Port Basics


Enjoying Port

The History of Port

The Beginnings

England and Portugal have long been trading partners, and by the 16th century England was routinely exchanging bacalhau (dried salt cod), wool and other goods for red wine from northern Portugal. Wars with France and embargoes on French goods in the 17th century increased the demand for red wines to replace the French claret that had been gracing the better British tables.

Portuguese red wine – known as Port, since it was shipped from Oporto – had a rather uneven reputation, to put it kindly, and given the patriotic necessity to eschew French wines, the search was on to source better quality wine from Portugal. The wine was apparently pretty harsh, austere stuff, and prone to spoilage in transit. At some point in the 17th century winemakers or shippers began adding brandy to the wine casks to address this issue, and there are apocryphal tales of monks in the Douro who added the brandy during fermentation, in the same way it is added today.

By the mid 18th century the wine trade and the rights of Douro growers became a hot political issue and the Marquês de Pombal stepped into the dispute. He established the Real Companhia das Vinhas do Alto Douro, the first governing body for the port trade, which in turn established the Douro demarcated region in 1756 – the first such protected and defined wine growing region in the world. The Companhia began to set standards for the making of Port, and controlled the supply of aguardente (fortification brandy). From this time, the addition of brandy to Douro wines shipped as “Port” seems to have been a given.

Another decisive factor in the development of Vintage Port as we know it now, was the change in bottle shapes which also occurred in the mid to late 18th century. Port, indeed all wines, were traditionally shipped and often purchased by consumers in cask, and bottles were filled from cask to bring the wine to table. All the typical bottle shapes up to this time had large, rounded bellies (the names say it all: onion, mallet, globe, bladder, balloon) making them impossible to lay down and store for any length of time (laying down being essential to keep the corks moist and therefore the seal in good condition).

By the 1770’s a new shape of bottle had evolved, a straight-sided cylindrical shape with a longer neck. It was now conceivable to age wine in bottle, not just cask, and it became clear in the following years that this made a distinct improvement in the wine.

It seems the first mention of “Vintage Port” was in a Christie’s auction catalog dated 1773, in reference to a wine of the vintage of 1765. Various historical records refer to great Vintage Ports from 1775, 1790 and 1797.

But records also indicate that the wine was kept in cask for as much as 5 years before being shipped and bottled, and also that is was common for the wine to be racked and fined, which would make for a much lighter, finer wine than the unfiltered Vintage Ports of today.

Finally, it was in the 18th century that deliberate development of the Douro region as a wine growing region began in earnest. Up until this time, Régua was considered the heart of the region, and vineyards stretched east only as far as Pinhão; now it was being expanded towards Tua, and work began to clear the rapids at Valeira, allowing easier and safer access to the Douro Superior. The Visconde de Villa Maior, who wrote a classic book about the Douro in 1876, claims his own grandfather was the first to plant vines at what is now Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos in the late 18th century.

The 19th Century

By the early 19th century Port was sought after and prized, and shippers’ names began to be associated with the wines offered for sale. One writer alludes to the wine having a good crust (which would indicate it had not been filtered) and the value of ageing the wine in bottle was being appreciated: in 1824 an English wine historian, Henderson, wrote of Port, “It is only after it has been kept ten or fifteen years in the bottle that the odour of the brandy is completely subdued, and the genuine aroma of the wine is developed.”

By mid century Port was firmly established as a good wine, and trade flourished, production reaching 100,000 pipes for the first time in the 1840’s. The practice of “declaring” particularly fine Vintage years was established, and 1851, 1863 and 1868 were highly regarded. Though much port was drunk young, there was growing appreciation for the complexity and pleasure to be had from well-aged and specifically bottle-aged ports.

Two events occurred to threaten Port production in mid century; one passed without harm, the other was to have lasting consequences on the trade.

In 1844, Joseph James Forrester, the Barão de Forrester, who is a figure of legend in the Port trade for his exploration of the Douro and his exquisitely drawn maps, anonymously published a pamphlet condemning the fortification of Port wines and arguing for the development of dry table wines from the Douro. The Port shipping community in Oporto was in an uproar over this, as their business in the sweet fortified style of Port was flourishing. Viewed from the perspective of the Port trade, Forrester’s rather spectacular demise, drowning in the rapids at Valeira, weighed down by his gold-filled money belt, may have been a good thing – the idea of producing dry Douro wines was not revived until over a century later.

The other threat to Port was disease. Vineyard production in the Douro in the latter half of the 19th century was considerably reduced, and nearly wiped out by two waves of infection which entered Europe via imported American vines. In 1848 the first reports of oidium, powdery mildew, came from Régua, and it spread rapidly throughout the region thereafter. If affected grapes were not removed from the batch, the wine became bitter. It took almost 20 years to get this under control, by applications of sulphur (a practice still in use today). At the height of the oidium crisis, Dona Antónia Ferreira’s Quinta do Vesúvio produced less than a quarter of its usual volume, and the wine was considered to be well below her usual standards of quality.

Worse, phylloxera reached the Douro in the 1870s. This was a tiny aphid which lived in the roots of American grape vines imported to England in the 1860s and spread throughout Europe, devastating vineyards. Whilst the American species of vines had adapted to tolerate the presence of the insect, European varieties were vulnerable. In the early stages of infestation the yields were reduced, but within a few years the vines simply withered and died. All kinds of remedies were tried, to no avail, but eventually a solution was found: grafting European grape varieties onto American rootstocks, another practice which continues to this day.

Despite initial resistance to it in the Douro, by 1896 grafting had been introduced and proved a successful solution to combating the pest. George Warre of the famous Port family wrote in that year,

This year’s wines are I consider better than any since 1878 and will I hope and believe start a new era in the Port wine trade.

He was right: the Port of that year turned out to be one of the greatest Vintage Ports of the century.

Whilst many vineyards were grubbed up and re-planted with grafted vines, the visitor to the Douro today can still appreciate the devastation of phylloxera: many walled terraced vineyards, built in the late 18th and early 19th century heyday of Douro expansion, were abandoned. Some of these mortuários (graveyards) have been put to use as olive or citrus groves, whilst others have never again been cultivated, and the crumbling walls can just be discerned under a tangle of grasses and scrub.

The scarcity of good wines during the latter half of the 19th century drove up the prices of port. Though the English embargoes on French wines had long been lifted, France was the first to be affected by phylloxera, so once more the English looked to Portugal for wine. Even the French became major importers of Portuguese wine for the first time, and many other lucrative markets, such as Brazil, opened up for the Portuguese wines. On the strength of this demand some new Port shipping firms were established, and many firms, new and old, flourished.

With this prosperity, shippers began to invest in quintas themselves: George Acheson Warre, winemaker for Silva and Cosens, producers of Dow’s, acquired Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira in the Douro Superior and Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão and the Graham family acquired Quinta dos Malvedos. The wines from these superb quintas continue to form the heart of their respective brands for declared vintages, as well as producing excellent single-quinta wines in other years.

The 20th Century

The 20th century began with four great classic vintages: the 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, re-enforcing the status of Vintage Port as one of the world’s great wines, and also establishing the reputations of specific makers of great Vintage Ports. This renown of course led to imitation “ports” being made outside of Portugal, however a new treaty prohibited the importing of Port to England unless accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Portuguese authorities.

Despite political upheavals within Portugal, the Great Depression and two World Wars, the port trade hung on. In the 1930s Salazar, like Pombal before him, took an interest in the Douro wine trade and established several new bodies to regulate and protect the wine growers and the Port trade, all of which have since been encompassed by the Instituto do Vinho do Douro e Porto (IVDP). Shortly after the Second World War regulations went into effect defining Port categories (ruby, tawny, Vintage, etc.) and establishing production guidelines for all categories, including the stipulation that Vintage Port was to be bottled in the second year after harvest.

The post-war period was possibly the toughest for the Port trade, between the growing taste for spirits and cocktails, and the political situation in Portugal, which kept the country insulated from the modernisation and growth enjoyed elsewhere. The fabulous and widely declared 1945 and 1947 vintages were pretty well ignored by the world at large, and the 1945 was mostly bottled by the shippers themselves and held in Vila Nova de Gaia. The spectacular 1963 vintage revived interest in Vintage Port, and 1966 and 1970 were deservedly well-received, but many firms struggled, and by the 1970s many had been sold or closed – from 83 shippers in 1945 there were only about 50 remaining.

Oporto bottling had continued to some extent, alongside shipment in cask throughout the 50s and 60s. In 1974 regulations were introduced which mandated bottling in Portugal only. Despite some initial resistance both abroad and in Porto, the trade quickly appreciated the quality control inherent in this arrangement, and the opportunity to market the maker’s own brand more agressively. In the past, cask shipments were often bottled under the name of the shop, for example London’s Berry Brothers and Rudd sold (an excellent!) “Berry’s Own Selection 1970 Vintage Port” which was in fact a Warre’s wine.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw extraordinary change and growth in both the Douro and the Port trade.

In the Douro, five hydro-electric dams were built on the river, and access to the region by road was considerably improved (rail service is perhaps more punctual, but otherwise not much changed from the 19th century!). This meant the end of delivery of port casks from quintas to Vila Nova de Gaia by barco rabelo (flat bottomed boats which were sailed or rowed) in the 60’s, and also an increase in the shippers’ own activities in the region. Where before wines were often made by the growers and shippers bought and blended finished wines, the balance shifted, and shippers began buying in grapes to vinify themselves in newly built or renovated wineries. Just as at the end of the 19th century, there was a wave of shippers investing in Douro quintas and overseeing the vineyards themselves.

Portugal’s entry to the EEC and EU in 1986 and access to grant funding sparked much of that investment in wineries and vineyards. In addition, EU regulations overturned the the 1927 entreposto, a Salazar regulation which mandated that all exports of Port wine had to originate from a very specific small area of Vila Nova de Gaia. Effectively, this meant all exports were controlled by the shippers whose lodges were located within that area. Post-EU, Port wine can be shipped from anywhere in the Douro, and this has opened the way for many smaller firms to enter the trade, and even for larger firms to re-think their commitments, with some moving all operations to the Douro.

There have also been signficant developments in wine making and viticultural techniques, which are discussed elsewhere in this website.

The 21st Century

At this time, Port is enjoying a renaissance. Consumers looking for premium wines to be enjoyed at leisure are naturally looking at fine Vintage Ports once more. Reflecting the investment of recent years, the wines are superb, whether enjoyed in their robust and fruit-driven youth, or held until they have matured into something mellower and more nuanced.

Symington Family Estates, together with individual family members, own 23 Douro Quintas, amounting to the largest vineyard ownership in the region. They are joint owners with Bruno Prats of a superb 24th vineyard, Quinta de Perdiz , one of the finest estates in the Rio Torto, and the family has a 25-year lease on the outstanding Quinta das Lages, also in the Rio Torto.

These 25 properties comprise the finest collection of vineyards in the Douro and ensure the unequalled quality of the Ports for which the family is renowned. The total area of all the Quintas amounts to 1,860 hectares of which 934 hectares are planted with vines.

Our Vintage Ports are all made at our own wineries in the Douro, each with its dedicated winemaking team in attendance 24 hrs per day during harvest. There are two major wineries, Bomfim and Sol, and five small specialist estate wineries: Vesuvio, Roriz, Graham’s Malvedos, Dow’s Senhora de Ribeira, and Warre’s Cavadinha. The investment in equipment and management at each of these small specialist wineries is significant and costly but is vital to maintain the highest quality and the extraordinary individuality of the Family’s wines.