Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Douro: The Making of a Wine Region

Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend revolved around immersion of 11 of the magazine's readers into the production and enjoyment of the namesake wine.  After a welcome lunch and a tour and dinner at The Factory House, we turned our attention fully to the wines of the region.  Before describing these adventures, I will spend some time detailing the wine region, beginning with its formulation and evolution.

Portugal is home to a large number of indigenous grape varietals but is best known for its Port wine; and it is in the Douro region that the production of this fortified wine has reached its pinnacle.  Wine has been produced in the Douro for thousands of years but its importance on the world trade market came about as a direct result of the ongoing conflicts between France and England.  The British have historically been partial to "claret" from Bordeaux but supplies ebbed and flowed depending on the state of affairs that existed between these two countries at any point in time.  Seeking alternative sources of supply, British merchants seized upon the wines of Douro which were robust and could be easily shipped from Porto to England.  These wines did not stand up well to the Atlantic voyage, however, and brandy was added to the mix to stabilize it.  This solution worked and, over time, it was seen to improve the acceptability of the wines to British palates.  Under the Methuen Treaty of 1703, England granted preferential duties to the Portuguese and, for the next 100 years, became the largest market for Douro wines.

For many a year, trade between the British Port shippers and Portuguese growers followed a pattern where the wine was brought down-river by the growers and then fortified by the shippers prior to export.  Over time, incursion into each others traditional role occurred.  Shippers began travelling upriver in search of land for their own vineyards while growers began fortifying wine before shipping it down to Porto.  The shippers did not like this incursion into their area of responsibility as they felt that it provided scope for adulteration of the wine.  The issue came to a head after a particularly bad harvest in 1955 when the shippers told the growers that they would not purchase any more Duero wines if adulteration did not cease.  The growers sent a delegation to the Prime Minister, Marques de Pombal, who promptly established a company under royal charter (Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Alto Douro) with the power to set prices and regulate the production of Port. 

As a part of this process, Pombal demarcated the boundaries of the Port region and classified the estates as to suitability for production of export wines.  The Port region was demarcated with 335 granite markers, each with the word FEITORIA and the date (either 1758 or 1761) carved on the side facing the road.  The vineyards were classified A-F based on points awarded in categories to include: altitude, productivity, incline, aspect, sun exposure, and vine age.  The Douro thus became the third region in the world to be demarcated -- after Chianti (1716) and Tokaj (1730) -- but the first to be both demarcated and protected.

Travel on the Douro beyond the Valeria cataract was historically very difficult and dangerous and, as a result, very little vine-growing activity took place beyond the cataract.  The offending block of granite was removed from the Valeria canyon between 1780 and 1791, opening up the area beyond for vine planting.  This area came to be known as the Upper Douro.  When the dictator Franco took office in 1907, he signed a decree regulating Port production and sale based on the principles established by Pombal 150 years earlier.  In that decree he extended the Douro demarcation zone to include the Upper Douro sub-region.

In 1936 Portugal adopted a new provincial scheme, based on the work of geographer Amorim Girão, which divided the the country into 13 natural regions.  Under this new schema, what had been the Douro now fell into two provinces: Duoro Litoral and Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro.  The demarcation point between these two provinces was thus used to divide the sub-Valeria Douro into the Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo sub-regions of the Douro region.

In my next post I will discuss the physical characteristics of the Douro wine region.

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