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A very short history

Port wine has been around for literally hundreds of years.  Without getting into extensive details, of which any can be researched if your interest is really piqued, suffice it to say that politics has played a big part.  England has long had both a fondness for French wines as well as a long history of…disagreements…with the French people.  In the latter half of the 17th century, England banned French wine imports.  However, still enjoying the juice of the grape, England turned to Portugal to supplement the increased shortage of good wine.

In the early 1700′s, England and Portugal signed a treaty that gave Portugal a much more attractive tariff rate than France and within a few years, Portuguese wines accounted for more than half of all wine imported to England.

Fortified wine had been enjoyed for centuries but in a monastery in a little Portuguese town, that fortification was being done in a somewhat different method.  Rather than adding spirits after fermentation, it was being added during fermentation.  Basically this killed the yeast cells earlier and resulted in higher residual sugar, which not only made it sweeter (obviously) but also increased the alcohol levels.

Over the years many other dramatic changes came about.  The Douro Wine Company was created to regulate the trade.  The Port wine trade overall increased immensely between Portugal and England.  The Napoleonic Wars then came along and the Douro wine growers suffered because of French occupation which sealed off their exports to England.  Eventually the French left but sales back to England took considerable time to reach the levels they once were.

Portugal then looked to their colonies in West Africa and South America.  By setting up some rather monopolistic policies, they enjoyed a few years of increased income from places like Rio De Janeiro.  However Brazilian independence happened and that market all but dried up leaving Portugal with few places to export.

Now…just to throw more fuel on the fire, the phylloxera epidemic, that all but wiped out Europe’s vineyards, finally reached Portugal in the latter part of the 19th century.  This very painful part of their history also brought out some benefit however.  Some vineyards never replanted their grape vines but changed what they were growing altogether.  One of those changes was cork and that has helped make Portugal one of the world’s leading cork producers.

More political changes, democracy and eventual entry to the European Union have all impacted the Portuguese wine industry.  Greater stability brought more foreign investment which in turn led to upgrading overall winemaking technologies.  Now more Portuguese wine makers are making excellent dry wines in addition to their fabulous ports.  Others, outside the Douro area, are now making fortified wines (which cannot legally be called Port).  Expansion abounds, and for the most part, has been a very good thing for the industry as a whole.

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