About Douro

Douro Wine Region (DWR)

The history of the Douro Wine Region and its economic importance are closely related and broadly documented; given the nature of our company, we are nonetheless compelled to present here a comprehensive summary on the subject, for a better understanding of the Port and the Douro protected designations of origin and the Regional Douro protected geographical indication.

The history of the Douro Wine Region (DWR) and its economic importance are closely related, and broadly documented; given the nature of our company, we are nonetheless compelled to present here a comprehensive summary on the subject, for a better understanding of the Port and the Douro protected designations of origin and the protected geographical indication Regional Douro.

The Alto Douro Wine Region (ADWR) is since 2001 inscribed in the World Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a cultural site; the justification for such inscription was based in three criteria, one being the fact that wine has been produced there for nearly two thousand years – a long tradition of viticulture that has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution.

Recent archaeological findings showed the presence of ancient human settlements in the more sheltered valleys of the Douro and its tributaries, and seeds of Vitis vinifera were found at a four-thousand-year-old Chalcolithic archaeological site in the ADWR; but it is with the expansion of Rome, when viticulture and winemaking spread to every part of the Empire, that up-to-date technology and modern practices reach the Douro valley – the more significant relics uncovered date to the Roman occupation and, more precisely, to the end of the Western Empire (3rd and 4th centuries AD).

During the Middle Ages and until the birth of Portugal as a nation in the 12th century, the ADWR was ruled in turn by the Suevi (5th century), the Visigoths (6th century), and the Moors (8th– 11th centuries); the Christians would reconquer Iberia to the Moors, but in the Douro valley miscegenation and the tradition of cultural acceptance would continue and prosper; and viticulture would increase during the period of the establishment and growth of several religious communities, namely Cistercians, whose importance to the economy was particularly noteworthy from the mid-12th century onwards; these communities invested in extensive vineyards in the best areas and created many notable Estates.

The end of the Middle Ages saw an increase in population, agriculture and commercial exchanges, and long-distance trade flourished, namely the shipping of products from the Douro valley down river to the city of Oporto, linked with the major European trading routes; one of such routes exchanged Portuguese olive oil and fruit for English textiles since the 13th century in a much successful way.

But it would be in the 18th century that the landscape in the Douro Wine Region would significantly change for the first time with an increase of its vineyards – when the English began their quest for wines from the Douro valley. By that time, Portugal and England already had a long and close relationship and granted each other trade and military privileges; when the war between France and England broke out, in 1689, and the English were forbidden to drink French wines, the demand for Portuguese wines increased significantly.

It should be said that the wines from the Douro valley were early referred to as “Port wines” – the first reference dating back to 1675 in a shipping document for Holland; yet, these “Port wines” were not what they are today; today, Port wines are added brandy before finishing fermenting as part of their production process, but back then the adding of brandy was a controversial practice, therefore, some Shippers would add them brandy and others would not; and those who did, did it, most of times, just before the shipping, to fortify them against the demanding conditions of the sea journey – a higher alcohol content would prevent spoilage; and it was not before the 1850’s that the fortification of wines from the Douro region became a common practice. In fact, these wines were already robust when compared with other Portuguese wines – with more coloring matter, tannins and alcohol – but fortification, as done today, i.e., interrupting the fermentation, was found to result in wines that were sweeter and more aromatic, and of greater appeal to the English – who, at that time, were the main consumers of “Port wines”.

Then, in 1703, Portugal and England signed the Methuen’s Treaty – a military and trade agreement that specifically privileged the wines from the Douro valley, i.e., “Port wines”. In the years that followed there was great prosperity among producers (the growers who owned the vineyards in the Douro valley) and traders (Shippers who owned the warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, the city across from Oporto (Porto), in the mouth of the Douro river), but the English demand for “Port wines” was far greater than the offer, and great were the profits, which opened the door to greed and, with it, the out-of-control plantation of vineyards, speculation and fraudulent practices – among such practices were the adding of elderberry (for color) and the fortification (for alcohol) of wines of lesser quality or from other wine regions of Portugal.

In result, quality catastrophically fell and the exports of “Port wines” dropped to disastrous and prices crashed; overproduction was to follow.

So, in an attempt to control the situation, in 1756 a state Monopoly arose: the Douro Wine Region was demarcated and regulated, and until 1834, despite the political changes and continuous lobbying pressure, the Portuguese government managed to control the trade of its wines, and monopolize Port Wine exports to England and Brazil, which until 1822 was Portuguese territory; it did so by establishing the “Companhia Geral dos Vinhos do Alto Douro”, also aimed at maintaining quality and balancing production and trade – boundaries for the vineyard area were established with 335 stone pillars, and the first comprehensive classification of the vineyards was carried out – the best areas were allowed the production of wines for export while the others were restricted for the production of wines to the domestic market – and the exports of “Port wines” were to be carried out solely from the mouth of the Douro river, i.e., from Gaia or Oporto.

(It is generally accepted that the Douro Wine Region was the first Wine Region in world to be both demarcated and regulated.)

The first half of the 19th century was marked by the Peninsular war and by the Portuguese civil war – both had a negative effect on the exports of Port Wine; however, despite these, the English market was consolidated during the first half of the century, and so was the Brazilian market; furthermore, probably due to the Monopoly of the state on the exports of Port Wine to these two countries, the Shippers managed to market Port wines to many other countries in a much successful way, namely to Russia and to the USA.

The second half of the 19th century marked another turning point in the Douro Wine Region, not only in terms of its viticultural landscape but also on a real estate ownership level – both the plagues of Oidium in the 1850’s, but mostly of Phyloxera, reaching the Douro valley in 1865, would have destroyed over 2/3 of the vineyards in the Douro demarcated region by 1890 – viticulturists and winegrowers saw themselves deprived of their way to earn a living and most of them were gradually forced to abandon their property and seek for other ways to support themselves; after this period, by the turn of the century, large Companies would emerge in the Douro Wine Region, owned by the very few investors who could afford and had the vision to cease the opportunity of buying the destroyed vineyards and abandoned Estates for the low prices dictated by the Phyloxera plague.

Also, in 1865, under a recent liberal regime, the government established a free-trade policy to the Douro region, leading to the opening of the line of demarcation and enabling the rapid expansion of vineyards upper the Douro river, where the effects of the Phylloxera would still appear, but later though, and less violently – wines could again be exported from the Douro valley (this would last until 1907, and meant the end of the protectionist regime which had benefited the Douro Wine Region since it had been demarcated in 1756).

Yet, the exports of Port wines carried out from the Douro valley would start to decrease from around this time, i.e., from the 70’s onwards: until then, the “single Estate wines”, i.e., the wines that were produced and marketed by individual winegrowers in the Douro valley, were the most exported by the Shippers (the traders settled in Gaia – most of them foreign, and mainly English, but there were also Scottish, Dutch and even German Shippers); but the quality of these wines lacked consistency and the Shippers needed to surpass such problem and become independent of the unpredictability of individual winegrowers, so they gradually replaced these wines by their own ones – wines which, primarily, were just blended, or aged and blended in the Shippers’ warehouses, but that latter would also be fermented and fortified by the Shippers – thus creating their own house-brands and marketing them worldwide.

By the end of the 19th century, while the Douro region was struggling to put itself together, counterfeited Port wines emerged and took advantage – in some European countries fortified wines were being massively produced and exported under the designation “Port”.

The low productions had led to a general price raise; the liberalization, on its turn, led to poor quality; and both to the direct competition of counterfeited Port wines.

Then, again, the state took control of the situation: in 1907, the government decreed to regulate the production, sale, export and control of Port wines, based on the same principles applied by the Marquis of Pombal in 1756, and new lines of demarcation were drawn, now including the upper region of the Douro valley. Once again, the exports of Port wines had to be carried out from the mouth of the Douro river; the Port designation of origin was reserved exclusively to the fortified wines from the Douro with at least 16,5% in alcohol by volume and the responsibility for defending and controlling the designation of origin was to the “Viticultural Committee for the Douro Region” which would be replaced by the Institute of Port Wine, in 1933.

The excessive enlargement of the demarcated region in 1907 led to the later demarcation by parishes in 1908, which resulted in a total area similar to the one that exists today, and to the one established in 1921.

In 1926, the Portuguese government (a military dictatorship that followed the uprising of May the 28th) established the bounded area of Gaia – and Port wine exports would not be allowed to be carried out from the Douro valley until 1986 – thus much limiting the access of winegrowers in the Douro Wine Region to the foreign markets; exports were to be carried out solely by the “status quo”, i.e., from the Shippers’ warehouses, for long settled in Gaia. This would create a severe fracture between “Production” (viticulturists and winegrowers who owned most of the vineyards in the DWR) and “Trade” (Shippers who owned mostly warehouses in Gaia).

Since 1908 and until 1932, the “Production” was both organized and under the purview of the Viticulture Commission of the Douro Region; the first Republic of Portugal lasted from 1910 to 1926 and the first period of the Second Republic (a dictatorship regime) ended in 1933 – in this period, local Farmers’ Guilds were established; these would later be syndicated and then, in 1932, by government decree, were to be represented by municipality syndicates in the Federation of Farmers of the Douro Region – the “Casa do Douro”; in the year of 1933 the Port Wine Shippers’ Guild would also be regulated by government decree and, at the exact same time, the Port Wine Institute was established.

Until then (1933), the institutional organization around Port would still include, in addition to the “Viticulture Commission of the Douro Region” and the “Port Wine Shippers’ Guild”, the “Commercial Association of Oporto”, the “Agricultural and Commercial Commission of the Douro Wines” and the “Inspective Commission of Port Wine Exports”; but from 1933 to 1974 both the “Casa do Douro” and the “Port Wine Shippers’ Guild” were to be under the prevue of the Port Wine Institute.

The “Casa do Douro” had among its duties to balance the offer and the demand – to do so, it would also purchase production surpluses; yet, it was the Casa do Douro that determined each year the amount of Port wine allowed to be produced. When of its establishment, the register of the vineyards was updated and from then on, each year, according to the location, the nature of the soil, the varieties and the age of the vines, the Casa do Douro would apportion licenses amongst all the registered viticulturists for the production of a set amount of fortified wines, according to their classification (from A, the best, to F) for a set minimum price – this is called the “benefício” system, a system still in use today, although (now) not including the “minimum price” part – “benefício” meaning “benefit”, i.e., to benefit from the addition of brandy – as in “the benefited musts”; the “system” being the classification of the vineyards and their rating for the annual apportion of benefit.

When most producers and exporters were engaged in the “Port issues”, each side lobbying as it could, state dependence and bureaucracy scaled; but a few ceased the opportunity to much further research and develop the production of plain and “simple” Douro wines, i.e., wines from the Douro demarcated region, as they are – not fortified wines from the Douro (i.e. Port wines), just wines from the region – in the end, the wines that started its greatness. Of course, non-fortified wines from the Douro had always been produced, but they had always been destined to domestic consumption; to market these wines across the globe would be a challenge, but those who started it, soon saw return for their efforts. Although production was limited to a certain degree, as it is today for any protected designation of origin in Europe, there was no “benefit” system for Douro wines – and today there are many reputed brands of Douro wines marketed to almost any country in the world.

Some Douro wines are produced for immediate consumption, but others are produced for long-aging in bottle; the “neo-production” of Douro wines started by the red, but today there are many outstanding Douro white wines and also rosé wines; there are innumerous mesoclimates in the Douro valley and, although the soils are predominantly schist, some see the presence of quartz veins, others of inclusions of granite or granitic outcrops, etc.… – so, to a certain extent, the soils are diverse; the altitude range in the DWR also varies significantly – with the most common 300-600m it can be as low as nearly 100m and as high as approximately 800m; and the varieties, although the most common traditional ones outcome by far the others, reach the hundreds – sometimes mixed altogether in very old vines (some cannot even be classified as a variety because they are unique specimens – so old are those vines!; some pre-dating the Phyloxera plague). But the Douro typicity is always present in the Douro wines, always there – the Douro character: unique, but diverse.

The establishment of a democratic regime since 1974, and the joining of Portugal to the EU in 1986 made the 1980’s a decade of freedom and progress in Portugal – and the Douro demarcated region would start its democratization process and its technological advent; from 1988 onwards, a new-generation of Oenologists would also be born to Portugal with the establishment of the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, the first in the Iberia Peninsula to have a License Degree in Oenology – and the Douro demarcated region could now count with licensed professionals.

1974 signs the end of the second period of the Second Republic; the end of the dictatorship regime which lasted from 1933; free elections were soon to come, but despite these and up to 1986, things would not change much in what concerns Port wine and its institutional organization, although some larger winegrowers were able to associate and establish warehouses in Gaia (some started to export their own brands since 1978) and there was also the merging of some Shippers into larger Companies (a process that would end-up in something similar to an Oligopoly by the turn of the 21st century).

It would be the law of May the 7th, in the year of 1986 – when Portugal joined the European Union and the EU rules and regulations enforced free-trade – that would start the most significant changes in the course of the Port wine production and trade; one of such changes was that the winegrowers in the Douro demarcated region were now (again) entitled to export Port wines independently, i.e., from their wineries settled in the Douro region; the exports of Port wine were no longer to be carried-out solely from the Douro river mouth, in Gaia, from the Shippers’ warehouses – however, severe limiting conditions continued and continue to exist today to start business in Port wine, both for winegrowers and for “new-traders”.

In 1995 and until 2003 the Douro demarcated region was under the purview of CIRDD – the Inter-professional Commission for the Demarcated Region of the Douro – on which producers and traders had an “equivalent” representation.

International trade agreements specifically demanding the protection of the Port designation of origin are negotiated by the EU from 1986 onwards – innumerous rules and regulations are laid down and national laws around it are revoked and amended by the thousands.

Today, the DWR is under the purview of IVDP, I. P. – Douro and Port Wine Institute (a public institute included in the indirect administration of the Portuguese state) – among its duties, it is to IVDP, I.P. to promote the convergence of interests of producers and traders in defense of the general interest of the Douro Wine Region – the Douro demarcated region; to discipline, control and supervise the production and the trade of wines produced in the Douro demarcated region, promote and guarantee their quality, and sanction all infractions of the rules and regulations governing wines and wine products from the Douro demarcated region; to control, promote and defend the DWR protected designations of origin – Douro and Port – and the protected geographical indication – Regional Douro – as well as to control the remaining wines and wine products that are produced, made-up from or transit through the DWR.

Today, the Douro demarcated region comprises these two protected designations of origin: Port and Douro; and the protected geographical indication: regional Douro; it produces still, sparkling and fortified wines and, under these, several styles under several categories; the demarcated region (area) is the same for any of its protected designations of origin and protected geographical indication; the varieties are also the same, although only the traditional ones are allowed for the production of Port and Douro wines and only the classified vineyards are allowed the “benefit”.

Please email us for the comprehensive bibliography behind the above text or for further information or any question concerning Douro, Port and regional Douro wines.

For official information and statistics concerning Douro, Port and regional Douro wines, please visit the Douro and Port Wine Institute website (IVDP, I.P.) at ivdp.pt