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History of Douro Wines

The Douro wines have ancient roots and they have evolved over many years into this liquid delicacy that nowadays delights our taste buds. Drinking a glass of Port Wine is like drinking a glass of history itself, the history of this region governed by wine.
Timeline of the history of wines from the Douro and Porto | © Melanie AntunesPainted tiles depicting the harvest | © Museu do DouroMuseu do Douro | © Centro Nacional de Cultura, António CruzRabelo Boat | © Melanie AntunesCasks where the wine is stored | © Melanie AntunesRabelo ships at Cais de Gaia | © Museu do DouroRabelo boats | © Melanie AntunesCasks in the Douro Museum | © Centro Nacional de Cultura, António CruzAntique harvest tools exhibited in the Museum of the Douro | © Centro Nacional de Cultura, António CruzRabelo boats moored in Vila Nova de Gaia | © Melanie AntunesRabelo boat on golden waters | © Cida Garcia

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The first traces of vines found in the region date back to the Bronze Age around three thousand years ago. However, the fact that Vitis vinifera (a type of vine) carbonised grape pulp has been found does not necessarily mean that wine cultivation was common practice. During the Roman period, particularly following the 1st century A.D., the wine culture advanced rapidly, leaving traces of stone tanks and wine cellars in various archaeological sites in the region.

The Suevi, the Visigoths and the Muslims all recognised the importance of wine for the region. Following the birth of the Kingdom of Portugal (5th october, 1143), a great number of charter attributed to various settlements in the region around the 12th century provide evidence of great wine-producing activity in the area.

Throughout the 18th century, Porto played a key role in connecting the Douro region with international markets. The wines were transported to Porto in the famous Rabelo boats along the Douro river. During this period, the reign of D. Manuel I (1469-1521), the river underwent important changes. The monarch ordered the fishing canals in the river demolished to improve navigation between São João da Pesqueira and Porto. The flow of water in the river thus increased to meet the high demand for larger quantities of wine being transported during the 15th century.

During the reign of D. Fernando (1345-1383) in the 14th century, the export of Douro wines began to take on an important role as the state’s main income came from taxes on exports.

The first reference to Port Wine dates back to 1675 when the diplomat Duarte Ribeiro de Macedo (1618-1680) made a speech on the introduction of the Arts in the kingdom and referred to the wine being exported to Holland. France was the main market for Portuguese wines, but it was thanks the English market that the wines really gained recognition.

In 1703 Portugal and England signed the Treaty of Methuen, stating that no tax could be charged on wines exported to England and British textiles in the Portuguese market. As a result of this treaty and the people of England’s love for this wine, the region’s production increased to meet the new demands. This, however, did not prevent some cases of falsified wines appearing on the market.

In 1756 the General Company for Agriculture and Alto Douro Wines (1756-1960) was formed to deal with the sour relations between wine producers, Portuguese traders and foreign businessmen and attempt to free the region of English control. This association, founded by the Duke of Pombal, obtained the exclusive rights to the sale of Port Wine in 1807.

The Upper Douro region (Alto Douro) was the first part of the wine-producing region to be regulated. Between 1757 and 1761 large granite slabs with the word “Feitoria” (Vineyard) and the respective date were used to outline the region. This region was extended between 1788 and 1793 by D. Maria I (1734-1816), and in 1907, under João Franco’s (1855-1929) government, it was extended up to the Spanish border.

In 1844, Joseph James Forrester (1809-1861), known as Barão Forrester, created a map of the demarcated wine region, in which are set prominent quintas of that time. This man was on of the great pioneers of Port wine industry. He dedicated his life to the Douro and it was in those waters that he eventually died, during a shipwreck in Cachão da Valeira, at São João da Pesqueira.

In the 19th century the Douro vineyards were plagued by various vine diseases, such as Powdery Mildew (oidium) and Phylloxera. These plagues actually helped the region develop because they led to new biological and chemical advances that would help avoid future attacks. The construction for the railway also began in the same century, to improve the link between Porto and the Spanish border.

During the second Republic (Estado Novo), the Casa de Douro was formed along with the Association for Porto Wine Exporters and the Institute of Douro and Port Wines. Following the totalitarian regime in Portugal, the Association of Producers and Bottling for Douro and Port Wines was created in 1986 to directly commercialise the wines produced in Douro vineyards in the name of the producers.

The Douro landscape as we know it began being constructed in the 1970s. New techniques were applied with the vines being planted on different terraces, with walls made from schist to divide each level.

The wines produced in the Douro have a great history and they have won several prizes along the way, not only for Port Wine but also for table wines. In 2010, the Wine Enthusiast magazine placed Douro table wines in the top 100.

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