Portugal: Milestones and an historic love affair

Our passion for Portugal today may be driven by memorable trips to the fabulous cities of Lisbon or Oporto, travelling from there perhaps out to the vineyards or to Portugal's long coastline or numerous golf courses… However, the British love affair with Portugal and her wines goes back centuries.

Portugal: Milestones And An Historic Love Affair
Portugal: Milestones And An Historic Love Affair

The Methuen Treaty of 1703 made the duty on Portuguese wines lower than French wines at the time and, after our then-latest spat with France, this was all that was needed for our allegiance to shift and our trading relationship to strengthen further, with Port wine at its heart.

Vinous milestones in Portuguese History

The Douro became the first demarcated (meaning, boundaries set for this area) and regulated region in the world, following the earlier demarcation of the Chianti and Tokaji regions. Depending on who or where you are, you may choose to believe that Port was invented by monks (Portuguese) or by the Port shippers (British). What is not in doubt is that the practice of fortification – the addition of initially brandy, later grape spirit – came about to 'fortify' wine for the journey by sea from Oporto (whence the name Port) to the UK or elsewhere.

Oporto, Portugal
Oporto, Portugal

A new bottle shape was introduced, more akin to the bottles we are familiar with today, allowing wines to be more easily stacked for ageing.

First the vine disease oidium (downy mildew), then the vine louse phylloxera arrived in the Douro (at the same time as it arrived in London, coincidentally) and went on to devastate vineyards as they did throughout Europe before a means of control was established. Abandoned vineyards and old terracing still serve as a striking and rather beautiful reminder of these ravages.

'Declaring' a Port vintage, ie. the release of vintage-labelled wines in only the best years, began but it was not until the mid-20th century that regulations were laid down for the different styles of Ports, including that Vintage Port should be bottled (and subsequently released) in the second year after harvest.

1870s & 1880s
The arrival of the railway as far as the upper Douro opened up and revolutionised the region, all thanks to the determination and generosity of the feisty and legendary Dona Antonia Ferreira.

The last vintage allowed to be bottled outside Portugal. Incidentally, Crusted Port was one of the last wines to be bottled at Stevenage before the bottling line was closed in 1992.

Portugal joined the EU (having moved from monarchy to republic in 1910, and survived revolution in 1974) and benefited from significant inward investment, giving rise amongst other things to the excellent major road network we enjoy today. In the mid 1980s the law changed to allow independent growers to sell and export their own brands, opening up the trade to greater competition. During the same period, the quality of the spirit being used in the fortification process was patchy to say the least.

Grape spirit could be bought independently, and this dramatically improved the quality of the spirit used, and the quality of even modest Port wine thereafter.

The Douro became a UNESCO Heritage site.

The renovation of the city of Oporto began and kick started a boom in tourism.

The World of Wine development arrived in Vila Nova de Gaia.

São Bento Railway Station in Porto, Portugal
São Bento Railway Station in Porto, Portugal

The British Shippers

The thriving Port trade was once based on the activities of well over fifty 'shippers'– effectively traders, British and otherwise – many of whose names are linked to the long history of the great Port houses. Two large British groups dominate the trade today and are responsible for the majority of premium Ports brought into the UK.

Symington Family Estates are the biggest players by far, with around 2400ha (100ha certified organic and growing), across 26 Quintas. 70% of their production comes from their own properties, producing brands ('houses' in Port speak) including Graham's, which was founded in 1820 and acquired by the Symington family only in 1970; Dow's, typically producing the driest wines of the portfolio, now with its own visitor centre in the heart of Pinhão, a short walk from the station; Warre's, the first British Port Co. established in 1670; Quinta do Vesuvio, in the upper Douro, a single Quinta wine but generally declared as a Vintage Port; Smith Woodhouse, which was acquired with Graham's and usually offers great value; and most recently in 2010 Cockburn, which SFE has pledged to return to its former glory.

In 1882, Andrew James Symington, of Scots origins and the first of the five generations of Symingtons in the Douro, came to work for Graham's as an 18 year old, having started his working life in textiles. The still family-owned business has been transformed over the years, and SFE is now also a major dry wine producer, though Port remains c. 90% of the value of their production. DOC wines were produced from 1999: Chryseia, a joint venture with Bruno Prats of Bordeaux, first release 2000 vintage; Altano, Quinta de Roriz, Quinta do Ataíde, and Quinta do Vesuvio Douro DOC wines have all followed; and in 2019 the first wines were released from Quinta da Fonte Souto in the Alentejo, the family's first investment outside Port and the Douro.

The Symington family in Portugal
The Symington family in Portugal

In recent years SFE has invested heavily in social and environmental initiatives too, including reforestation projects in Portugal and B-Corp certification.

The Fladgate Partnership (Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman) originated in 1692. The first Taylor (Joseph) 1816 was joined by John Fladgate in 1836. Joseph died in 1837 and shortly afterwards a Dorset wine merchant Morgan Yeatman joined as a partner. They bought the (Taylor's) Vargellas estate in 1893. Yeatmans ran the business through the 19th and into the 20th centuries until Dick Yeatman died in 1966. His widow asked their nephew Alistair Robertson, then in brewing, to come and help run the company and he later acquired Fonseca and with it the association with the Guimaraens family – today David Guimaraens oversees winemaking for the group. Robertson's son in law Adrian Bridge has been at the helm since 2000, acquiring Croft in 2001, and has been the drive and energy behind their investment in tourism, first with luxury hotels, latterly with the World of Wine development in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Fladgate is the second largest vineyard owner after SFE, with c. 350ha. Fonseca has three main Quintas representing c. 70ha: Panascal, on the south bank, is the backbone of Fonseca vintage, in a style that is 'typically round and generous'. Guimaraens was established in 1822, acquired 1948. Vargellas is at the heart of Taylor's vintage, producing wines that tend to be more 'elegant and restrained'. The Fladgate Partnership's focus is firmly on Port and tourism, and they do not produce DOC wines.

Portugal today: ABC (anything but chardonnay…)

That's not quite accurate, as there is a little of the ubiquitous chardonnay grape planted in Portugal (some indeed made by one of our producers, Almeida Garrett), but most of Portugal's 250+ grapes are unique, indigenous varieties ideally suited to the varied topography and climate of this small but vinously significant country.

Portugal is the world's 9th largest exporter, 11th largest wine producer, but it has under 3% global market share.

Climate change is a real challenge here, as elsewhere in the world, but in Portugal diversity creates resilience, and grapes adapted to the local, very varied conditions offer a huge advantage. Mechanisation, even in the dramatic mountain vineyards of the Douro, is more and more necessary, partly driven by the lack of labour. Who would have thought that mechanical harvesting could be possible on such vertiginous slopes!

Wine exports are on the up, driven by visitors to Portugal and by the dramatic increase in quality in the thirty years since Portugal joined the EU.

Port sales have seen something of a revival too, especially white ports and tawnies, as more people have learned how to enjoy them on the spot and seek them out when they get home. Vintage Port declarations have come thick and fast in the last few years – we will see a small selection of 2018 vintage wines released this year and next. Production volumes tend to be down (with arguably a corresponding increase in quality), and prices regrettably, if justifiably, up.

Grapes growing in the Alentejo region of Portugal
Grapes growing in the Alentejo region of Portugal

Douro DOC wines have led the charge for Portugal's quality wine boom, but Bairrada, Dão and Alentejo are showing they are not to be outdone and all regions are producing exciting, individual styles, whether from new ventures like SFE's Quinta da Fonte Souto or established ones like Adega do Mouchão, in different parts of the Alentejo region. A far smaller producer than Spain, Portugal has shown that it can compete at the value end too, with great and now reliable easy drinking styles particularly from the southern half of the country.

There is a new-found confidence among wine producers and a younger, more travelled and worldly generation now involved that can only continue to drive improvements.

Tending the vines in the Minho region of Portugal
Tending the vines in the Minho region of Portugal

It is the Minho however, with Vinho Verde, that is producing the wines of the moment: pure wines with Atlantic freshness and moderate alcohol perfectly suited to today's modern fusion cuisine, al fresco dining and pre-dinner supping.

The love affair continues…

The Ultimate Guide To Portuguese Wine


Jo Locke MW

Society Buyer

Jo Locke MW

Joanna joined The Society in 2004. Her buying responsibilities include Alsace, Loire, South Africa and Portugal, including Port and Madeira.

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