The History of Port Wine

Two boats on Douro River with Porto in background, Portugal

While Port, the sweet dessert wine, is closely associated with Portugal, it was actually an overseas journey that led to its creation. Because of a series of wars between the British and French during the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain had to look for other sources of wine. Just down the Iberian Peninsula, they discovered Portugal’s Douro Valley.

The region’s rich soil and terraced vineyards produced stunning wines, and the Douro River—which runs through the valley—allowed for easy transportation to the Atlantic coast. But there was one problem: The coastal town of Oporto—now Porto—was much further from Britain than the French ports had been, and many of the wines couldn’t survive the long voyage.

To fortify the wine for overseas export, a small amount of brandy was added. This halts fermentation and yields higher levels of alcohol and residual sugar, which creates Port’s signature sweet taste. Pair a bottle of Port with chocolate ganache truffles, a blue cheese, and walnuts for a heavenly dessert platter 

Because Porto was the hub of transportation for the wine trade, the fortified drink came to be known as Port. In 1757, Portugal’s Marquês de Pombal took steps to protect this vital export. He demarcated the Douro Valley so that only wines from this specific region could be classified as true Port wine. The decree also set forth strict standards and wine production regulations to ensure quality. This was the first designation of its kind; France and Italy later followed suit, with their AOC/AOP and DOC/DOCG designations, as did many other wine-producing countries.  

Wine production is thriving in the region today, and no trip to Spain or Portugal is complete without visiting the Douro River valley. Porto’s historic roots are still very much alive, and the city provides an excellent snapshot of traditional Portuguese culture. The historic center of the city, the Ribeira district, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ribeira’s colorful buildings, shops, and taverns line the riverfront, and it’s a perfect spot to spend an afternoon. World-famous contemporary architecture, like the Casa da Música, offers a cutting-edge complement to Porto’s old-world charm.

Douro River, Portugal

Explore the nearby wineries that have been producing Port for hundreds of years and taste the wines that were grown right where you stand. The vineyard-covered hillsides along the banks of the Douro River create some of the most uniquely beautiful wine countries you’ll see anywhere in the world!

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