The upper Douro Valley in northeastern Portugal is one of the great historic wine regions.
The vine has been growth here since antiquity and the Romans made wine on the hilly banks of the Douro River throughout their long occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Later, following the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in the 12th century, the country became an important exporter of wine. However it was not until the mid-17th century, than the Douro Valley became the source of what we know today as Port.
It was the Treaty of Windsor, signed by England and Portugal in 1386, which sowed the seeds for the emergence of this great classic wine and the transformation of the Douro Valley into one of the most renowned of the world's wine regions. The treaty established a close alliance and a strong trading relationship between the two countries. Many English merchants settled in Portugal where the treaty had awarded them special privileges and by the late 1400s shipments of Portuguese wine to England had become substantial. In 1654 a new trade agreement created even more favourable conditions for English and Scottish merchants living in Portugal, many of whom had their homes in the northern harbour city of Viana do Castelo or the nearby town of Monção. From England they brought salted cod (known as bacalhau) as well as wool and cotton cloth. In return they shipped out Portuguese agricultural produce including the thin, astringent wine of the coastal Minho region known as 'Red Portugal'.
Two decades later the trade in Portuguese wine received further encouragement. A blockade of the shipment of English goods to France, imposed in 1667 by its first minister Colbert, caused the English King Charles II to retaliate by prohibiting the import of French wine. The English wine trade was forced to look elsewhere for its supplies. The British merchants at Viana do Castelo seized the opportunity. However they soon found that the harsh wines of the Minho did not suit the English palate and began to look further inland for wines that were more to the consumer's liking.
It was in the remote hills of the upper Douro Valley that they found what they sought. Sheltered by the mountains from the damp westerly winds blowing off the Atlantic which brought rainfall to the coastal vineyards of the Minho, the Douro with its scorching summer heat and arid climate produced the robust and heady wines that the market wanted. However the English merchants were unable to carry the wine overland from the Douro Valley to Viana do Castelo. The only way it could be transported to the coast was by boat down the River Douro. One by one, the English merchants moved from Viana and established their businesses in the large mercantile city of Oporto a few miles from the river's mouth. By 1710, most had established their 'lodges', or warehouses, in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, opposite the old city centre of Oporto, where they remain to this day.
It was from the Oporto, the city from which it was shipped, that the powerful wine of the Douro Valley took its name. Vinho do Porto in Portuguese, meaning 'wine of Oporto', was translated into English as Port Wine or simply Port. The earliest known record of wine being shipped under this name dates from 1678.
At that time, Port was not the rich, fortified wine that we know today. Most of it was dry, although a small amount of brandy was often added prior to shipment to ensure that it remained in good condition until it reached the consumer's table.
The 18th century saw shipments of Port grow rapidly as the rich, red wine of the Douro Valley gained in popularity. The Methuen Treaty of 1703 further encouraged the trade in Port by setting a much lower rate of English duty for Portuguese than for French wines. The strong demand for Port brought great prosperity to the Douro Valley as well as to the English merchants. However, as time passed, it also encouraged speculation and fraud. When shipments of Port fell sharply in the 1750s, these became more widespread.
In 1756, the first minister of Portugal, the powerful and influential Marquis of Pombal, introduced a series of draconian reforms. He imposed a state monopoly over the sale of Port and its shipment to England and Brazil as well as the production of brandy used for fortification. He defined the boundaries of the Port vineyard area, marking them out with over three hundred stone posts known as 'marcos pombalinos'. In 1757 he carried out the first detailed classification of the vineyards of the Douro, grading them according to quality and establishing prices for their production. The best wines were designated as 'vinhos de feitoria' and allowed to be shipped to the demanding English market while the lesser 'vinhos de ramo' could only be sold in Portugal. Measures were taken to do away with the fraudulent practices that had become commonplace, such as the addition of elderberry juice to give colour and the appearance of quality to poor wines.
These visionary reforms effectively established Port as the world's first appellation d'origine contrôlée. Although initially unpopular with both producers and merchants, who resented the high handed manner in which they were sometimes carried out, they heralded a new era of growth and affluence. The growing importance of the wealthy Brazilian market contributed to this prosperity.
In 1791 the eastern reaches of the Douro River were opened to navigation when the massive outcrops of rock obstructing the Valeira Gorge were finally removed. This made it economically viable to plant vineyards in the eastern area of the Douro Valley which became known as the Douro Novo, or 'New Douro', and later as the Douro Superior. In the years that followed many new estates were established in this area, including some famous properties whose magnificent wines did much to enhance the prestige of Port.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and until well into the 20th, the task of transporting the new wines down the river to the 'lodges' of the Port shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia fell to the 'barcos rabelos'. These remarkable flat-bottomed river boats, with their distinctive long steering oars and broad sails, were designed to carry heavy loads of Port casks through the lethal rapids, treacherous shoals and narrow gorges of the fast-running Douro.
It was in the second half of the 18th century that the technique of fortification as practiced today gradually became widespread. In the early days of the Port trade, it was common practice to add a small amount of brandy to the wine prior to shipment to preserve it from spoiling. However in the late 1700s it became increasingly common to add some brandy - essentially a young, clear neutral spirit distilled from wine - during the fermentation, arresting it before all the natural sweetness of the grape juice was converted into alcohol. This ensured that the wine never spoiled and, more importantly, created a wine whose sweetness, strength and richness of flavour was very much to the taste of the consumer in England and elsewhere. Although it was not until around 1850 that this method of fortification became universally adopted as an essential part of the process of making Port, by the end of the 18th century the practice had become well established.
The late 1700s also witnessed another pivotal development, namely a gradual change in the shape of the glass bottle. From being broad based, onion shaped and intended to be re-used, bottles became progressively taller, more cylindrical and cheaper to produce. By the 1770s their shape allowed them to be stored on their sides and used for the long term ageing of wine. The adoption of fortification, which increased the Port's ability to age, combined with the development of the cylindrical bottle led to the emergence of the most noble of all Port styles, Vintage Port. It is thought that the first Vintage Port was made in 1775.
The early nineteenth century was marked by conflict and Port shipments were affected in turn by the Napoleon's peninsular campaigns and the civil war between the supporters of the liberal and absolutist pretenders to the Portuguese throne. However the return of peace in the 1830s ushered in a golden age for Port producers. The appreciation of Port began to extend beyond its traditional markets of Britain and Brazil. Countries such as Russia, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and the United States also began to take an interest in the magnificent wines of the Douro Valley.
As the century progressed, Vintage Port consolidated its prestige as a great wine at least as respected and desired as the other famous wines of Europe. With the launch of the 1840 Vintage, Fonseca began to establish a reputation for the quality of its Vintage Ports. The custom of releasing Vintage Ports only in the best years, in other words of 'declaring' only the finest vintages, emerged at this time as did the taste for wines that had aged for some time in the cellar.
The 1860s and 70s brought disaster to the Douro Valley in the form of Phylloxera, the deadly American vine louse that had already laid waste to many of the vineyards of France by attacking and destroying the roots of the vines. It is thought that Phylloxera arrived in the Douro in 1868. In any event, by the early 1870s it had destroyed many of the valley's finest vineyards. Phylloxera was finally brought under control by grafting the Portuguese vine varieties onto the resistant roots of native American vines but in the meantime yields had dropped dramatically and many vineyard owners had been financially ruined. The vestiges of old terraces which were never replanted after Phylloxera can still be seen in many parts of the valley.
In the 1880s the Port trade began to recover and vineyard owners set to rebuilding and replanting the blighted vineyards, often introducing new techniques and grape varieties. By the final years of the century, Port was thriving once again and enjoyed a healthy level of consumption until the 1920s. Many of the customs and rituals surrounding Vintage Port, which had acquired a mystique enjoyed by only the most prestigious wines, originated during this period. New markets began to develop in the Low Countries and Scandinavia and in a climate of prosperity many houses Port houses invested heavily in their flagship estates to ensure the quality and continuity of style of their Vintage Ports.
In 1933 the Instituto do Vinho do Porto (IVP), or Port Wine Institute, was created by the Portuguese Government to regulate the production and sale of port and a complex and sophisticated method of classifying the Port vineyards and controlling the quantity and quality of their production was introduced.
During World War II Port sales fell sharply but the last decades of the 20th century saw a return to growth. This was an era of innovation in the Port trade. New products and wine styles were developed, such as Fonseca's celebrated reserve blend, Bin No.27. Port consumption became more widespread geographically with the United States and Canada in particular developing as key markets for quality Port in the final years of the century. Investment by the Port houses in their vineyards encouraged the emergence of new methods of vinification and vineyard landscaping as well as further research into the behavior and characteristics of the traditional Port grape varieties. As the century drew to a close many vineyards were converted to 'vinha ao alto', or planting in rows running vertically up the hillsides, a technique with many quality and environmental benefits.
The first years of the 21st century have witnessed continuing investment in the vineyard, with sustainability, both economic and environmental, becoming an increasingly important priority as producers seek to preserve the unique heritage and environment of the Douro Valley for future generations.