One can’t quite tell the story of modern Portuguese wines without starting with the history and the fall of their wine industry. The tales of exploration, maritime trade, wars, disease and of course scandal is the backbone of Portuguese wines. Hundreds of years ago, Portugal was placed on the map of wine fame with its fortified wines: Port and Madeira. The happenstance luck of these wines were based on centuries of trade with England and long distance travel.
Imagine 1200 AD: The Portuguese livelihood was centralized around maritime trading routes and exploration. It was the discovery of an abbot in the mountainous region in the Douro Valley that shined light on the sweet fortified wines (“port”) of Portugal and, of course, the late 1600’s ban on French wine in England. In an effort to supply demand, English tradesmen and Portugal began production of these fortified wines. The travel time to England enhanced the flavor and richness. Unfortunately, demand over reached supply and cheap knock off wines and fortified fruit wines were introduced to the market.
The market rebuked! The price of “port” dropped drastically as the Portuguese and their investors scrambled to build back confidence. In turn, the Douro Wine Company was formed by the Portuguese government to create structure and methodology of “port”. One house to regulate creation and exports as well as fixing prices on the entire process from vineyard management to final prices. Since this was a business and not a government entity, many questioned its motives (especially other larger houses that were not in charge!).
As this transpired, British tradesmen looked beyond “port” and discovered the sweet liquids of the island of Madeira. A similar story however it is the story of eager business men trying to make up the missing spot of port in the market with Madeira instead. By happenstance (again) traveling with Madeira creates richness, that is– oxidation. It was the new Americas Englishmen that embraced Madeira. So well received that some barrels would travel around the world to cure Madeira for higher prices.
Back to our story of “port”… The Douro Wine Company solidified the styles of port as a Portuguese wine and its popularity in England and now Russia increased until the French and Spanish attack in 1807. War shook the base of wine production, especially export. Then of course, the unfortunate parasite phylloxera hit in the late 1800’s. Instead of rebuilding the wine community, Portugal focused its wine industry on cork production. We do not see Portuguese wine (not “port”) until WWI then it was extremely cheap.
However, in the mid 1980’s, Portuguese wine recognition began to slowly transform. Entrance into the European Union (then European Community) “insisted” that the government dissolve several monopolies of cooperatives (the Douro Wine Company) that had been in control of the wine program for decades. Tearing down these walls allowed for investment (especially from other countries such as Australia), as well as development of wine styles. Many small estates (quintas) severed their ties with “co-operatives” and started making their own wines. Portugal devised a new appellation system in line with EU standards, designating Regiões Demarcadas as Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC).
Back on track, Portuguese wines currently offer us value and quality. Will they become as big of contenders to the world of wine as they were in the past is yet to be seen; however there are several producers that are showing high quality work. It is definitely not just plonk wine. Passion is brimming!