Dão, Minho & Vinho Verde
The history of Portuguese wine is largely influenced by the close relationship with the British and the Portuguese voyages of discovery from the 15th century, both contributed greatly to the spread of Portuguese wines outside Portugal.
Wine has been made in Portugal and Spain since 2000 B.C., 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians brought with them new varieties and winemaking techniques. Until then, viticulture was limited to the Southern part of the country. Later on the Greeks, Celts and Romans extended viticulture and winemaking further north. From the 12th century Portugal exports wines from the Minho region (north) to England where they are greatly appreciated. Whenever England, an ally of Portugal, was at war with France it turned to Portugal for its wine supply. Mostly light, high in acid red wines were exported to England from the port of Viana do Castelo (Porto harbor), the Vinho Verde country of today. A major export and production boost followed with the Voyages of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries where vessels would travel filled with wine, which was a mean to fight scurvy, but also used as a commodity across the world. Mainland Portugal as well as wines from Madeira and the Azores were exported.
DEVELOPMENT OF EXPORT AND THE EMERGENCE OF PORT WINE
With the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1703, trade between these two countries developed further favoring the import of Portuguese wines with lowered import duties and the exchange of English cloths for wine. Meanwhile foreign wine merchants, especially English, established themselves in Portugal in search of richer red wines and started sourcing wines from the Douro area. At the time England was at war with France and preferred French wines to Portuguese wines. Merchants established themselves in Portugal to source wines more in line with the English palate. In the Douro climate is warmer than in the north or around Lisbon, hence the choice for the Douro region. Wine fortification was taken from Madeira where it was already practiced. The rich but rustic Douro wines of the time were fortified with brandy which kept them stable and enhanced flavors; this is how Port was born. Yet it is only during the second half of the 18th century that Port found its own refined character, prior to that Port was a different product altogether. The demand for Port soared and was such that Douro wines were ‘stretched’ with Vinho Verde or wines from Barraida. Also various creative methods were used to cover up mediocrity; blending Douro base wine with Spanish wines, using elderberry juice to add color, various spices such as black pepper, cinnamon and ginger were added to give additional flavors, etc. In contrast wines from Lisbon were highly prized compared to Port. The British ruled the Portuguese wine market, especially Port, and malpractice was widespread in favor of quantity and profits over quality. As a result of declining quality levels exports plummeted. It is in the mid-18th century that Portuguese wines began to be mapped and regulated to remedy the bad reputation that was built up from the poor quality Port wines produced. New laws identified specific vineyards for the production of Port, many vineyards growing on unsuitable sites were uprooted, elderberry trees pulled out and a strict sets of rigorous rules put together. In 1756 the Marquis de Pombal founded the Douro Wine Company to regulate Port trade. The Douro became the only region where Port could be produced from, labeled as such and sold from. This made the Douro one of the world’s oldest established appellations. The aim of the Douro Wine Company was to control the production of Port through each stage; from viticulture, winemaking, aging and finally shipping.
DIFFICULT TIMES AND NEW SUCCESSES
Portugal was hit by the Phyloxera in 1867 and vineyards had to be pulled out. New American rootstock as well as European and American hybrids crops didn’t prove successful producing unusually musky wines. These hybrids were later on banned to produce quality wines. At the beginning of the 20th century new regions were demarcated and became regulated; Madeira, Moscatel de Setúbal, Carcavelos, Dão, Colares and Vinho Verde. However after the 1st World War and the 40 years long dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, agricultural systems were reshuffled, small landowners became cooperative wine producers and consequently little was left to creativity and entrepreneurship. Gradually wine production and quality declined. After the 2nd World War, Portugal was left with huge amounts of stock of wine with no one to sell to, markets had collapsed. In 1942 Fernando Van Zeller Guedes took advantage of the large amount of cheap wine available and created the first Mateus Rosé; a slightly fizzy semi-sweet wine which became an unprecedented success worldwide, Lancers followed suit but it was more popular in the USA.
Over a hundred of cooperatives were created in the 50’s and 60’s. Cooperatives benefited from a lenient tax regime and trade support provided by the regime. Private producers were uncompetitive and doing business became extremely difficult for them under these conditions. Portuguese wine became a mass-produced commodity, exported throughout the world but most importantly to its colonies where most of the production went to. In the 60’s Portugal goes through another period of political unrest and loses its colonies and its most important market.
THE RENAISSANCE OF PORTUGUESE WINES
With 1974 comes the Carnation Revolution bringing more unrest and the far left is in power for the next two years. The new regime nationalized land and started a farm collectivization program. Finally in 1976 the first free elections took place and a new constitution promulgated. Portugal finally became a democracy after over half a century of dictatorship; however the economy, the country’s infrastructure and level of development was in a relatively miserable state. The Portuguese GDP was below 50% the average 12 EC countries. In 1986 Portugal enters the EU bringing massive positive change especially in the wine industry. Some cooperatives are closed, restrictions on trade and production practices are dropped and Portuguese wine regulations and standards are brought into line with E.U. standards. It is the start of a new era and the beginning of the Renaissance for Portuguese wines.
New institutions are created and the Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho (IVV – Institute of Vine and Wine) was formed to oversee the wine industry as a whole, along with the Comissão Vitivinícola Regional (CVR – Regional Vine & Wine Commission) which focuses on individual regions. Portugal benefited from large investments and financing from the E.U. with the development and modernization of its infrastructure, financing of cutting edge winemaking equipment, expertise, exchange of knowledge with other E.U. countries and the creation of oenology and viticulture training programs and universities within Portugal.
Portugal still has a few cooperatives left; however they function as modern operations focusing more on quality and innovation. With the revolution of the wine industry many privately owned wineries, called Quintas, have emerged and offer world quality wines often using ancient varietals, rediscovering vineyard sites while making modern wines.
Portugal has 29 regional appellations, including 5 in the Madeira and Azores islands. There are three levels of classification for wines.
- Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC’s)Quality wines produced in specific regions, it is the equivalent of the French AOC
- Indicação de Proveniencia Regulamentada (IPR’s) which are wines candidates for DOC status, the French equivalent is VDQS
- Vinho Regional (VR’s) these are table wines and their origin is indicated on the label, it is the equivalent for Vin de Pays in the French system
In 2009 there were 26 DOC’s, 4 IRP’s and 11 VR’s. Portugal was ranked 8th for its vineyard surface in 2008 with 246 000 ha under vines and 3.2% of the world’s surface only. It is ranked 12th of the world’s wine production, or 2.1% of the world’s production. Portugal has one of the most diverse varieties of native grapes producing a wide array of wines. The absence of the most common grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay makes of Portugal a very unique wine growing country offering distinctive wines. Some grapes are region specific and wines from those grapes can only be labeled DOC if they are grown in that region. Having resisted temptation to grow foreign and popular grapes, Portugal can boast producing indigenous styles of wines. There would be between 250 and 300 genuine indigenous varieties throughout Portugal, some of them dating back to the middle ages and even older. Some of the indigenous white varieties are: Alvarinho, Arinto, Encruzado, Loureido, Maria Gomes, Tamarêz and Trajadura. Examples of red varietals are: Alfrocheiro Preto, Baga, Castelão, Periquita, Tinta Barocca and Tinta Cao.
Portugal’s Douro Valley and the Pico Island Wine Region, in the Azores, are World Heritage sites protected by the UNESCO.