Port wine, history of a Portuguese symbol
The history of vineyards in the Upper Douro dates back to Roman times. Yet, the designation of Port wine only appeared during the second half of the 17th century. Soon after, in 1678 Britain declared war on France and blockaded French ports thus creating a wine shortage. Besides, in 1703 Britain and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty that, among other things, established the supply of cloth from England in exchange for Port wine. Therefore the demand for Port wines increased. Stimulated by the increasing demand and consequent high prices, the production boosted and British producers came to the Douro region, exploring the inland where they found darker and more astringent red wines. In order to preserve the wine during the journey down the Douro River to Oporto in “rabelo” boats and then to England, they added a small portion of “aguardente” (a Portuguese sort of brandy) to the barrels before sending them off.
However, the active trading led to fraud on the production that affected the exports. These stagnated while production continued to grow; thus, prices dropped and the producers petitioned the government to create the Companhia Geral dos Vinhos do Alto Douro in order to regulate production, ensuring quality and stabilizing prices. The concept of demarcated wine production region was then defined.
By the end of the 19th century, Port wine production suffered a series of setbacks. The vineyards were almost entirely destroyed by the oidium first and the phylloxera ten years later. The line of demarcation was opened, expanding vineyards to the Upper Douro where the effects of the phylloxera were not so severe. New production methods were also implemented, including innovative vines planting techniques, a more careful selection of the grapes, along the rational use of fertilizers and the perfecting of winemaking procedures. However, all these efforts were affected by the imitations that invaded the main markets and were sold at half of the price of the genuine Port wines.
The reaction came in 1907 when the production, sale, export and control of Port wine were once more regulated: New lines of demarcation that included the Upper Douro were drawn, Port Wine exports had to be shipped across the bar of the Douro River or from Leixões harbor and Porto denomination of origin was an exclusive of fortified wines from the Douro region, containing a minimum of 16.5º of alcohol. On the other hand, distillation of Douro wines was forbidden and the producers were forced to buy the spirits needed for fortifying their wines, from other winemaking regions. The excessive enlargement of the demarcated region was contested, so the demarcation was done by parishes which resulted in a total area similar to the one that exists today.
Since then, Port wine production and trade has been strictly regulated in order to preserve its traditional taste and aromas that turned it into an iconic beverage that represents a way of life and a country.
For further information go to the Portuguese Wine Institute (in english).