Port and the Douro River: A 2,000 year-old tradition

As you gently cruise along Portugal's Douro River, you follow the path of one of the world's oldest wine industries...
For over 2,000 years, the sun-drenched banks of the Douro in northern Portugal has been home to a thriving viticulture. While the Romans are often credited as being the first to bring grape vines to the Douro Valley, some sources indicate that wine was actually produced in the region even further back in antiquity. Regardless of who planted the first vine, what has grown here since has become one of the most celebrated and historic wine cultures in the world. And when thinking of wine in Portugal, there is one word in particular that comes to mind. Port. 

While Portugal has gained recognition for its Vene Verde and Madeira Wine, it's the fortified Port wine from the Douro Valley which has made this small Iberian nation a top destination for wine lovers and culture enthusiasts. But what is Port exactly, and what is its relationship to the Douro River and the city Porto after which it's named?

The following article will take you on a journey through the history of Port — describing both how it is produced and the role it has played in shaping Portugal's most stunning waterway and the timeless settlements which line its banks.

Thinking of embarking on a river cruise along the winding Douro for yourself? View our exciting Portugal river cruises today and start planning to explore one of Europe's greatest wine regions.

What is Port?

If you were to try a glass of Port, it is likely that the most distinguishing feature you'd notice is just how sweet it is compared to other wines. This hallmark sweetness results from the wine being fortified by the addition of aguardente vínica, a distilled grape spirit, which stops the original wine's fermentation process. Doing so means more sugars are left in the mix which make for a rather sweet (and stronger!) fortified beverage.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Port is now typically served as a dessert wine, although dry or semi-dry varieties do exist. While wines made in a similar fashion are produced all around the world, only those from Portugal are allowed to be designated as Port. Thus, this delectable beverage has become synonymous with Portuguese culture and is an immense source of pride for the Portuguese themselves. 

The history of Port

Early beginnings (1100 - 1300)

As mentioned above, wine was being produced along the Douro River as far back as antiquity, with the Romans quite possibly being the first to introduce it in the 2nd Century BCE. By the time the Kingdom of Portugal was established in 1143 by Alfonso I, the cultivating and producing of wine had become a deeply embedded cultural, social and economic practice. This was especially the case fore those in Portugal's hilly northern region which saw the lions share of wine cultivation. As such, wine came to play a critical role for the entirety of the upstart kingdom as it developed into one of Portugal's most important trade exports.

The latter half of the 14th century saw a boom in economic activity for Portugal after the signing of the Treaty of Windsor with the country's European ally, England. Wine from the Douro Valley was a favourite among British merchants who often traded salted cod for it — a dish which would in-turn become a Portuguese staple. Along with a growing merchant class, this period saw the rise of several notable coastal settlements in Portugal which would help propel both the export of wine and the Age of Discovery. Notable among them was the northern city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River. Eventually, this city would become the hub for Port wine and the place after which the renowned fortified beverage took its name. 
Port is born (1500-1700)

By the 1600's, the wine-trade dramatically surged with England as political tensions between England and France led the English government to increase the cost of duty on French imports. This led to greater attention being payed to the wines from Portugal's hilly Douro Valley which were naturally heavier and of a fuller body than other Portuguese wines, and thus more similar to the French wines that the English consumer had grown accustomed to.

Due the complications of shipping these wines by land through the rugged terrain of northern Portugal, shipments of Douro Valley wines reached Porto by the river itself. They were stored in Port wine cellars on the Douro before being transported on unique flat-bottom boats known as 'rabelos'. The long sea voyage to England further required some ingenuity in order for the precious cargo to arrive unspoiled. To fortify it against the rigors of sea, brandy was at times added to Portuguese wine before it had finished fermenting. Although this process is similar to the common method of production of Port, the addition of brandy was not as integral to process of making Port wine as it is today. In fact, it wouldn't be until the 18th century when the addition of a fortifying spirit became a definitive feature in this kind of wine.

Modern port wine arrives (1700 - 21st Century)

The years between the mid-18th and early-19th centuries were arguably the most important for the establishing of modern Port. For starters, in 1756, during the rule of the Marquis of Pombal, the Douro Valley became just the third protected wine region in the world. Along with setting an official standard for the wines produced in the region, this also secured a Portugal as steady exporter of wine. The increased demand for Port meant more barrels of wine having to be stored in Porto before being shipped overseas. As a result, the fortification technique became more and more necessary for the business of port wine. And while it did help with the storage of Port both at home and while at sea, it should also be noted that by this time the sweeter and heavier fortified wines making their way down the Douro had become highly regarded and in many cases preferred for their rich aromatic flavours, especially by the English. 

Today, it would be hard to think of Portuguese wine without Port coming to mind. Shaped by the land, economy and its history, Port wine is truly synonymous with Portugal. And thanks to the decrees of the Marquis of Pombal, it is a treat which will be produced along the sun-drenched shores of the Douro River for many more years to come.

Exploring the Douro Valley

As the birthplace of Port, the stunning Douro Valley is the perfect destination for those seeking the history and vintages that have made this region so renowned. Taking you from the ancient city of Porto, and stopping at some of Portugal's oldest vineyards, an Emerald Cruises river cruise along the winding Douro is the perfect way to be immersed in Portugal's viticulture.