The History of Wine in Portugal: A Rich Tradition Spanning Centuries

Portugal has a long, storied history of wine production stretching back over 2,000 years. The country’s diverse wine regions, indigenous grape varieties, and winemaking traditions have developed over centuries, shaped by geography, politics, trade, and technology. Through periods of prosperity and challenge, wine has endured as an integral part of Portuguese agriculture, economy, and culture.

Early Winemaking

Wine likely arrived in Portugal with Phoenician traders in the 10th century BCE. As the Phoenicians established coastal settlements, they introduced viticulture and winemaking knowledge from Lebanon. Archaeological evidence near Lisbon indicates wine production was already occurring in the region by the 7th century BCE.

Wine cultivation expanded under Greek colonization in the 6th century BCE. The Greeks planted new vineyards and exported Iberian wines back to Greece. Wine historian Hugh Johnson notes this early period planted the “seeds of Portugal’s wine tradition.”

When the Romans conquered the Iberian peninsula in the 2nd century BCE, they inherited a fledgling wine industry. Roman viticultural knowledge, coupled with a thirst for wine, led to expanded vineyards and enhanced wine technology. Portugal’s temperate climate, diverse soils and coastal breezes were ideal for viticulture.

Wine historian Richard Mayson credits the Romans with developing the early core of Portuguese viticulture along the Douro and Tagus Rivers and favorable mountain elevations. Vineyards expanded under 400 years of Roman rule, though most production was likely for local consumption.

Wine in the Middle Ages

Portugal emerged as an independent kingdom in the 12th century CE following the fall of Rome. During the Middle Ages, monasteries played a key role in preserving and developing Portuguese viticulture and winemaking.

Monks cultivated vineyards and made sacramental and table wines. The cool, humid climate challenged grape ripening, so monasteries planted early ripening varieties. Monks experimented with making wines with honey and fruit to compensate for low alcohol levels from underripe grapes. These wines were forerunners of modern Port and Madeira.

Cistercian monks became skilled vineyard managers and winemakers. In particular, Alcobaça Monastery in Estremadura advanced techniques like adding yeast lees to restart stuck fermentations. The monasteries nurtured Portugal’s nascent wine industry through knowledge, labor and land preservation.

Portugal wine history

Terraces view

The Age of Exploration: Wine as a Global Commodity

In the 15th century, Portugal emerged as a naval superpower at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Seeking maritime routes for spices, gold, and prestige, Portuguese voyages charted Africa’s coast and discovered offshore islands like the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde.

Wherever they landed, the Portuguese planted vines and made wine. The Atlantic islands’ volcanic soils and sunny climate proved excellent for viticulture. Wine became a profitable export, a provision for ships, and a tool for colonization.

When Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, establishing a sea route around Africa, the Portuguese discovered an eager market for their wines. Traders transported wines in barrels across the Indian Ocean back to Portugal or sold them abroad.

The Age of Exploration propelled Portuguese wines onto the global stage. Wine became Portugal’s most important agricultural export, with the VOC (Dutch East India Company) becoming a major trading partner. Wine’s emergence as a coveted global commodity brought wealth and prestige to Portugal.

Development of Fortified Wines

Portugal’s hot summers posed challenges for transporting wines overseas. To stabilize wines for long sea journeys, Portuguese producers began adding distilled grape spirits before fermentation was complete. The additional alcohol halted fermentation, leaving residual sugar while the spirit preserved the wine.

This technique of fortification was perfected in the 17th century in Porto, where Portugal’s first quintas (wine estates) emerged along the Douro River. British merchants who exported Douro’s robust red wines to England discovered fortifying the wines allowed them to survive overseas transport and taxation regulations. Thus Port Wine was born.

On the island of Madeira, makers discovered aging wines on long sea journeys created a smooth, roasted flavor. Producers replicated this effect by “cooking” the wines using estufagem, and baking them in warm tanks. The results became Madeira, long-lasting and built for global trade.

By the 18th century, the fortified wines Port and Madeira were Portugal’s most famous wines. Portugal dominated the lucrative trade until the mid-19th century when rivals like Sherry gained prominence. Nevertheless, Portuguese fortified wines remained icons.

The Marquês de Pombal and the Wine Industry

In the mid-18th century, the Marquês de Pombal, Prime Minister to King José I, implemented sweeping economic reforms. Seeking to boost Portuguese trade and reduce British domination, Pombal restructured viticulture.

In 1756, Pombal demarcated the Douro as the exclusive source of grapes for Port production. Estate owners and merchants established the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro to regulate Port wine.

Pombal abolished the feudal system, freed tenants and incentivized wine production. Vineyards expanded along schist terraces lining the rugged Douro. Port commerce gained consistent standards and surged ahead.

Beyond Port, Pombal’s reforms attempted to upgrade table wine production, which lagged behind. He recruited experts to teach modern techniques, but progress remained slow. Fortified wines continued dominating Portuguese exports into the 20th century.

Portugal wine history

Boat at sunset

The Douro Valley & Phylloxera

By the mid-19th century, the Douro Valley was fully transformed into a wine region dedicated to Port production. Some 30,000 farmers cultivated grapes on steep terraced slopes along 50-100 miles of the Douro River.

However, the Douro’s near monoculture of vines spelled disaster when the phylloxera louse arrived from America. Phylloxera ravaged the Douro, decimating ungrafted native vines. Between 1878 and 1898, over 100,000 acres of vineyards were destroyed.

Growers slowly recovered by grafting vines onto resistant American rootstocks. But the solution was costly, requiring ripping out surviving old vines and expensive grafted replanting. Though Port commerce eventually recovered, many farmers faced economic ruin.

The phylloxera crisis spurred government investment in recovery. In 1907, Portugal created Casa do Douro, an organization of growers regulating Port production. Quality and reputation were restored, inaugurating the Douro’s “golden age” in the early 20th century.

Political Upheaval and Cooperatives

In 1910, the monarchy collapsed, and Portugal endured 16 years of turmoil under the new republic. Economic instability impaired wine production, though the liquor markets supported Port and Madeira.

After a military coup in 1926 installed an authoritarian regime, the Estado Novo government instituted sweeping agricultural reforms aimed at modernization. Vineyards were consolidated and mechanized. Regulations were enacted to control yields and quality.

The government encouraged the formation of cooperatives that provided technical assistance to small growers. Though Portugal remained on the margins of the wine world, the domestic market expanded enough to support a patchwork of varied regional wine industries.

EU Membership & Modernization

In 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the EU. EU membership brought funding for agricultural modernization, prompting a wave of innovation in Portuguese wine production.

Ripping out low-quality hybrid vines, growers replanted with noble French and Portuguese varieties that thrive in Portugal’s varied terroirs. Foreign and domestic investors improved technical knowledge, facilities and marketing.

Quality classification systems modeled in France were implemented to communicate standards to international markets. Regions like Alentejo and Douro Valley gained recognition for premium table wines to rival Port.

Though per capita consumption stagnated, exports soared by 2000. Ambitious young winemakers embraced technology and built globally competitive brands. Portugal emerged as a New World wine producer with a renewed focus on premium vinho regional (quality wines).

Wine Regions

While Port and Madeira originated Portugal’s reputation for wine, table wines from diverse regions propelled modern success. Today Portugal has 14 major winemaking regions producing hundreds of native grape varieties along with global ones like Cabernet Sauvignon.

Douro Valley – Portugal’s premier wine region, the Douro is still synonymous with Port but now just as famous for dry reds like Touriga Nacional.

Alentejo – With hot, dry plains between Lisbon and southern Spain, Alentejo is the source of full-bodied, fruity reds from Aragonez (Tempranillo) and oak-aged whites.

Dão – An inland mountainous region near the Spanish border known for structured, earthy reds from Tourigo Nacional and Encruzado whites.

Vinho Verde – In wet, green northwest Portugal, Vinho Verde specializes in light, refreshing wines for early drinking from local grapes like Alvarinho and Loureiro.

Lisbon – Home to a diverse range of wine styles, the Lisbon area spans Bucelas whites to Colares reds to sweet, light wines like those of Carcavelos.

21st Century Innovations

Joining the EU ushered Portugal into the modern wine world, allowing its historic strengths to fuse with state-of-the-art technology and knowledge. Today Portugal enjoys a reputation for unique indigenous varietals, value pricing and terroir-driven regions.

A new generation of winemakers traveled abroad, gaining experience with flying winemakers in places like Australia before returning home to Portugal. Technical know-how and foreign investment elevated wine quality.

University programs in viticulture and enology emerged, notably at UTAD in northern Portugal. Market-savvy winemakers learned the language of international wine marketing and communications.

Though challenges like high labor costs persist, the world has embraced contemporary Portuguese wines. Historic companies have globalized, like Esporão, while boutique producers attract acclaim, such as Dirk Niepoort’s Douro wines. Portugal has become an exciting wine tourism destination.

The story continues as new regions and grapes emerge. Winemakers blend tradition and innovation, ushering in an exciting era for Portuguese wine.

The Essence of Portuguese Wine

Over two millennia, wine became ingrained in Portuguese culture, economy and identity. Moving into the 21st century, Portuguese wines are universally recognized as distinctive, authentic and of high quality.

At its essence, Portuguese wine is founded on an intimate connection to the earth. Grand hydraulic terraces sculpt the landscape, from the steep banks of the Douro to the undulating plains of Alentejo. Portugal’s cadastral system documents individual vineyard plots and their boundless contributions to Portugal’s wine heritage.

Portuguese wine is also profoundly shaped by its maritime history. A spirit of exploration infuses its culture, from the Age of Discovery to today’s pioneering winemakers seeking new terroirs and grapes. This bridge between land and sea imprints unique characteristics—power and elegance, structure and vibrancy.

Most of all, Portuguese wine is about its people—growers, winemakers, coopers, and traders. Their accumulated knowledge shapes native grapes like Touriga Nacional and Aragonez to thrive in Portugal’s soils and sun. This human dimension grounds Portuguese wine in a time-honored tradition.

The future is bright for Portuguese wines as they receive global acclaim. But those roots in culture, geography and humanity endure. The granite of the Douro, the schist of the Dão, and the heat of Alentejo—Portugal’s wines draw identity from the land and people, as they have for centuries. From historic Port houses to the latest Garrafeira wines, Portuguese wines offer complexity, value and a sense of discovery.

The history of wine in Portugal has charted the rise and fall of empires, revolutions in science and politics, and radical shifts in technology and taste. This rich history shapes the contours of every bottle produced in Portugal’s diverse wine regions today. Blending tradition and innovation, Portuguese wines have a story to tell.

Also read:

A new perspective appeared in the Portuguese economy and, consequently, in viticulture. The concept of Denomination of Origin with communitarian legislation and the “Regional Wine” classification was created for table wines with geographical indication, reinforcing the quality policy of the Portuguese wines.

To manage the Denomination of Origin and the Regional Wines, to apply, monitor, and comply with the respective regulations, Regional Winegrowing Commissions were created, which play a fundamental role in preserving the quality and prestige of Portuguese wines.

Currently, 14 wine regions, 31 Denominations of Origin, and 14 Geographical Indications are recognized and protected. In addition, there are more than 250 native Portuguese grape varieties and 192,743 hectares of vineyards.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: May 15, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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