Wine has been a part of the history of the Douro Region for as long as it has been recorded. Even before the Roman occupation, Greek geographers already mentioned that wine was cultivated in this historic region.
But Port wine, the way we know it today, only came about in the 17th century. At this time, the center for wine trade in the Northern region of Portugal wasn’t Porto, but the city of Viana do Castelo, 70 km/40 miles North of Porto. The wines traded during this period were mostly a predecessor of today’s “Vinho Verde”, or green wine, which is bottled very young, and known for it’s acidity, freshness and for being a slightly sparkly. This wine, however, wasn’t very popular in England – Portugal’s primary trade partner – and soon winemakers and wine traders began looking elsewhere for wine that would be more appealing to the English taste. The wine traders eventually re-discovered the Douro region, and went on to develop it as one of the world’s top wine production regions.
Wine produced in the Douro couldn’t easily be transported by land to Viana do Castelo, which eventually lead to using boats to travel down the river to Porto, hence the name Port Wine. But at this point, wine produced in the region was not yet the Port Wine we know now; it was mostly table, or “still” wine. There is some evidence that at the time the wine was already fortified by adding a small amount of brandy, but it was nothing like the fortification process that the wine undergoes today – it was simply a matter of increasing the alcoholic content of the wine so it would survive the overseas trip without spoiling.
As expected, the wine produced in the Douro was much more to the liking of the English market; as a result, at the beginning of the 18th century, the region saw a great increase in wine production and export. Less scrupulous wine makers began producing lesser quality wines, mixing in sugar, spices and even elderberries to enhance the wine’s sweetness, flavor and color. Grapes from other regions of Portugal, and even Spain, were being brought in to the Douro to be blended in the local wine. All of this caused the wine to drop in quality, and the Douro’s reputation sank with it. As a result, a large scandal erupted, which caused Port Wine sales to drop dramatically.
This situation could have killed wine trade in the Douro altogether, were it not for the decisive action of Sebastião José Carvalho e Melo, better known as the Marquis of Pombal. At the time, the Marquis was the Secretary of State for the Kingdom of Portugal, a position similar to today’s Prime Minister. Pombal created the Douro Wine Company, an organization that regulated the production, selling and exporting of all Port Wine. The Company eventually became known as Real Companhia Velha, or Royal Oporto, who are still to this day one of the most reputable Port wine houses. The regulatory function of the Company has been passed down to today’s Port and Douro Wine Institute, controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture.
In 1757, the Marquis also passed a law that would create history. Using 335 stone pillars, Pombal set the boundaries for the official “Douro Wine Region”. This would be the world’s third oldest appellation, only after Chianti in Italy and Tokaj in Hungary, and the first to be under direct control and regulation by the local government. Not only were the boundaries for the region established, the Douro Wine Company also set the standard for wine production, and for its quality.
While this heavy regulatory action wasn’t well received at the time, with some of the locals even rioting against the Douro Wine Company, its effects were quickly noticed in the increase in quality, and the rise in exports. This lead to another age for prosperity in the region.
Innovation in Wine Making
This new found prosperity brought about an age of innovation in the wine making process. Although there was a precedent to adding brandy to the wine to increase its longevity, the second half of the 18th century brought on the age of mastering the fortification process. During this time, the process of adding the brandy before the fermentation process was perfected, making for a sweeter, more aromatic and alcoholic wine. It’s speculated that this was due to a particularly exceptional harvest in the 1820’s, that made all other harvests pale in comparison. The solution found for this problem was to fortify the wine, making it keep most of its sweetness while increasing the alcohol content. Also because of this age of prosperity, wine stock began to build, aince there was no longer the need to quickly clear out the year’s vintage to make money for then next one, and the aging potential of fortified wine was discovered.
Ironically, one of the people who were most adamant against fortification is the same person who is also considered one of the leading figures in developing Port wine: the Baron Forrester. He remained against fortification up until his untimely death in 1862. If he had survived the tragic accident that claimed his life, there’s no telling how his influence could have hindered the widespread acceptance of the fortification process – Port wine could be a completely different wine from what we know today.
The 18th century brought forth one more important landmark in the development of the Douro region. By 1791 a canal had been opened in the Douro river, creating easy access to the region that was then known as the New Douro, today we know it as the Upper Douro. This region soon started showing great potential, and his now home to some of the best vineyards and estates the Douro has today.
In the late 18th century progress in bottle making meant that bottles could be stored in cellars, and wine could be bottled to be consumed later, instead of the traditional way of simply pouring it directly from the cask. This in itself wouldn’t be so profound a change, but it did give birth to a new concept: wine could now be bottled after aging for only a relatively short period of time, and left to age further in the bottle. This is how a new style of wine was born: Vintage wine. It’s documented that the first Vintage Port was produced in 1775, 12 years before the first vintage Bordeaux from France.
The stage was set for the 1800s to be a great century for Port wine making, but fate had other plans. The Napoleonic invasions at the start of the century, followed by political turmoil and even civil war, caused wine production and development to virtually come to a standstill. However, once the political dust settled around 1840, development increased greatly: trade expanded beyond Britain and the Portuguese colonies into countries like Russia, Germany and the United States, among others. A taste for Port Vintages spread across the world, and with it a reform of Vintage wine production: previously, eevery vineyard released a vintage each year; now, only a select few, exceptional years can be submitted as a potential vintage harvest, which is then approved by the Port Wine Institute.
The French wine blight hit the Douro region in full force. An infestation of the Phyloxera insects brought the European wine trade to its knees, and the Douro was no exception. Spread by vines brought from North America, the small insects feed on the root and leaves of the plant, essentially starving the vine to death. This plague reached the Douro in 1868, and by 1872 it had consumed most of the region.
The solution for this problem was, ironically, found at its cause. American vines had natural resistance to the insects, which meant by grafting a European vine in an American root, the plant could grow and be immune to Phylloxera. This solution was brought to the Douro by John Fladgate, who traveled to France to study the blight, then published his findings in an open letter to the Douro winemakers. He was made Baron of Roeda for his efforts. The effects of the Phylloxera can still be seen today: some estates never recovered and had to be shut down indefinitely, which can be seen spotted across the region, in overgrown, abandoned vineyards. There were also some areas around Europe that inexplicably were never affected by the infestation. Quinta do Noval, in the Douro, is one such place, and today they still produce a wine made from ungrafted vines. This is the last Port that can be found in its natural, pre-Phylloxera state.
Recovery & Success
After this dark period came much better days; as the vineyards recovered from the devastation, their wine output continuously grew, meaning more wine was available for export. The 1900s saw a increase of demand for Vintage Port, and Port Wine trade spread throughout the North of Europe, as well as Scandinavia. Just as it had done in the 18th century, greater yields and more wine production meant that Port wine houses could focus on developing their wines, and with the increase in quality there was again an increase in popularity and sales. Not even the Great Depression affected Port wine trade – though sales did decrease slightly in the early 1930s, they bounced right back in the second half of the decade. During the 1900s, France also became the primary importer of Port wine, an honor they keep to this day. And in 1933 the Portuguese government, much like the Marquis of Pombal did in his time, set up the Port Wine Instutute to regulate Port trade and production.
The second half of the XX century saw a massification of Port wine production and consumption. Most smaller houses could no longer compete with the volume and price of the larger houses, and as a result most of them were purchased by drink corporations. The traditional wine consumer also changed: with the coming of large supermarket chains Port wine became available to the masses, and larger variety of Port wines were produced and exported. Arguably the greatest innovation of this period was the Late Bottled Vintage Port: a single-year, top quality Port wine that was aged in cask longer than a Vintage before bottled, which meant it could be drank right away, had a longer life after being opened, and didn’t have to be decanted. This turned out to be a great sales strategy, as it appealed to the consumer that wanted a quality wine, but was put off by having to store a Vintage for a long period of time before it could be opened.
From this point on, Port Wines continued to expand and grow, and the entire Douro region saw an increase in activity. At the moment, the Douro produces critically acclaimed Ports, as well as table wines – whites, reds and rosés – that are quickly taking center stage at every major Wine event, bringing home a lot of awards. It is an exciting time in the wine world, especially to experience the Douro revolution first hand.