Explore / Expertise

Portugal: Milestones and an historic love affair

Contents

Joanna Locke MW Joanna Locke MW / 05 May 2020

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. 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

1757

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
1770s

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.

1848-1863

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.

Mid-1800s

'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.

1970

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.

1986

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.

1991

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.

2001

The Douro became a UNESCO Heritage site.

2005/6

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

2019-2020

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.

The Symington family in Portugal
The Symington family in Portugal

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.

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.

Panascal, on the south bank, is the backbone of Fonseca vintage, in a style that is 'typically round and generous'

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

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.