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Douro, a tale of riverside vineyards

History

By Elodie Gratuze, La Cité du Vin sommelier

The Douro region has an eventful history dating back to the Bronze Age, a period boasting archaeological evidence of the earliest vineyards. However, vineyard cultivation truly began from the second century BC, when vines began to spread along the banks of the Douro. Vines were grown alongside the Douro in the Middle Ages between the 10th and 13th centuries, driven by Cistercian monasteries such as Lamego monastery.

Relations with England

However, it was English influence from the 17th century onwards that really prompted the development of Douro’s vineyards. Portugal and England had close trade ties, and many English merchants in Portugal enjoyed significant benefits such as attractive customs tariffs. The two countries enjoyed a very good relationship, and certain events gradually fostered trade with Portugal.

First of all, France severed ties with England. Colbert, who was a minister under Louis XIV, decided to launch an embargo on all English products to protect competition and products from France. In retaliation, Charles II of England increased customs tariffs and cut all transactions and exports, and English merchants were therefore forced to find new sources of supply. They already had a very good relationship with Portugal, which was reinforced by these new circumstances. English interest in Portugal and its wines continued to increase from this point onwards. At the time, the wines were not very full bodied. Only the vineyards north of the Douro, in Minho Verde, were showcased: they were more astringent, fairly light, and less sunny. The English then began showing an interest in other parts of the region, heading further inland to drier areas, and discovered the vineyards of the Douro. They liked the styles of wines they found, and decided to export and develop them.

Discovering new wines and their derivatives

The wines of Minho Verde enjoyed a damper, cooler climate. English consumers were looking for different flavours, and found them in the wines of the Douro which were fleshier, richer and fuller bodied. At this point, in around the 1650s, all the wines were red.

In the late 17th century, a grape spirit was generally added to Douro wines before shipping to help them keep better during the journey. This method is thought to have been developed by the Dutch, who created it to prevent wine from being spoiled during long crossings. We now add the grape spirit during fermentation, using the same process as for making port! This is known as ‘mutage’. However, this technique was not accepted by all Porto traders until the 1840s-1850s.

The Methuen Treaty was signed in 1703, enabling exports to be expanded. This sparked a period of prosperity between Portugal and England in both production and trade. However, this was only fleeting: from 1750 onwards, Portugal was subjected to a period of speculation and unfair practices. The quality of port dropped dramatically, and some producers began adding elderberry juice to the wine to boost its colour, which was of course an illegal practice. 

The influence of the Marquis de Pombal

The Marquis of Pombal, Portugal’s Prime Minister, then made history in 1756. He played a very important role in regulating and delimiting the vineyard region, a visionary approach to deal with this difficult period. He regulated trade by creating a company called Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, later Real Companhia Velha, to establish a monopoly on Porto trade. He therefore controlled the quality and quantity of the wines, as well as the brandy trade. A year later in 1757, he began classifying and delimiting wines by quality: the vineyards producing the best wines were allowed to sell their products as exports, commanding higher prices, whilst those of more modest quality were confined to the domestic market. The Douro was one of the first regions to be regulated and delimited, even before Tokaj in Hungary or Chianti in Tuscany. In a way, the Marquis de Pombal was the pioneer of the controlled appellation of origin.

The arrival of phylloxera

In 1863, the Douro region was on the cusp of a dark time. Phylloxera appeared and attacked the region’s vines, or more specifically their roots. The only solution at the time was to graft European varieties onto American varieties with roots that were more resistant to the insect. Many of Portugal’s vineyards were destroyed, and the Douro wine region did not begin to gradually recover until 1880. 

Becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Following this parasite’s invasion, handfuls of investors bought various vineyard plots in order to rebuild and replant vines. In 2001, this ‘old vineyard’ was finally enshrined when the Douro region was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a symbolic recognition of its true value as a global gem of wine with a thousand years of history under its belt.