Port Wine

   Portugal's most famous wine and leading export takes its name from the city of Oporto or porto, which means "port" or "harbor" in Portuguese. Sometimes described as "the Englishman's wine," port is only one of the many wines produced in continental Portugal and the Atlantic islands. Another noted dessert wine is Madeira wine, which is produced on the island of Madeira. Port wine's history is about as long as that of Madeira wine, but the wine's development is recent compared to that of older table wines and the wines Greeks and Romans enjoyed in ancient Lusitania. During the Roman occupation of the land (ca. 210 BCE-300 CE), wine was being made from vines cultivated in the upper Douro River valley. Favorable climate and soils (schist with granite outcropping) and convenient transportation (on ships down the Douro River to Oporto) were factors that combined with increased wine production in the late 17th century to assist in the birth of port wine as a new product. Earlier names for port wine (vinho do porto) were descriptive of location ("Wine of the Douro Bank") and how it was transported ("Wine of [Ship] Embarkation").
   Port wine, a sweet, fortified (with brandy) aperitif or dessert wine that was designed as a valuable export product for the English market, was developed first in the 1670s by a unique combination of circumstances and the action of interested parties. Several substantial English merchants who visited Oporto "discovered" that a local Douro wine was much improved when brandy (aguardente) was added. Fortification prevented the wine from spoiling in a variety of temperatures and on the arduous sea voyages from Oporto to Great Britain. Soon port wine became a major industry of the Douro region; it involved an uneasy alliance between the English merchant-shippers at Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the river from Oporto, where the wine was stored and aged, and the Portuguese wine growers.
   In the 18th century, port wine became a significant element of Britain's foreign imports and of the country's establishment tastes in beverages. Port wine drinking became a hallowed tradition in Britain's elite Oxford and Cambridge Universities' colleges, which all kept port wine cellars. For Portugal, the port wine market in Britain, and later in France, Belgium, and other European countries, became a vital element in the national economy. Trade in port wine and British woolens became the key elements in the 1703 Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal.
   To lessen Portugal's growing economic dependence on Britain, regulate the production and export of the precious sweet wine, and protect the public from poor quality, the Marquis of Pombal instituted various measures for the industry. In 1756, Pombal established the General Company of Viticulture of the Upper Douro to carry out these measures. That same year, he ordered the creation of the first demarcated wine-producing region in the world, the port-wine producing Douro region. Other wine-producing countries later followed this Portuguese initiative and created demarcated wine regions to protect the quality of wine produced and to ensure national economic interests.
   The upper Douro valley region (from Barca d'Alva in Portugal to Barqueiros on the Spanish frontier) produces a variety of wines; only 40 percent of its wines are port wine, whereas 60 percent are table wines. Port wine's alcohol content varies usually between 19 and 22 percent, and, depending on the type, the wine is aged in wooden casks from two to six years and then bottled. Related to port wine's history is the history of Portuguese cork. Beginning in the 17th century, Portuguese cork, which comes from cork trees, began to be used to seal wine bottles to prevent wine from spoiling. This innovation in Portugal helped lead to the development of the cork industry. By the early 20th century, Portugal was the world's largest exporter of cork.

Historical dictionary of Portugal 3rd ed.. . 2014.

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