Port – The British Connection

The Festive period promotes an interest in Port – to go with the Stilton.(Why not all year round – but that’s a discussion for another day?) As with all matters “Vinelives-ian”, the story behind it all is, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating.

As you may know, it’s what’s called a fortified wine – that means it is “fortified” with added alcohol (like the drinker becomes!). And this all came about from necessity. Port-style wines are made in many places, California, South Africa, Australia and others. But to be Port it has to be made in Portugal. (I suspect the name is protected but need to check that – any offers?  info@vinelives.com .)  

In the past troubles of our relationship with France – constantly warring – things for wine drinkers came to a head in the 17th century when French wine imports were banned. Then, in 1693, William the third imposed high levels of taxation on wines, which led merchants to travel further to Portugal. They found the wines too thin for English tastes, in the Vinho-verde region of Northern Portugal, and so travelled east along the Douro River.

Here, the heat and thus faster fermentation produced dark and intense wines. Now here’s the interesting bit. The relatively longer trip back to England by ship would not be great for the quality of the wine and it would go “off” pretty quickly. So, the adding of additional alcohol does three things – it stops the fermentation when added, killing the yeasts off (they literally stop through drunkenness) and keeping more residual sugar in the wine.  Secondly, it helps preserve the wine longer as a preservative. Third, it will influence the taste.

So all going well then for the growing Port trade? Not exactly. In 1703 England and Portugal signed a trade treaty, the Methuen Treaty (another great pub-quiz special there) which laid down tariff advantages (sound familiar?). By 1730’s however, scandal. Sugar and elderberry juice was being added. Trade slumped. To sort things out, a boundary was drawn up around the Douro valley, restricting production. The authorities destroyed any dodgy vineyards outside this boundary.

So all this is why many Port names are often English – Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Harvey’s etc.

The other charming thing,is that in the old days, grapes were traditionally trodden by feet – yes real feet on real people……..


This doesn’t happen these days except for tourists, and I assume they wash their feet thoroughly before starting. Health and Safety people – get your clipboards out!!

Soon, I’ll go into all the different types of Port.