The Port Wine—popularly called, Port—from Portugal is regarded as one of the oldest wines in existence. With its rich history and ruby red fortified (slightly sweetened) composition, it has become one of the most popular wines worldwide.
Port is produced from grapes grown in the Douro valley located on Portugal’s north-western corner, bordered by Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. The region is categorized into three sub-regions—Upper, Middle, and Lower Douro—each with distinctive wines.
Douro Valley is one of Portugal’s most significant wine-producing regions since the early days of the Roman Empire. Port Wine gets its name from the Seaport city of Oporto (now called Porto), where it was shipped from in the 17th century.
Although other “Port-style wines” have sprung up over the years—in England and most parts of the world—the label Port (or Oporto) is exclusively reserved for wines manufactured in Portugal’s Douro Valley.
The journey of Port Wine becoming a widespread ‘British beverage’ did not begin overnight; the story dates back to 1678, when Britain declared war on France. This decision implied that a blockade had to be set on French Ports and would lead to a shortage of wine across Great Britain. In a bid to quench their thirst for wine, Brit wine merchants had to explore Portugal for ‘wine-survival.’
During the early years of the 18th century, Britain and France had yet another fallout, and this would lead to the War of Spanish Succession. Subsequently, Britain seized the moment and went on to sign The Methuen Treaty (a military and commercial treaty) with Portugal in 1703. This would lead to a reinforced long-standing trade link between Britain and Portugal, which meant greater access to Port trade between both countries.
In the 1720s, Peter Bearsley (Son of Taylor’s founder) became the first Brit wine merchant to embark on the hazardous journey to Douro valley in hopes of finding the best wines after a sudden discontent from buying the Douro-region wines from intermediaries – as other British merchants did
The Bearsley family continued to flourish in their wine trade in the Douro, and by 1744 Bartholomew Bearsley bought his first property in the Douro and became the first Brit wine shipper to achieve that feat. Due to his permanent settlement in the winemaking region, he gained an unparalleled advantage over his competitors in wine trade. He quickly built a solid relationship with the rural farmers, who offered him access to the first and best pick of their wines.
By 1755, the Bearsley family had gained the upper hand in the Douro by becoming the first to buy vineyards and produce their own wine. The Taylor’s still own the estate to date, and the property is planted near the old town of Regua.
By 1756, due to the fluctuating relationship between Britain and France, Britain was outgrowing their French imports by leaps and bounds. Thus, the British merchants had to partner with Portuguese winemakers to produce their wine and ship it back across the English Channel. Furthermore, they developed their own vineyards in Portugal. As a result, they could better dictate the terms by which Port was produced and exported back to Britain. Nonetheless, British wine merchants built new vineyards around the Douro valley, and Port was refined until it was considered good enough for English nobility.
There is a popular belief that Port is both a British and Portuguese creation. This assessment may be particularly true because although Douro Valley had been the capital of wine production in Portugal, it was no match in French wine quality the Brits were accustomed to. Hence, it was first celebrated in Britain for its ease of availability.
Legend has it that two British brothers ‘accidentally’ invented the Port-making process by adding grape brandy to the wine to fortify and protect it against spoiling during a long voyage… And thus, Port wine was born. We know that Port wine dates back to 1678 when Englishmen discovered that adding brandy could preserve the taste of wine long after the shipment was complete. It took a few years for British merchants to discover the winemaking process from local Portuguese grapes and master how well Port traveled, but once they learned the process, all hell broke loose.
Though the Port wine is still technically produced from grapes, it is known as a “Fortified Wine.” This implies that it contains more alcohol than regular wine because brandy has a much higher concentration of alcohol than a regular wine does. For example, most wines contain around 11% ABV, whereas Port wines could have up to 20% ABV.
By 1772, Port wines began being sold in great numbers and became even more popular in subsequent years. Since then, the wine has been a mainstay in British drinks cabinets and is still popular today.
Therefore, when you take your next sip of Port wine, you have the British wine merchants to thank for their foresight!