Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Origins of Port: Part 1

"All wine would be Port if it could."
--Portuguese Proverb

When was the last time you opened a Port? Do you still believe that Port is primarily a drink for stuffy old Brits who smoke cigars? As Port consumption in the U.S. is very low, it is likely many of you rarely, if ever, open a bottle of Port. To increase its popularity, consumers need to know more about it, to understand its diversity, depth and deliciousness. The myths and misconceptions about Port need to be shattered. Why deprive yourself of such a fascinating wine?

Port, also known as Porto and Vinho do Porto, is a fortified wine (which means alcohol has been added to it) produced in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. The Douro is sub-divided into three official zones: the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The region contains about 90,000 acres of vineyards, and it is a very challenging area for growing vines. Most of the vineyards are located on steep slopes and the soil is a tough, rocky schist. Yet the region has a rich and complex wine history, extending back at least over 2500 years.

In 2010, about 6.7 million cases of Port were produced, a reduction of over 10% since 2007, and production has unfortunately been on a continual decline. It will likely surprise you that the largest purchaser of Port is now France, which buys about 28.5% of all Port production. In fact, France became the top buyer of Port way back in 1963 and has maintained its top position ever since. Holland, in second place, purchases about 14.2% while Portugal itself, in a close third place, purchases about 14%. Great Britain, which once was the primary consumer of Port, now occupies fourth place.

The United States occupies sixth place, buying only 3.9%, roughly 374,000 cases of Port which includes 107,000 Reserve Ports, 77,000 Ruby and 70,000 Tawny. U.S. purchases of Port have been generally declining from a high of 4.6% in 2006, except for a slight boost in 2010, up from 3.8% in 2009. So Port in the U.S. needs some support as obviously not enough people are enjoying the pleasures of Port.

A good beginning to your enhancing your comprehension of Port might be to examine the intriguing history of Portugal and the Douro wine region. In a short series of articles, I will explore some of the history of Portugal, the Douro and Port wine, from ancient times to the present. Obviously I won't be able to cover everything but I’ll try to describe a number of the highlights, along with presenting some interesting anecdotes and trivia. My hope is that you will get drawn into the history of this region and be inspired to try some Port.

Please note that some of this history is speculative, especially the more ancient history, and different sources may provide varied opinions on certain issues.

--Ancient Times

There were some native Iberians inhabiting the lands of Portugal when the first invading tribes, Celts, arrived early in the first millenium BC and these Celts later became known as Lusitanians. They settled mostly in the north of Portugal. In the south of Portugal, the ancient Tartessians settled, who also had created communities in southern Spain. Little factual is known about the Tartessians and there is some evidence that they might have been the source for the Atlantis myth. Legends also claim that the Tartessians possessed great wealth, acquired from rich silver mines.

Sometime between 1100 BC to 800 BC, the Phoenicians founded some small settlements in southern Portugal. For at least a few hundred years, the Tartessians became trading partners with the Phoenicians. But, the Tartessians abruptly and very mysteriously vanished during the 6th century BC. Though an explanation for their disappearance is unknown, there is strong speculation that the Phoenicians eventually grew tired of trade and decided instead to conquer them, claiming their vast fortune.

The Phoenicians may have brought the cultivation of vines to Portugal but that is still questionable. They were quite skilled at producing wine, exporting them across the Mediterranean and their wines were highly prized. They were not selfish with their viticultural and wine making knowledge, sharing it with numerous countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. This enabled those regions to either start wine making, or hone their existing skills. If so, viticulture was mostly centered around the southern coastal areas of Portugal.

The Greeks and Carthaginians would later form their own settlements in Portugal and continued the winemaking in this region, though some claim that the Greeks, not the Phoenicians, were the first to introduce vineyards into Portugal. In any case, it is also thought that the Greeks and Carthaginians might have started to spread viticulture further north into Portugal, possibly even into the Douro region. But any such wine making was likely on a small scale, and it would take the Romans to ramp up production.

Around 146 BC, at the end of the Third Punic War, the Romans defeated Carthage, destroying their city, and later annexing their colonies. The Romans moved into Spain and around 137 BC, they crossed the Douro River from the north into Portugal and chose to name this region Lusitania. The actual derivation of this name is in question though the word "lusus" roughly translates as "game." There is a myth claiming that the name derives from Lusus, the son of the Roman god of wine Bacchus. If so, this could indicate the importance of wine production in Portugal to the Romans.

The Romans couldn't just walk into Portugal and easily claim all of the land. Instead, they met heavy resistance from the Celts, led by the warrior Viriathus. Sometimes referred to as the War of Fire, Viriathus was able to successfully resist the Romans for a number of years, having been defeated in battle by the Romans only once. He was one of the most successful generals to ever oppose the Romans, though many people today have never heard of him. Ultimately, the Romans resorted to treachery, and Viriathus was betrayed and murdered by a few of his own people. The Romans would then go on to conquer Lusitania though there would be scattered resistance for years to come.

As they did elsewhere in the foreign lands they conquered, the Romans spread viticulture through Portugal, though they preferred to settle in the south, which was perfect for growing wheat, olives, and grapes. Still, they planted at least a few vineyards in the Douro region to the north. Though much of the wine was consumed locally, some was exported as well to other parts of the Roman Empire. In time, all of these foreign provinces were so successful that Italian wine producers had difficulty competing.

In 62 AD, to protect the Italian wineries, Emperor Domitian enacted an order that half of the vineyards located outside of Italy, which would include the vineyards in Portugal, were to be destroyed. Fortunately, the order was largely ignored and was very difficult to enforce so few vineyards, if any, were eliminated. But it remained a law on the books until 282 A.D., when Emperor Probus finally rescinded it.

When the Roman conquered Lusitania, there was an existing settlement named Cale at the mouth of the Douro River. The origins of Cale are unknown, possibly having been founded by Celts, Greeks or others. The derivation of the name is also in question and one theory is that it might have come from the Greek word "kallis" which means "beautiful." The Romans renamed it Portus Cale, the Port of Cale, which is not much of a real change but it would turn out to be significant as it became the eventual derivation of "Portugal."

When the Roman Empire fell, a number of different barbarian tribes took the opportunity to invade Portugal. For example, the Suevi settled in the north, including the Douro region, making their capital Bracara Augusta, which is now known as Braga. They spent much time battling the Visigoths who had also settled in the area. Despite their battling, the various tribes maintained and protected viticulture in the region. As an example, in 850 AD, Ordoño, the Gothic king of Asturias, granted rights to own land and operate vineyards to a group of Christian monks.

Under the rule of these tribes, the region around the town of Portus Cale started to be known as Portucale, and sometime during the 7th or 8th century, that evolved into Portugale. By the 9th century, Portugale was expanded to refer to the area between the Douro and Minho rivers. Finally, by the 11th and 12th century, Portugale became known simply as Portugal. The actual city which had originally been Cale became known as Porto, to which it is still known today.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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