The History of Port

The vineyards of Portugal's Douro Valley.
By Cameron Hewitt

Port is actually a British phenomenon. Because Britain isn't suitable for growing wine, they traditionally imported it from France. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain outlawed the import of French wines, and looked elsewhere for wine. They considered Portugal — but since it was farther away, wine often didn't survive the long sea journey to England.

The port-making process was supposedly invented accidentally by a pair of brothers who fortified the wine with grape brandy to maintain its quality during the long trip to England. Port production was perfected by the British in the succeeding centuries, and many ports carry British-sounding names (Taylor, Croft, Graham).

In 1703, the Methuen Treaty reduced taxation on Portuguese wines — making port even more popular. In 1756, Portugal's Marquês de Pombal demarcated the Douro region — the first such designation in Europe. From that point on, only true "port wine" came from this region, following specific regulations of production (just as the name "champagne" technically means wines from a specific region of France).

Traditionally, farmers and landowners were Portuguese, while the British bought the wine from them, aged it in Porto, and handled the export business. But in the late 19th century, an infestation of an American insect called phylloxera (which smuggled itself to the Old World in the humid climate of speedy steamboats) devastated the Portuguese — and European — wine industry.

In the Douro Valley you'll see lasting evidence of the phylloxera infestations in the "dead" terraces, overgrown with weeds and a smattering of olive trees. During the infestations, these particular terraces were treated with harsh chemicals that contaminated the soil, rendering it suitable only for growing olives but not grapes. Other terraces were left untouched as Portuguese vintners simply gave up. Unable to produce usable grapes for over a decade, they sold their land to British companies who were willing to wait until a solution could be found. It was, as phylloxera-resistant American root stock began to be used throughout Europe. Port production resumed, this time on British-owned land.

Today Porto and the Douro Valley see many British tourists. Though it's largely undiscovered by Americans, this region is a real hotspot among wine-loving Brits.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of several Rick Steves guidebooks.