History of Portugal’s Wine Industry

The rich history of Portugal is firmly intertwined with its wines, especially its most famous wine, Port. From the ancient cities of Lisbon and Porto to small medieval towns and Roman ruins, the past is still alive today in modern Portugal. A wine vacation to the land where Port wines were born is a unique way to experience Old World culture, great weather, beautiful countryside and of course, delightful wines.

History of Wine in Portugal

Although Portugal’s wine history dates back to the Romans, it was not until the early nineteenth century that the wine we know today as Port came into existence. Portugal’s table wine had already been in high demand since the mid-seventeenth century, primarily by the British. To make rustic Portuguese wines more stable and palatable, small amounts of brandy were added to barrels of wine before shipment. Eventually British companies began investing in the area and perfected the process of adding brandy during fermentation, rather than after it, which preserved the distinctive fruity red wine flavors that were unique to Portugal’s Douro Valley region.

The remote Portuguese island colony of Madeira developed wine as an important trading commodity too, but its unusual evolution came about from long sea travel at high heat, essentially baking the wine. Eventually a combination of heat and fortification techniques developed Madeira’s grapes into the final version of the sweet wine enjoyed today.

In recent years something of a small revolution has occurred in the Douro region in terms of developing modern-style dry red and white wines, right along side the highly traditional production of Port wines. Table wines continue to play an important role as well. Increased investment, improved viticultural techniques and modernization of the industry are yielding exciting results.

Portuguese Wine Production

Portugal has long been a world leader in the production and export of wine. Of Portugal’s eleven major wine regions, the Douro is by far the most significant to fine wine production. But another more modern success story in Portugal has to do with simple, sweet rose table wines that are sold under brand names like Mateus and Lancers. Although the heyday of simple roses may have passed, they remain popular worldwide and between these wines and Port, account for roughly 70% of Portuguese wine exports.

What is unique about Portugal is the very large number (upwards of 500) of indigenous grape varietals. Even most wine experts are unfamiliar with the grapes that produce Port, Madeira or any other Portuguese wine. Older vineyards are planted with multiple grape varietals and as a result, sometimes these field blends are so varied that identifying all of the grapes isn’t possible. When new vineyards are created, single plantings are now the norm. As modernization continues, Portugal is proving that in spite of a long history of contributions it still has undiscovered potential.