This past week, there was much revelry among the Wenches on our private e-mail loop, along with a jolly amount of liquid libations consumed—alas, all cyber! By some strange quirk of timing, four of us had book deadlines on Monday and we all scribbled—with much moaning and grumbling—to the finish line and turned them in on time . . so I think we heartily deserved a glass of bubbly!
Actually, as I began to think of it, since the manuscripts were all Regency-set stories, we probably deserved stronger spirits—and what could be more quintessentially Regency than port. (The fact that port was forbidden to proper ladies of course makes it even more alluring.) So, I thought it might be fun to take a small sip of the spirit’s history.
Though port comes from the region of Portugal near the city of Oporto, it’s traditionally thought of as a very British drink. And with good reason! The British taste for port dates back to the 14th century, and the development of the winemaking industry is inextricable intertwined with the Sceptered Isle. The Treaty of Windsor, signed in 1386, established close political economic ties between the two countries. Each permitted merchants from the other to take up residence and have the same trading rights as its own subjects. A number of Englishmen set up business in Portugal and trade began to flourish between the two counties. By the late 15th century, Portuguese wine was flowing into England in return for salt cod.
The wine trade grew even important in 1667, when Louis XIV’s finance minister imposed strict rules limiting the import of British goods into France. In retaliation, Charles II, clamped down on the import of French wine, forcing oenophiles to look elsewhere. To meet the growing need, wine merchants looked to expand their supply, but some of the Portuguese wine did not suit the English palate, which was accustomed to the richer French wines. So they began to look inland, and found the wines produced in the dry, mountainous Douro region produced a full-bodies wine more to the English taste.
It required an arduous river journey to bring the wine down to the city of Oporto, where it could then be shipped to the British Isles—where it became know as Vinho do Porto. Or port. To keep the wine from spoiling during the shipping, it became customary to add a bit of brandy to fortify the wine, making it more potent (more on this in a moment!)
Now, the growing demand also gave rise to a problem in quality as a number of merchants added elderberry wine and other less desirable ingredients to make a cheap wine and sell it as port. Enter the Marquis of Pombol, the Portuguese prime Minister, who in 1756 established state control of the port wine trade. The Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro—sort of the East India Company for Portuguese wine—was given a monopoly on trade with Britain and Brazil. He also set up a strict delineation of the port wine region—335 stone pillars, known as marcos pombalinos, were erected to mark out its boundaries. Only vineyards within the area could call their wine “port.”
Now, up until this time, the wine was made by traditional methods, though as I mentioned,, brandy was occasionally added to stabilize it for shipping. But in the early 19th century, brandy began being added during the fermentation process, resulting in a fortified wine that was sweeter and stronger than ordinary wine. The taste was very popular in Britain, and by the 1830s, the method had become pretty much universal for all the port producers.
Fortifying the wine allowed it to be aged much longer than ordinary wine. Vila Nova de Gaia, on the outskirts of Oporto became the home of quintos, or Lodges of the port merchants, and their massive warehouses began to spring up there, allowing them to age the various types of port. (Vintage port—wine from one specific year that is deemed to be a quality harvest—is aged in individual bottles. The other varieties of port—including ruby, tawny and white is aged in oak casks.) Most of the leading port Lodges were owned by British merchant families with deep roots in Portugal, and many still are today. Taylor Fladgate, Dows, Graham, Churchill—a trip to the local wine shop says it all.
The Peninsular War had a great impact on the wine trade, as Napoleon’s forces invaded the country and General Soult occupied the Douro region. There’s a fascinating history of the era on the Taylor Fladgate website (an American was instrumental in helping our Regency heroes keep well-fortified with port!) which you can read here.
I shall now put a cork in the bottle, before I intoxicate you with too many historical details. But before I do, just a few questions for you—have you ever tried port? Do you like it? (I do—a lot! Though I don’t drink it very often. I have a friend who really knows port, so have been lucky enough to taste some vintages from the 1920s and 1930s, which is quite fun. Like drinking history!)
And if you don’t like drinking it, port also is a great cooking ingredient. Here’s a recipe for a traditional Christmas pudding with port. Pip, pip, hooray!