A Port Story - How It All Began

Port is an iconic wine with a lot of history made in the Douro Valley of Portugal. 

However, port is actually not a Portuguese “thing” - it is more historically tied to the British due to the commercial ties they had with Portugal, which resulted in the Port wine as we know it today.

This is a short story about Port and how it all began to become what we now know as some of the finest wine in the world that is enjoyed the world over.

The beautiful Douro Valley - Photo Credit: nicko-cruisesDouro Valley

A brief history between Portugal & England

Portugal has been making wines for thousands of years and wine became a very prominent export and trading item from 1174 when the Kingdom of Portugal was established. 

Portugal, being a favourable country in the Atlantic ocean became huge in terms of trading, which then caught the eye of many British merchants. In 1386 a treaty was signed between Portugal and England to establish a political and commercial alliance and by the mid 15th-century, more than 50% of a “certain” Portuguese wine would land on British soil.

But it wasn’t until two centuries later, in 1678 precisely, that the first records show that this “certain” Portuguese wine was now being referred to as Port.

So how did Port get its name?

With the Portuguese wine trade booming in England, British consumers started to demand finer wines. This then led to merchants travelling further up the Douro river in search of better quality wines. They would then eventually reach the upper part of the Douro River only to discover that the wines made there were bigger, better, bolder and more robust due to the upper Douro being a much warmer climate and this is exactly what they needed to WOW the consumers back home.

When these wines were discovered, there was a little bit of a problem. Viana do Castello, which was the commercial hub of British merchants at the time, was located a few hundred miles away and this posed a real worry amongst the merchants as it would make it pretty much impossible for them to get there with the wine and have it still be in perfect drinking condition.

The plan then was to carry the wines down the Douro River to the city of ‘Oporto’ (known today as Porto), which is located on the Atlantic Ocean coast, where it would be loaded on to ships and set sail for England. This wine was known as “Oporto” Wine.

Port as we know it today is a fortified wine, but back in the early days, to protect the wine from the long journey at sea, it was fortified with the addition of brandy. That’s how the style of port wine was born. However, the process of fortifying Port today is totally different - the wine is fortified during fermentation for better alcohol integration, and not after ageing like is was back then purely just to protect the wine from going bad.

The stunning city of Porto at night, with the barges that carried the port from the upper Douro River, down to the city before being shipped off across the Atlantic - Photo Credit: The Telegraphporto-portugal_2763376a

The first English owned Port winery

Although Taylor’s Port was established in 1692 by Job Bearsley who was the owner of The Ram Inn in London’s, Smithfield, it was not until 1744 when the son of Job Bearsley, Bartholomew Bearsley, became the first British person to buy property in the Douro Valley. It was a very bold and adventurous move, but it led to him building great relationships with farmers and producers to get the first pick of their wines to send back to England. 

In 1755, the Bearsley Family became the first British family to buy vineyards and make their own wine in Douro. Today, the property is still owned by Taylor’s and is commemorated in the Taylor’s First Estate Reserve Port.

Another important milestone in the history of Port wine, was in 1757, when the Prime Minister of Portugal Marquis de Pombal, who was very good friends with the Bearsley Family, implemented strict measures to demarcate the Port vineyards according to their quality. 

Those that were producing the finest wines for export, and thus demanded higher prices, were known as ‘Vinhos de Feitoria’. Wines that were produced for the local market and were lower in quality were known as “Vinhos de Ramo”.

Since then, Port has been redefined as a world-class style of wine and is prized as something purely special and unique. Nowadays, Port comes in so many different styles. The most commonly produced are: white port, tawny port, ruby port, and vintage port. There are a few examples of rosé port, but they are much less common.

A bottle of Taylor's First Estate Reserve Port - Photo Credit: Taylor's PortTaylors First Estate

Styles of Port

White Port

  • Made from a variety of grapes that include Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia.
  • Standard White Port is a style that is lighter and has more citrus flavours, and often has less sweetness.
  • Reserve White Port is aged for seven years and is bolder and more robust, with nutty flavours and more sweetness.

Tawny Port

  • Made from a variety of grapes that include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.
  • Basic Tawny is very sweet, barrel aged for a minimum of two years and has oxidative nut and caramel flavours.
  • Colheita is a special style of tawny port made from a single vintage (year) and typically released 10 years after harvest.

Ruby Port

  • Made from a variety of grapes that include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. There are also around 52 other varietals known to be blended as well.
  • Ruby Port is a lighter, more affordable port that is a lot more fruit forward and generally meant to be drunk young.
  • Reserve Port, which is similar to Vintage Port, is a premium style of Ruby Port that is not meant to age, but rather be drunk young as well.

Vintage Port

  • Contains the same red varietals as both Tawny and Ruby Ports, but more limited in terms of grape selection for blending. Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are the two dominant grapes.
  • Produced from a single harvest and barrel aged for about 2−4 years before being bottled. Once bottled, vintage port is left to lie anywhere from 10 to 40 years before being released. 

Some old bottles of Vintage Ports just for a tease - Photo Credit: ruralshop.co.ukvintage-ports-wines

Port has a fascinating history and heritage and most of us really do enjoy a glass or 3, but what most of us I'm sure did not realise, was that the British played a huge role in redefining the wonderful drop we have all come to love. Thanks to the British for the trade routes back in the day, we really do enjoy the fruits of the labour that the Portuguese have so kindly blessed and shared with us.

If you'd like to learn more about Port and taste a wide range of styles, then you should attend our annual Great Port Debate at The Flying Winemaker on Wednesday, November 28th, where you will get the true appreciation by tasting some wonderful, wonderful wines!

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