Portuguese wine pale in comparison to its long history, dating back to the Kingdom of Portugal.

The Beginning of Fortified Wine

Romans of the Roman Empire reaped many of the benefits of Douro Valley’s abundant wine-making land. And after Portugal established their kingdom in 1139, the fortified wine from the country’s remote north became beneficial for both Kingdom and Empire. By 1386, trading between England and Portugal solidified the two countries relationship both politically and commercially with the proposal and signing of the Treaty of Windsor. Afterward, many English merchants settled in the riverside town of Portugal’s Viana do Castelo simply because the Lima River proved useful in the wine exporting business.

The fortified wine export from northern Portugal through the English merchants in Viana do Castelo didn’t reach its highest bounty until after 1667 when England and France’s leaders started picking on each other once again—politically speaking. Louis XIV’s council cut off English imports into France. In retaliation of sorts, King Charles II of England, now seven years into his additional reign over Scotland and Ireland, attacked the French’s highly regarded wines and banned them.

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While the English men and women missed their imported French wines, back down in Viana do Castelo the now well-settled English and Portuguese winemakers took this opportunity to act as England’s wine rebound. Before this new Viana do Castelo wine could fill the void that French wine left the English people, the merchants had to make a few changes, beginning with gathering the much more robust wines from Portugal’s Douro Valley. And after realizing the Douro Valley wines were unable to be transported over the hundreds of miles back to Viana do Castelo, the winemakers had no choice but to move the almost 400-year-old wine hub closer to the Atlantic-neighboring town of Oporto. Within ten years of manufacturing the Portuguese wine and exporting it from Oporto, the first record of this “Oporto,” or “Port,” wine emerged.

Because of the foreign political turmoil, the new Oporto wines or Port wines flourished among Brits and their empire. Business hit another boom influenced by politics at the beginning of the 18th century. This time it wasn’t because of diplomatic disturbance, but of taxes: When the English and Portuguese signed the Methuen Treaty, the treaty declared the relief of higher taxation of imported wines and ensured England would still get their hands on Port even during times of war.

Making Port Then

When the Douro Valley was demarcated in 1756, officially protecting the quality of Port wine, the process of making it became indirectly protected as well. The decision locked in the traditions of how the Portuguese and English merchants crafted Port from Douro Valley so that it’s produced the same way today—save for a few technological advances.

Before any new or old processes can begin, there’s the first and arguably most critical factor of a genuine Port wine: the grapes. Unlike many wines from around the world, Port requires a blend of Portuguese indigenous grapes: Tempranillo, Tinta Cão, Touriga Franca, the list goes on—up to 80 different varieties—each with its own unique tastes. Never the ones to shy away from tradition, Port producers still pick the grapes by hand today, just as their predecessors did hundreds of years before. Once the grapes are off the vine, the foot-stomping fermentation commences.

Traditionally, winemakers would be the ones in their own lagars, stomping their Portuguese grapes with their own bare feet. Grape stomping has been around in the winemaking world for centuries, a method used in countries across the planet to begin the fermentation process and release the grape’s sought-after juices. Port producers were no different. However, the following steps are what set Port wines apart from the rest.

As mentioned, Port wine is fortified. Merchants would enrich their Port with Brandy for the wine to survive the long boat ride from Portugal to the thirsty English. Not only did it preserve the Port, using Brandy also stopped the fermentation process, left a high content of sugar behind, and raised the wine’s alcohol content.

These factors leave drinkers with a genuine Portuguese Port wine, a distinctly rich and sweet-tooth-satisfying boozy sip—typically served in the traditional Port glass.

More Port History

Protecting the vineyards with the Douro Valley’s demarcation was thanks to the then-prime minister of Portugal the Marquês de Pombal. He ordered the Valley to be regulated by the quality of vineyards. There was “vinhos de feitoria”—the most excellent wines designated for high-priced export, as well as the standard market Port known as “vinhos de Ramo.

Exporters began regularly adding Brandy to their Port, cementing the wine’s reputation of high sweetness, which ultimately opened the door to aged Port. Except for the fact that the addition of Brandy didn’t only affect the taste of Port. This practice soared in popularity amongst winemakers once consumers openly accepted and continuously bought the Brandy-fortified Port. And by the year 1850, nearly every Port maker included Brandy in their creation.

The Port industry survived Napoleon’s Europe invasion and civil unrest through the early 19th century, but true devastation hit through the century’s second half. The first wave of the vineyard-eating Phylloxera insect struck the Douro Valley in 1868. Not even five years later, in 1872, nearly all the vineyards were wiped out by the American louse. By the time northern Portugal’s infestation was brought under control, the price of wine already peaked while the quality was at an all-time low.

The Port industry slowly rebuilt and recovered by the 1890s, when winemakers adopted new procedures of pest control and regrafted their vines onto Phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Unfortunately, many Port producers shut down indefinitely from the Phylloxera devastation. Much of Douro Valley today is still home to the skeletal remains of vineyards past that didn’t replenish.

Modern Port

Once the transportation of Port transitioned from river to land, the industry officially entered the modernized trade. It took until 1964—the final documented voyage of Port south from the Douro River to the export ships in Oporto—for the centuries-old wine industry to start trading by land and railroad. Present-day Douro Valley has been dammed and isn’t nearly as treacherously remote as it was for those first winemakers. Port wine’s enduring history has made Portugal’s Douro Valley one of the top wine regions across the globe.

Pairings with Port wine often include richly pungent cheeses, tart pies, chocolate and caramel sweets, and smoked meats.

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