The evolution of the winemaking industry in Portugal over the past fifteen to twenty years has been interesting to watch and will no doubt continue unabated, as this sort of momentum cannot be halted.
The more philosophical would say, and I must agree, that wine is inseparable from our culture. In fact, before there was such a thing as a Portuguese people, wine was already produced and consumed in this corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The excess produce was shipped off by Phoenicians and Carthaginians, to be sold in Europe.
The Romans, in their quest for fortune and glory, invaded and set themselves up in the region and, since a third of their soldier’s pay was in wine, planted many more vineyards than the ones the Phoenicians and Carthaginians had left. The mix of different varieties produced new wines that the soldiers liked, or types that they were used to drinking in other parts. Roman presses can still be found, especially in the North, in places like the Douro and Beira Interior regions.
Christianity, with its gospel of eternal life, presents the vine as metaphor and, according to the words and example of Christ; wine itself is a symbol of the most sacred devotion. The “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” presents us with a very special message; over 2 000 years it has borne the hallmark of both novelty and necessity, and has become a constant presence in our life. It has made its way into our culture and into culture in general, and is therefore very important.
Winemaking, the goal of which is to make use of the soil to produce healthy grapes, which in turn lead to better wine, has evolved at a great pace. Partly under the pressure of the market, partly due to Portugal’s ethnographic profile, this evolution can be traced to the terrible devastation caused by Phylloxera, the plague known in Latin as Phylloxera devastatrix, which hit vines in Portugal in the second quarter of the 19th Century and, in little more than twenty years, destroyed everything in its path.
A few regions were spared, namely the Colares vineyards, rooted in sand, and some parts of Bairrada where the vines grow in particularly thick clay soils. The social upheaval at the time was such that many people in the region of Trás-os-Montes died of hunger. Most simply left, joining their compatriots in Brazil or other parts of South America, such as Venezuela, where their descendants still form important communities.
Many scientists attempted to find solutions for this calamity, but in the end the cure came from abroad. A Frenchman called Martell, working in the Ribatejo region where a lot of wine was produced for distillation, is said to have introduced roots from American vines, as was already the practice in other parts of Europe. This solution was so efficient, increasing production by so much that people began to refer to the phenomenon as producing wine à lá Martell, which led to the expression vinho a martelo (hammered wine!). This became a new problem, which began to be dealt with in the 80’s, as wine producers had became obsessed with alcohol volume, ideally aiming for 12º. The price of wine was determined by its alcohol volume. The quality of the grapes was not immediately rewarded nor was there an attempt to repeat processes and techniques in order to replicate wines which had met with greater success.
Wine has changed the face of Portugal in many ways, and almost always for the better. You need only contemplate the beauty of Portugal’s landscapes, which almost invariably include vineyards, in order to acknowledge this. Just think what an epic feat it must have been to carve out the Douro valley terraces, which only recently celebrated their 250th anniversary of demarcation. That’s over 43 000 hectares of vines, planted in terraces which are no more than renovated versions of the original ones, hand made without the aid of technology. The number of men and working hours needed to perform this transformation is breathtaking. Now, however, the Dão and Beiras regions, in the centre of Portugal, and the even the more modern Alentejo and Algarve regions, in the South, with their large expanses of vines and adequately sizes properties, bare witness to these changes.
The generation which brings you this Technical Guide to Wine Tourism is the very one which has encouraged and undertaken the necessary and radical changes which are taking place in our midst. We have finally come to the same conclusions that the Australians, South Africans and Californians reached long ago: it all starts with the vines! As the guardians of this truth, enologists have been pressing all those involved in the wine business to change many of the “traditions” we have been holding on to. The best wines now produced in Portugal are arousing the interest of opinion makers and international experts. As long as we can, together, entice the public with the novelty which is Portuguese wine, success will shortly follow. Our wines are made with unique varieties, which are sometimes difficult to pronounce in other languages.
Those who use this guide, “ambassadors” to our visitors, will no doubt find it a source of support and pride.
As a generation, we seek to hand our children a country which is a little better than the one we inherited. Congratulations to all the Wine Tourism sites which collaborated with us, for bearing witness to the hospitality which we, as Portuguese, are so justly famous for.