Portugal is a mountainous country carved out of the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula. Split by the Tejo (Tagus) River, which flows from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal’s northern half, including Douro and Beiras, is largely mountainous, dotted with plateaus and river valleys. The southern half, including Alentejo and Algarve, features rolling plains and fertile land for farming. Its long Atlantic coast boasts beautiful beaches, a cuisine based largely on seafood, and a rich history of sea voyages and discovery. In addition to its mainland territory, Portugal consists of two Atlantic archipelagos: the Azores and Madeira, home of the famous fortified wine.
Portugal’s winemaking roots are ancient, but its origins are obscured. There is archaeological evidence of seafaring Phoenicians in this region from the 10th century BCE and Greek colonies from the 7th century BCE, both of which likely engaged in viticulture. The first documented record of the vine, however, belongs to the Romans in the 1st century.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, winemaking continued uninterrupted, though diminished, by Germanic invasions and the occupation that followed by the Moors (a culture which, although itself abstinent, was tolerant of alcohol consumption by its Christian subjects). As elsewhere in Europe, Christianity played a major role in preserving and developing the country’s winemaking traditions.
Although Portugal neighbors Spain, the two countries resemble each other very little and have been politically at odds throughout history. Because of this long-standing opposition, Portugal embraced the ocean in terms of trade, culture and cuisine. Portugal was in fact a leading force in the Age of Discovery during the 15th century. Pioneering figures such as Portugal’s Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama discovered exciting new places – Madeira, the Azores Islands and Brazil among them. Exotic spices from the Far East; gold from Brazil; ivory, coffee and peanuts from Africa; and pineapples, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes from the New World resulted in great wealth for the Portuguese during this time.
The colonies explored above created wine export markets, and the long sea voyages helped shape two of Portugal’s most unique and historical wines: Port and Madeira. These fortified wines were accidentally invented when sailors added a bit of brandy to preserve wine for its journey across the ocean.
When discussing Portugal in wine circles, it is usually synonymous with Port, which remains the country’s most renowned export. This is changing. Portugal established its quality DOC system shortly after joining the European Union in 1986, and since then Portuguese winemaking has continued to accelerate. Today, winemaking in Portugal is a complex and delicious mélange, of which Port is but one ingredient (albeit an important one). Due to an influx of funding and expertise, a renewed commitment to quality wine, and hundreds of unique indigenous grape varieties, the last twenty years has seen a staggering transformation in Portugal’s winemaking.