History of Port
This is a short version of the history of Vintage Port.
Beginning of times
The Douro valley has been used for wine production since the Bronze Age. The Romans systemized wine production and developed the viticulture. Early on it was plain red table wine that was produced. Export of wine from Portugal dates back to the 13th century when red wine was shipped to France and later on to England.
Englishmen and port
Treaties with the Englishmen were made to favour sale of English wool in Portugal against Portugal's sale of wine in England. Oliver Cromwell started this 1654 with “Favoured Nation Treaty”. The French wines were of course very popular in England from time to time but the many disputes between France and England made it easier for the Englishmen to trade wine from Portugal. It extended to the amount that merchants in other businesses began trading wine. In the middle of the 17th century a colony of English merchants and traders were established in Porto. Among the first to start shipping Port were two young Englishmen who started off in Porto in the year 1678 under the name Warre’s. They came to the monastery in Lamego where they were offered wine and were told that brandy was used to stop the fermentation. The wine was excellent. It is said that they later found out that the wine survived the trip to England better if a shot of Brandy was added. This may very well be the first dessert wine. 1703 the Methuen Treaty came, which ended 1840 which was the start of the port wine trade. The man behind this was John Methuen and it said that tax from Portuguese wine was only 2/3 of that on French wine. This treaty was also used for fish, cotton, fruits and so on.
From wine to Port wine
During the 1750s the trade of Port was bad and so was the quality of the wine. The Marquis of Pombal decided that brandy always had to be added to the wine to improve the quality and he also initiated the demarcation of the region in Douro which was establish in 1756. The Marquis of Pombal also founded the Real Compania Velha = Royal Oporto in the same year – 1756.
The first time Port is seen in print is February 8, 1767 in a catalogue from Christie's Auctions in London. Another catalogue from Christie's presents a "Port Wine 1765", this is the earliest mentioned Port known today. Whether these port wines are actually Vintage Ports is in doubt since most other sources states that the first vintage "worthy of being called a Vintage Port" is the 1775 vintage i.e. the introduction of a bottle able to store lying down. The 1779 Vintage is the oldest recorded Vintage being sold as a Vintage Port by several shippers. During this period the Vintage Port was matured in barrels for 3 or 4 years before bottling. It is not until 1858 Christie´s mentioned “ a rare two-years bottling” of port.
Oidum destroyed most of the vineyards in the 1850's and phylloxera hit the Douro Valley 1868-1885. The last great vintage before phylloxera was consided to be 1878. Farmers moved to the upper Douro where the effects of the phylloxera appeared later and less violent. New methods for preparing the land and new planting techniques, together with a selection of the best vines were the result from the disasters of phylloxera and oidum. The problems in the Douro valley opened up a whole new marked for other wines of the same type, often labeled as port. To take control over the situation and increase the export of port again the Portuguese dictator João Franco signed a decree on 10 May 1907 to regulate the production, sale and export, as well as a control of the port wine. The decree was based on the same principles as Marquis of Pombal used 150 years earlier. New lines of demarcation were drawn including the new areas in the upper Douro. Responsible for the control of Port Wine was the Viticultural Committee of the Douro Region and all Port Wine had to be shipped across the bar of the Douro river. Today the Port Wine Institute, which was instituted in 1932, must approve a wine before it can be sold. There are also very strict rules of how much wine one may produce from an area. The grapes allowed are also controlled as well as the quality of the grapes.
After the revolution in 1974 all Vintage Port must be bottled in Portugal. In May 8, 1986 it was decreed that wine producers in the Douro region were entitled to export their products independently. Before this it was stipulated that all port had to be exported from the city Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto. In reality this led to a marked with only a few shippers, storing and exporting the wine in Vila Nova de Gaia. Small producers were more or less forced to sell their grapes or wine to the big producers. In 1986 the possibilities for the smaller wine growers suddenly changed drastically. Although, some limitations still exist, e.g. the Vineyards must have a minimum storage of 150,000 liters.