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History of the Region

The roots of the Douro region are very deep. Inevitably connected to wine production, the history of the Douro region allows us to understand the origins of the tempting and the surrounding unique landscapes.
Castelo de Penedono | © Melanie AntunesDólmen da Capela de Nossa Senhora do Monte | © TUREL: Guia do Douro ReligiosoRock engraving of an aurochs | © Melanie AntunesCastelo de Marialva | © Vitor OliveiraIgreja Matriz de Sendim / Igreja de Santa Bárbara | © Melanie AntunesCastelo de Mogadouro | © Douromedia 2010 ContestCastelo de Castelo Melhor | © Melanie AntunesCastelo Melhor | © Melanie AntunesInscription on the outside of a chapel in Sendim | © Melanie AntunesTimeline with the most important events in the history of the Douro | © Melanie Antunes

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The roots of the Douro region are very deep. Inevitably connected to wine production, the history of the Douro region allows us to understand the origins of the tempting and pleasing wines and unique landscapes.

Long before any president, king or emperor, the Douro was inhabited by primitive peoples who were the first to leave their traces. The rock paintings of the Vale do Côa date back to the upper Palaeolithic Age, about 20 thousand years ago. It is known that grapes were already cultivated in the region around 4 thousand years B.C. because carbonized grape pips have been found in archaeological sites. Many of the castros (fortified villages) in the region, such as the Castro de Cidadelhe, in Mesão Frio, are from this period.

With the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century A.D., agriculture became a major activity in the region, which was made possible by the new roads and bridges built by the Empire. The importance of the grapes intensified, and some villages dedicated exclusively to the production of wine, which can be confirmed in the archaeological site of the Alto da Fonte do Milho, in Peso da Régua.

After the 5th century, the lands of the Douro were conquered by the Suevi and the Visigoths, which ended up uniting and adopting Christianity. The Moors followed after the 8th century. Portugal became an independent kingdom on 5 October 1143,by the Zamora Treaty, thanks to D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), the first King of Portugal. The Sé de Lamego (cathedral) started being built in the same century, under the king’s protection.

During the Early Middle Ages, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Order of Cister came to the region to build monasteries, such as the Monastery of São Pedro das Águias, in Tabuaço, and boosted the region’s agriculture with the development of several quintas on the hills of the Douro.

With the commercial and economic wealth that came after the 13th century, the production of wine in the region continued to prosper, mainly because the wine started being taken to the city of Porto. The wine was taken by boat across the Douro river, which was now wider due to the demolition of the fishing channels ordered by D. Manuel I (1469-1521). Circulation in the river also increased as a result of the maritime discoveries in the 15th ans 16th centuries, especially because sailors required large quantities of strong wine for their long sea journeys.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, England became the main consumer of the wines produced in the Douro region, which resulted in the signing of the Methuen Treaty in 1703, a commercial treaty stipulating that no tax could be charged for Portuguese wines exported to England or English textiles exported to Portugal, regardless of the geopolitical situation of each of the two nations. Because of England’s high demand for Douro wines, and because of the traders’ greediness, the quality of the wines decreased because good wines started being mixed with cheaper wines. The troubled relationships between Portuguese producers and traders and the English merchants deteriorated with the crisis in the wine sector, in the mid-18th century, which was caused by a lower demand for the Douro wines.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), better known as the “Marquês de Pombal” (Duke of Pombal), was responsible for changing the economic situation in the region by creating the first regulated wine region in the world. Between 1757 and 1761, several granite stones with the word “Feitoria” were spread around the Douro region in order to identify and demarcate the boundaries of that wine-producing region. The Secretary of State for the Kingdom thus established the Douro Wine Company (1756), which was granted a monopoly on the sale of Port wine in 1807.

The Duke of Pombal also took part in the tragic story involving one of the most important families in the country, the Távoras. With a centennial legacy, this family owned properties near the Távora river, in Mogadouro, in São João da Pesqueira and in Mirandela. D. Francisco Assis de Távora (1703-1759), the head of the family, was the Count of Alvor, Duke of Távora and Viceroy of India, between 1750 and 1754.

In 1758, the Távora family were accused of attempting to assassinate D. José I (1714-1777), who sustained a gunshot wound to the arm. D. Francisco and his two sons were sentenced to death by burning at the stake and his sister, D. Leonor, was beheaded. The rest of the family members were also imprisoned, but later released during the reign of Queen D. Maria I (1734-1816), who believed that the Távoras were innocent. Between 1788 and 1793, the first queen of Portugal extended the Douro region. In 1907, the region was extended to the Spanish borders during the administration of João Franco (1855-1929).

In the 19th century, the vineyards in the Douro suffered from several fungal diseases, such as the powdery mildew and the phylloxera, which caused the wine production to develop even more, especially due to the biological and chemical innovations that came about in order to prevent these diseases. The railway that connected the city of Porto to the Spanish borders started being built in the same century.

The landscapes of the Douro region are easily identified by the slopes. Built in the 1970s using new techniques that made it possible to plant terraced vineyards, each terrace is surrounded by shale walls. This change in the landscape, caused by human activity, is one of the reasons why UNESCO classified the Douro Wine Region as a World Heritage site in 2001.

The rich heritage of the Douro, with thousands of years of history, contributed to the proliferation of several museums in the area, including the Museum of the Douro (1997) and the Museum of Côa (2010). With the coming of the new millennium the importance of cultural spaces increased in the region, an example of that being the Theatre of Vila Real, built in 2004.

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