9 Burning Questions about Port


When preparing for this week’s Douro Valley tour, I wanted to consolidate some information gleaned from various ViniPortugal lectures, conversations with Douro winemakers, and books like the incomparable Port & the Douro, by Richard Mayson. My idea was to create a quick list of interesting tidbits. Well, that quickly ballooned in size. But it also turned into something useful enough to share on this blog. So, dear readers, here are some extended factoids on Port history:


Port is a fortified wine made exclusively in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. The grapes are native Portuguese varieties and the wine is fortified to 19-20º using aguardente, a neutral grape spirit.


It depends who you ask. The EU has DOP laws (Protected Destination of Origin) that do just that: They protect the names of food and wine tied to specific places—everything from Gorgonzola and Camembert to Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena to Melton Mowbray pork pie.

(These laws have teeth. In 2004, Genoa defeated Nestle in a classic David vs Goliath court battle, when one of the food giant’s pestos was labeled à laGenovese, referencing Genoa, pesto’s place of origin and the region where a particularly fragrant, small-leafed type of basil grows. But Nestle’s product was in fact made elsewhere from German and Swiss seeds. It lost the case and had to rename its product.)

Nonetheless, you will find dessert wines from California, Australia, Argentino and beyond with port on the label. How’s this possible? Well, not all nations are on board with the EU DOP laws. And guess what? We’re one of them! In the U.S., port may come from anywhere in the world. However, we do recognize that Porto, Oporto, and Vinho do Porto are nongeneric terms specific to Portugal’s Douro Valley. So look for those Os. That’s the real deal.


Port sales have been static in volume over the past decade. But that’s just part of the story. In fact, there’s been a 30% growth since 2000 in the premium categories, according to Fladgate CEO Adrian Bridge. These “special category” Ports, as they’re called in Portugal, include everything except the cheap, entry-level ruby and tawny (which makes up the overwhelming majority of Port sold—over 80%.) The special categories  includes Vintage, Crusted, LBV, aged tawnies, colheitas, and so on. In short, the demand for quality Port has increased, while sales for the cheap stuff have fallen off.


The Marquis of Pombal, one of Port's most important historical figures.

The Marquis of Pombal, one of Port's most important historical figures.

There’s no quick answer. It’s worth nothing that the first quintas (wine estates) on the Douro date back to the time of the Crusades in the 1100s. Before that, there were the Romans (naturally) and the Phoenicians practicing viticulture here. But Douro wine is far older still; scientists have found fossilized grape seeds that date back to 2000 BC.

The foundation for Port was laid in the 1600s. The first time a shipment was labeled vigno do Porto by Customs was late that century. By then, there was already a robust trade between England and Portugal (more on that later). This was a time when early shipping firms like Kopke (1638), Warre's (1670), and Croft (1678) were being established. But—and this is a big but—17th century Port wouldn’t be recognizable as such today. It was dark, dry, and austere, earning the nickname blackstrap. What’s key is that many shippers added brandy (up to 15%) to the dry wine to stabilize it for the long journey at sea.

The first time anyone made a sweet Port—that is, arresting fermentation with the addition of brandy before all the sugar had converted to alcohol—was in 1678…maybe. Some Liverpool traders said they’d seen this done by an abbot in Lamego, but their report was uncorroborated. Thus the abbot remains an unknown and 1678 remains an unofficial start. Even in 1750, sweet Port was still controversial. One shipper said that adding spirits to fermenting wines “must be considered diabolical.”

The Marquis of Pombal

The Marquis of Pombal

This was a time when an association of shippers had started to regulate Port and crack down on its bastardization by growers who were known to add elderberries (baga), sugar, Spanish wine, raisin wine and so on. (The theme of shippers versus growers continues through the centuries, until the lines between them blurred completely.

Nonetheless, we can set the 1750s as the official beginning of Port. In 1755, after the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, the Marques do Pombaltook over as Prime Minister. Among the measures this ambitious, practical, and somewhat Machiavellian politician took to regulate Port was the creation of a boundary in 1756, which marked the growing zone for grapes intended for Port wine destined for export. (His new regulatory institutions were also intended as a strike against the over-weaning power of the British shippers.)

The first mention of Vintage Port dates from 1773, in a Christies catalog. And the first time a shippers name was attached was in a catalog from 1810, which names Croft.


Three words: cod, cloth, and wine.

Trade between England and Portugal was already established by the 1200s. The Brits sold wood and cloth, while the Portuguese sold wine, olive oil, and citrus. By the 1300s, salted cod (bacalhau) from the northern Atlantic was added to this trade mix. (The Portuguese still go gaga for bacalhau and brag they have 365 ways to prepare it.)

Simultaneously, political alliances were formed—the first in 1373, when Portugal wanted help fending off those pesky invaders from Spain (another continuing theme over the centuries).

One of those treaties—1386’s Treaty of Windsor—is the oldest, most enduring alliance between two nation states. It was signed after 500 British archers helped in the final defeat of the Spanish in Estremadura.



After the Reformation in the 1500s, when Brits were freed of Catholic fish-Friday obligation, Portugal became even more important to the British as a cod customer. The 1500s saw Portugal at its peak. Since Spain was not a cooperative neighbor, it had been forced to look outward, towards the sea, for trade routes. And it did, first with Henry the Navigator in the 1400s, then with Magellan in the 1500s. By the Renaissance, Portugal had colonies in four continents and was enriched by sugar from Madeira, spices from India, and gold from Africa. (That also led to its ruin, when its men and resources were stretched too far. Workers left the farms, and Portugal was forced to import food. Oporto citizens were reduced to eating offal and eventually gained a taste for tripe. Even today, they’re called tripe eaters: tripeiros.)

By the time of the Commonwealth Treaty in 1654, Portugal was essentially a British colony. (Expats were exempt from taxes and had their own judges, while the Portuguese had no power over their own property upon death—just to give a taste of how things went.) 1703’s Metheun Treaty reinforced the mutual favoritism in trade: England got preferential treatment for its textiles, and Portugal got a favorable duty on its Port: one-third less than that for French wine.



That owes to a struggle of church vs. state. In 1255, King Afonso III—who presided after the Spanish were thrown out—questioned the Bishop’s control of Oporto. So he established a competing royal borough at Vila Nova da Gaia. Moreover, he decreed that one-third of all ships descending the river and half of those arriving should unload at Gaia. Gaia remained the bottleneck through which control was exerted over the trade and export of Port until 1986.

Here it’s worth noting some epistemology: In Roman times, Portus was the name for the port on the north side of the river. Cale was a fortress on the south side. Together, they formed the name of the settlement: Portucale.


1754: When the boundaries and regulations for the denomination were established by Pombal and his newly created institutions. (See above.)

1986: When Portugal joined the European Union. At this time, the EU passed a law allowing single quintas to export their Port without having to pass through Gaia. With that stranglehold broken, growers upstream transformed themselves into boutique shippers, and a new energy was unleashed. (It also helped that air-conditioning came into play in the upper Douro in the 1980s.) In addition, the state monopology on aguardente collapsed in 1990, allowing it to be bought on the open market (even from Cognac), thus improving quality. The EU also invested in infrastructure, including the Oporto–Pinhão highway, which decreased the growers’ isolation and old-farmer mentality.

Runners-up: 1863: When phylloxera arrived 1873: When construction on the Douro railroad began. (It reached Spain in 1887.)


It’s true that Chianti’s borders were defined earlier—in 1716—by Cosimo III de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. For that matter, Tokaji beat Port too: vineyard classification for this Hungarian dessert wine began in 1730. But here’s why Port wine can claim to be the oldest, according to CIA wine instructor Michael Weiss: Chianti and Tokaji were about borders only; Port was about border and two more things: 1) There was a specific set of rules and standards for Port, set down by Pombal’s institutions. 2) There was an overseeing authority—the Institute of Port Wine—which Chianti and Tokaji lacked.


Quick answer: in the mid-1990s.

Long answer: There was a forerunner 40 years earlier. In 1950, Ferreira’s Fernando Nicolau de Almedeida made a trip to Bordeaux and discovered softer methods of extraction for dry table wine than foot-treading in lagares. Applying what he learned, he created Barca Velha, now a legend. (Today it easily sells for $300-400 retail.

Others followed suit in the 1970s and ’80s. And even though the Douro DOC was created in 1979, the mindset wasn’t yet right. Most producers used substandard grapes and vinification techniques meant for Port. The wines were vile, it’s said.

With Portugal’s entry into EU in 1986 came new investments in winemaking equipment. But there was neither the expertise, nor the will, to do it right. That had to wait until a new generation came along in the 1990s: dubbed the Douro Boys, with Dirk Niepoort (from an old Dutch shipping family) as their leading light. They not only saw the writing on the wall about Port’s declining appeal in the market. They also saw no reason not to make the best wine they could from the grapes that couldn’t go into their Port. (Only 50% of an A vineyard can be made into Port, according to the beneficio. The percentage decreases for lesser-grade vineyards.) Today all the major Port shippers (except Fladgate Partnership) have launched Douro wines, made from the same grape varieties as Port. It’s no longer an afterthought.

The Douro Boys

The Douro Boys


• Portugal is 575 miles long and 140 miles wide: the size of Indiana

• The country has 341 grape varieties

• The Douro has 100 “sanctioned” grapes; 29 are “recommended”

• The Douro is the largest mountain wine region in the world (90km/56 miles across, with mountains up to 3280’ or 1000 meters)

• The Douro has 33,000 producers; 28,000 own less than 2.3 acres of land

• Only 1% of Douro wine is single-varietal. Blends are king, starting in the vineyard. Still today, 70% of growers have field blends.

• No irrigation is permitted