The Wines of Portugal, a History


By Carol Ware Duff, Health Editor

Portugal’s history can be traced back to around 700 BC, when the Iberian Peninsula was held first by the Celts, then the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. The Moors arrived in the 8th century and while they were there, introduced their culture, architecture, and agricultural techniques to Portugal. From the mid 15th century wines from the northern portion of Portugal have been shipped to England. So that the wine would be stabilized for its journey, brandy was added to the casks. The addition of brandy caused the wines to become sweeter and more fortified. This became Port wine. Thousands of casks of this type of wine from Douro were being shipped to Britain

By 1703 England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty which offered the terms that English woolens were to be traded for Portuguese wines. British merchants eventually became shippers in Oporto. In 1756 the Marques de Pombal, who was the Prime Minister, made the Douro Valley region the only Port producing area. The Douro Valley may be the world’s first officially demarcated wine region. No doubt it is a most difficult wine growing region. This region spreads over 618,000 acres and of this approximately 82,000 acres of vines are cultivated on the mountains that rise from the Douro River and its tributaries.

Some grapes grow as high as 1800 feet, but the best are grown on the lower elevations. A local saying is that the grapes that make the best port are those that can hear the river. Initially Port was consumed inside Portugal, but hardly known in other countries. By the beginning of the 17th century, as many as 1,200,000 cases of wine were moving down the Douro River to Oporta (Port) each year. The French wines, at least until the 17th century, were more popular than the wines of Portugal. Due to deteriorating relations between Britain and France, the British government decided to place heavy import taxes on French wine.

The British discovered that the wines of the Douro Valley of Portugal would suit their tastes as well as their pocket books. The British eventually shunned the wines of the Bordeaux for those produced in the Douro Valley. Utilizing the practice of fortifying the wine with brandy, in order to halt the fermentation of the grapes, thousands of casks of wine from Douro were being shipped to Britain. During the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Wars, French wine became less obtainable. British wine merchants, as well as Irish, Dutch, Danish, and Germans also joined the Port industry.

The wine growing region is divided into three sub- regions which are the Baixo Corgo or lower area which is flat and easy to cultivate and receives the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and abundant due to its close proximity to the Atlantic. Almost fifty percent of the Port is produced in this area. The second region is the Cima Corgo, or the upper area which is steeper and is said to produce lower quantities of grapes, but of a higher quality. This is where the high quality tawny, LBV, and Vintage Ports are made. The third region is the Douro Superior which extends to the Spanish border. It is the largest of the three sub-zones as well as the driest and least developed of the three.

The Douro Valley presents the wine growers with a battle against the elements and soil. The climate goes to both ends of the temperature spectrum with very hot summers and freezing winters. There is almost no soil on the mountains where the hard schist retains little water and very few nutrients. In fact the soil contains excessive aluminum which is harmful to the roots. The soil is very acidic due to the high potassium and low calcium and magnesium levels. Over some 300 years a vine growing soil has been created by smashing up the schistose rocks to a depth of three feet.


Grape vines grow on the terraces that follow the slope of the mountain. The rocky areas must be cultivated with crow bars and even dynamite in order to plant vines. There are areas of very steep terracing which also offers challenges to the growers. The vines’ search for water may take their roots down for dozens of feet through the fissures of the schist. Vines are still cultivated on terraces that are supported by stone walls made of the schist. Also, vines are planted on platforms help up by the natural slopes or on tracts of sloping land without walls or ramps. The terraces and platforms usually follow the contours of the hillside and have changed the rocky, steep valleys of the Douro Regios into stairways. The vines grow low and are set on parallel trellises with the rows of vines being supported on wires and wooden or stone props.

Port is made from black grapes which are grown only in the upper Douro region, which is located in the Northern section of Portugal. The very best vineyards are near Pinhao. The vineyards grow on terraces that follow the Douro River which flows 500 miles from its source in Spain. This river winds though Portugal on its way to the ocean. Some of the old Port vineyards along the Douro can contain on a single parcel 30 to 40 ancient varieties. By September or early October the grapes are taken to the winery for pressing. The traditional method of treading by foot is still used in some of the very old and established vineyards where Port is produced.

The must is then placed into large stone tanks called lagares. The mashing by foot brings out the concentration of flavor and produced a deeper color, but does not damage the pip which leaves a bitter taste if crushed. Natural grape brandy or aguadente is then added. In the following spring the wine is transported to Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Guia at Oporto for maturing. Now the wine is trucked, but in times gone by the wine was taken down the river by flat bottomed square sailing ships, that were similar to the Viking long ships. This came to an end in the 1960s when the river was dammed.

When the pressing is done in the lagares, the skins rise to the top and must be pressed down for several days by treading or with wooden paddles (macacos.) This gives the juice the ability to extract the color and tannin needed for the wine. Since the 60s most of the pressing is done mechanically. After the crushing, the grapes are placed into closed concrete or stainless steel tanks for fermentation. The carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of the fermentation, keeps the juice constantly moving over the skins.

When about half of the grape sugar has turned into alcohol, the juice is placed into barrels that contain brandy (usually one part brandy to four parts wine) and the fermentation is halted. At this point adjustments may be made for acidity, alcohol level, and sulfur dioxide content. After the Port has been blended it is left to mature. If the conditions are right no blending is required, as the wine takes 20 or more years to mature. A good year for a Port vintage is not guaranteed as only three years out of ten will see a great vintage.

The most popular Ports for everyday consumption are the “wood Ports.” Blended Ports come in three main types which are Ruby, Tawny, and White. Ruby is aged for two to three years in casks before it is bottled and has a full flavor, but is not expensive. White Ports are matured in wood, but are made from both black and white grapes with the skins detached from the black varietal. This type of Port is usually drunk as a chilled aperitif. Tawny Port is a blend of Port from different vintages which goes though a rapid oxidation inside a barrel. The wine matures more quickly and had a scented bouquet and rich color.

White port is produced from white grapes and can be either sweet or dry and is best when served chilled. Tawny Port assumes a brown tawny color and the aged tawnies are said to be the aristocrats of Port. The tawnies can be marked “ten years old,” “thirty years old,” or “over forty years old.” Tawnies are made by blending wines from different harvests and the named age is the average of all the wines that were blended.

There are three main factors that create the difference between one port and another. These are: The quality of the grapes and the soil in which they are grown, the blend of wines selected for each style of port, and whether the port is matured in a wooden cask or bottle. There are port-style wines made in other countries such as Australia, South Africa, and the United States, but the strict usage of the terms Port or Porto refer only to the wines that are produced in Portugal.

Port is one of the most regulated wines produced today. Other than the fact that the production area was demarcated in 1756, the vineyards are graded by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto (IVP) and classified into six categories labeled A through F. There are also twelve physical factors that are taken into consideration which include productivity, the lower the yield, the higher the mark, gradient, aspect, soil, exposure, and vine varieties. Each factor has a numerical value which is then added up.

If a vintage has a score of more than 1200 points out of the maximum 1680 points it is given an A. Vineyards that score less than 200 points are given an F. The grade of the vineyard determines the amount of Port that can be produced. An A grade vineyard is allowed to make as much as 600 liters of Port for every 1,000 vines. Those with the F grade usually cannot make Port. The extra grapes are used to make table wine. There are more than 90 different varieties of grape that are allowed to be grown in the Port wine region. Only five of these varieties are considered to be of exceptional quality.

These red varietals are Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao, and the Touriga Francesa. White port is made from Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Gouveio, Cedega, and Rabigato. Although not the most widely planted varietal, the Touriga Nacional grape is said to be the best grape for making port. Its yields are far below the other varietals, but give Port its deep color and longevity.

The style of Port is determined by how it is aged. It may be either bottle or cask aged. The processes produce distinctly different wines. Bottle aging helps the wine to keep its color and fruitiness as it progresses to maturity. Bottled ports are aged for a short time in wood and then bottled without filtration for maturation. Port aged in casks lose much of their color and become tawny.

These Ports are aged in wood, filtered and then bottled and are ready to drink. Ruby is the least expensive and most basic style of Port. It is a bend of several harvests and lies for two to three years in stainless steel tanks or wooden casks before it is bottled. Ruby is not usually seen on the label because most shippers prefer to use a house brand. Tawny is aged for at least six years in the cask before it is bottled. Some tawnies are a mixture of ruby and white ports, of which the best have acquired their pale color from longer wood ageing. This ageing produces a drier and nuttier flavor that comes from the oxidation.

Aged Tawny is the best of tawny Ports. They are available in 10, 20, 30, and 40 year versions. Of course, there is a leap in price that goes with the older ages. Aged tawnies are made from high quality wines and are the byproduct of a master blender. A master blended has made sure that these tawnies are of high quality due to the high quality wines that are used in their production. Colheita is a tawny that is made form a single vintage. It received a minimum of seven years in wood, but most are aged for longer periods of time. The wine label should indicate the year of bottling and should be enjoyed within a year of that date.

This is the rarest of Port and the amount of production, which is a specialty of the Portuguese Port houses, amount to less than 0.5 percent of all Port produced. White Ports can be very dry to very sweet. The sweetest is called Lagrima and is served straight up or on the rocks, usually as an aperitif. Crusted Port is a blend of port of several vintages that is bottled after three years in the cask and come from the crust of sediments that form in the bottle. There are also Vintage Character Ports which can be called Super or Premium Ruby. This blend is aged from four to six years before filtering and bottling. These usually have more body and fruit than a tawny, but lack the complexity of the true vintage. Single-Quinta Ports are made in both the vintage and tawny styles, but come from only one vineyard.

They are usually produced in years that are not declared. In the declared years, their grapes are often the backbone of the Vintage Port blends.

Late Bottled Vintage or LBV are from a single vintage that has not been considered to be good enough to make Vintage Port. This product is left in the wood for four to six years, and then filtered before bottling. There is some sediment in the bottle and this wine should be drunk earlier than the Vintage Port. Vintage Port is the most expensive and accounts for two percent of all production and is one of the most sought after wines in the world. This vintage comes from a single harvest of exceptional quality, which is stated on the bottle, and is bottled after two to three years of cask aging.

The wine then spends many years more maturing in the bottle. It may take from 15 to 50 years for a good Vintage Port to be ready for enjoyment. The shipper must decide within two years of the harvest year if that particular year will have enough quality to be released as a Vintage Port. This is knows as “declaring the vintage.” The first vintages were declared around 1734. The best vintages from this century are from the years 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985, 1977, 1970, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935, 1931, 1927, and finally 1912. These must be decanted before enjoying.

Port wines have had a long history that has been influenced by wars, politics, climate, soils, challenging vine growing conditions, strict regulations, and technology. There are many types of Ports to taste and enjoy as costs of this vintage vary from moderate to very expensive, but are enjoyed all over the world. Certainly there is a Port that will tantalize and please the palate of anyone who is willing to try this delectable drink.



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