Background of the Douro Valley wine region, Portugal

What can you see when in the Douro Valley?

The Douro Valley is located in the north part of Portugal.

Please, slide your eyes along the Douro river, from the Spanish border until almost to the Atlantic ocean, and you will have an idea of its location.

Please check the Douro Valley wine region on this map. It is marked as number 3, with an orange color.

Please press the wine map to enlarge it.

At Pinhão, in the heart of the Douro Wine Region, if you climb up to a viewpoint, all you will see around are vineyards covering the slopes as far as the eye can see.

Along the Douro River, the various handmade terraces arouse our curiosity for the human effort that was necessary to make it happen.

The Douro Valley wine region has 250,000ha (617.763 acres), of which 45,000ha (111.197 acres) are vineyards.

Port wine tasting is only one of the many reasons tourists visiting the region. However,  quite often they are unaware of Douro wine’s existence, one of the best still wines in this country, in my opinion.

After visiting the Douro Valley, it is easy to understand why this region was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, even without knowing its details.

The whole valley scenario seems to have always been here as a result of ancient evolution. However, I might have a different story for you.

What triggered the beginning of what is today the Douro Valley wine region?

The Douro Valley wine region, with its vineyards, Port wine, and great farms, has not more than 300 years old.

For some cultures, such an age is considerable. For a European country with ancient structures, such as Portugal, three centuries is not that old.

Suppose I have to find “someone to blame” for triggering the establishment of the more significant mountainous wine region in the world.

In that case, I choose Colbert … yes, that same Colbert, who was Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance.

Do you find it odd? Now let’s see what happened after one of his decisions in 1667.

A brief history of the Douro Valley wine region. The oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

In 1667, France and England were not on good terms under Devolution’s War (1667/1668). No wonder it was just one more time. 

This war involved Spain and France as the leading contenders. Still, there was another set of countries involved.

One thing leads to another, and France and England found themselves on opposite sides again. Anyway, I will not develop this subject now.

In this context, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as Finance Minister of Louis XIV, imposed a blockade on importing English products, as expected.

It was also not surprising that the Charles II, of England, in retaliation for the French measure, imposed severe restrictions on French products’ entry into his country. These restrictions limited French wine import, of course.

This was how French wine was no longer allowed to enter British territory.

England needed to find another source of supply since the English consumers were used to French wines.

At that time, in the 17th century, there was already a long relationship between England and Portugal. Since the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, a crucial treaty was the basis for the excellent relationship between these two countries.

At Viana do Castelo, Portugal, there was a substantial contingent of English and Scottish merchants, among other nationalities.

With the cut of relations between France and England, these English and Scots saw an excellent business opportunity exporting Portuguese wines to England.

However, it turns out that the wine initially shipped to England was produced in the region known today as the Vinho Verde region.

We can only assume that was the so-called “Portuguese red”.

Being that the case, this is a slightly spicy and light wine, and it didn’t get many fans among the English, accustomed to French wine with a lot of body and somehow fruity.

So, it was necessary to find other Portuguese wines to export to the English market.

From the Douro Valley, a wine later known as Port wine was the solution. But we are not going to skip steps on this story because we are not yet talking about the “Port Wine” as we know it today,

Having found a suitable table wine in the Douro Valley, these merchants had to transport it from the Douro river mouth to Viana do Castelo.

For those who don’t know the area, the Douro Valley ends at Porto, where the river Douro meets the Atlantic Ocean. Viana do Castelo is at the Lima River’s mouth, 40 minutes north of Porto, by car along the highway. 

In the 17th century, needing the wine at Viana do Castelo would imply a set of laborious tasks:

1) transport the barrels along the river Douro until Porto;

2) at Porto transferring the wine barrels from the riverboats to a boat that could carry the barrels along the coast until Viana do Castelo;

3) at Viana do Castelo, transfer of the barrels to another ship to transport them to England.

The natural solution was to move the cellars from Viana do Castelo to Porto or, to be more precise, to the opposite bank of the Douro River, to Vila Nova de Gaia. This choice of riverbank may also be a subject for a later article.

Therefore, the merchants started to establish themselves at Porto.

Because it was being shipped from the Porto area, the wine won the designation of Port Wine.

The oldest record of exported Port wine from this area dates from 1678.

In 1710 most of the previously established merchants of Viana do Castelo already had cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

To withstand the hardships of a boat trip to England without souring, 

some spirit was added to the wine to stabilize it.

We can say that adding brandy to wine was the first step to fortify the wine. Still, it was not yet Portwine as we know it today.

Some claim that the English played a fundamental role in the “invention” of Port wine because they were the first to fortify it.

Well, well, well:

      • this wine fortification process is not the same fortification process that would start to be used later until today;
      • furthermore, as far as I know, such a fortification method was already used by Portuguese navigators in the 15th century.

So … it seems the claim is a bit void.

Returning to the previous story, the wine was being traded for cod.

That “wine for cod” trade get a new momentum in 1703 the Treaty of Methuen, a more comprehensive trade agreement between Portugal and England.

The Methuen Treaty provided preferential tariffs applied to Portuguese wines into England with the counterpart of preferential tariffs applied to English textiles imported to Portugal and other details.

This agreement was far from being consensual in Portugal, but that is another topic for another post.

Until then, some brandy was added to the wine already produced and before it was shipped, as I mentioned earlier.

There was significant demand for Portuguese wines in England, which brought many profits to both Portuguese and English traders in Portugal.

However, one of the side effects of this increased demand was the stimulation of fraudulent behavior by many merchants. They started to add all kinds of ingredients to weaker wines to make them look like Port.

Elderberry juice to give color to weaker wines, battery sugar, pepper, etc. etc.

Naturally, this behavior turned out to be very harmful to the wine trade, one of the most significant Portuguese export products, if not the most important one.

All those involved in the wine trade suffered from a terrible price drop due to fraudulent behavior.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo could not let this situation deteriorate. His actions would raise Portuguese wine to a level of quality and notoriety it never had.

Allow me some room to introduce Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo was the famous Marquis of Pombal. His triumphant intervention in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1755 gave him incredible power and the king’s confidence.

In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal established the Companhia Geral de Agricultura e Vinhas do Alto Douro, a state-own monopoly Company.

Through this Company, Marquis of Pombal had control of the Port wine trade with England and Brazil.

Any wine to be shipped to these destinations would have to pass through the Company from that time on. The Company would also impose sales prices.

It was a violent but effective way to guarantee:

– the increase in the quality of the product;

– the demarcation of the wine region;

 – It would also turn to be a profitable business for the wine trade’s entire value chain.

As mentioned, Marquis de Pombal established the Company while demarcated the wine region, the Douro Valley wine region.

The Douro Valley wine region was demarcated with 335 granite pillars. It was the region from which the grapes for Port wine production should come.

Those 335 granite pillars were placed at two different times: 201 pillars in 1756 and 134 pillars in 1761.

The Douro Valley is today the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

In 1757, a survey and quality classification of the existing vineyards in the Douro was carried out. The price of the final product would change depending on its quality:

      • if the wine was of exceptional quality, it would be for export, called feitoria wines, “vinhos de feitoria“;
      • if the wine was not of such high quality, it was destined for domestic consumption, it was called branch wines, “vinhos de ramo“.

Nowadays, wine fortification consists of adding a spirit, a kind of brandy, to stop fermentation. 

Because not all the sugar was turned into alcohol yet, Portwine is sweeter than the regular wines, and due to the percentage of added alcohol, the end result is a wine with a higher alcohol level than traditional still wine.

If you are interested to learn more about Portwine and Portwine production, please press here.

This production method, or this fortification way if you prefer, only began to be widespread in the second half of the 18th century. It took almost a hundred years for the method to be universally adopted.

To my knowledge, the first Vintage Port is dated from 1775. What is certain is that the wine from the 1820 harvest was produced with modern fortification and marked a turning point due to its unparalleled quality.

Classification of the Douro Valley Wine Region as World Heritage Site by UNESCO

Returning to the idea that this whole process is Colbert’s “fault”, one can joke saying it was the French minister’s measures in 1667 that lead to Douro Valley becoming a World Heritage Site in 2001.

In fact, in 2001, UNESCO recognized 24,600ha of the Douro Valley area as a World Heritage Site.

Please check the UNESCO website here.

Of course, I say it as a joke, but imagine this huge domino effect from 1667 to 2001 and connect the dots:

    • the interruption of the trade between France and England and the start of Portuguese wine being shipped to England
    • switching the wine trade from Viana do Castelo to Vila Nova de Gaia, in the 17th century,
    • start selling Douro Valley wines,
    • and the construction of the terraces in the Douro Valley.

There was an extraordinary human intervention in the Douro Valley since 1667, which called our attention to this remarkable Valley as we see today.

The terraces

Before finishing this post, I do not want to forget an essential element of the Valley, the terraces.

Over time the Douro Valley was transformed memorably with the construction of the terraces.

Nowadays, terraces are an integral part of the Valley, and they give a distinctive character to the landscape.

Vineyards have been planted in the Douro Valley since antiquity. When the Romans occupied the territory, the wine was already made there.

But it was only from the 16th century that the vineyards were planted for commercial purposes.

We can imagine the landscape before the 17th century with the slopes full of cereal fields. Today, our eyes are lost among vineyards to the horizon, and these vineyards are planted in terraces.

The Douro Valley, outside the wine region

Nowadays, visit the part of the Douro Valley that is not in the demarcated wine region. You will see how different this area is in comparison with the wine area.

Thus, while we appreciate the Douro Valley landscape, it is the terraces that stand out the most.

But, who built them?

I don’t know any records of how it all started, but it is known that they began to be built before the 17th century.

There are detailed records of the farms’ (quintas) construction, but I do not know about the development of the terraces records. It is as if they had simply appeared in the landscape.

When the terraces were built, there was no machinery to build them.

They were made by hand, mainly by men and children, because at that time, women did not participate in these tasks.

We know that many of the people who built the terraces were Galicians; they were called “galegos”.

The names of these workers were never registered. Still, without them, we would not have the landscape that today characterizes the Douro Valley.


I hope that, with this text, I started by explaining the basis for the start of the Douro Valley.

I hope to return to this topic to explore other perspectives, such as the problems that the Douro Valley has faced over time and other points.

Carpe diem.
David Monteiro

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