There is evidence that viticulture in the Douro Valley dates back to the times of the Romans. During the Medieval period, wine was primarily produced for use in mass at monasteries, and the horizontal areas of the terraces were reserved for cultivating grain and corn. Vines were planted in the apertures of the terrace walls (pilheros). Vineyards did not expand until the mid-eighteenth century, when the English began to seek them out for wine production.
At the time, England had already established a close relationship with Portugal. Whenever Portugal was at war with its powerful neighbor Spain, England assisted the small country with its army. The two states granted each other special trade privileges early on and a bustling trade with English goods (especially textiles) in exchange for Portuguese fruit and oil had been thriving since the 13th century. When small Portugal grew far beyond its capacities in its period of colonial expansion, the country was greatly impoverished. The inhabitants of Porto earned the name "tripeiros" (tripe eaters) at that time, since the townspeople had no other choice but to eat innards. Today "tripas à moda do Porto" still are a local delicacy of the city.
The English skillfully made use of the Portuguese crisis and entered into additional bilateral trade agreements, which drove Portugal more and more into dependency on the island state. Wine from Portugal was exported to England early on, but did not initially have a very good reputation. When the war between France and England broke out in 1689, the English were strictly forbidden to drink French wine and had to tap new sources.
Port first appeared around 1670. The addition of brandy to the wine, facilitated storage and this way the wine survived the voyage to England without harm. When brandy was added during fermentation, the residual sugar remained in the wine, enhancing both the taste and the storage capacity, and pleased the palate of the English people more and more.
The strong demand for port wine in England led to an overproduction in the mid-18th century, which was accompanied by a price collapse and a lesser reputation for port wine. To remedy this development, a system of origin control and regional classification (the world's first!) was introduced in 1756. Wines from good cultivation sites (vinho de feitoria) were approved for export, while wines from inferior cultivation sites were restricted for domestic consumption. They were called "vinho do ramo" (ramo = branch of a bush), because the bushes showed where such regular wine was available. It is assumed that this custom is the source of the English proverb "good wine needs no bush."
The viticultural site ordinance of 1756 has been amended several times, but basically still applies today. Heavy granite blocks, as they are found throughout the Douro region, were used for the demarcation of the best winegrowing sites. By the end of the 18th century, viticulture did not extend further upriver than the Cachão de Valeira. This large rock obstructed riparian navigation and thus the relatively quick transport of casks of wine. It took 12 years of construction work to make this section of the river navigable. As a consequence, viticulture became economically feasible in the early 19th century in the region of the Upper Douro Valley (Douro Superior). In the second half of the 19th century, viticulture in the Douro region was affected by large natural disasters similar to those we know from other winegrowing regions in Europe: by 1890 oidium, phylloxera, and mildew had destroyed approximately 65% of all viticulture areas in the Douro region. Many winegrowers were forced to leave their vineyards since the basis of their existence had been destroyed. As a consequence, large vineyards emerged owned by a handful of investors who purchased the (destroyed) Quintas for relatively little money. One of the most prominent figures in the history of viticulture in the Douro region is Dona Antónia Ferreira. Dona Antónia had a great capacity to forecast and envisage future developments. She was a skilled business woman and bought many vineyards, some of which were situated in completely inaccessible areas (Quinta do Vale Meão, in Douro Superior). When she died in 1890 she left her family (Ferreira) with more than 30 Quintas. Among the (primarily British) shippers - i.e. the trade companies with seat in Porto - it had also become fashionable by the end of the 19th century to own a Quinta in the Douro region. Some of the buildings therefore show architectural references to the English colonial style.
Until 1870, there had been many so-called "Quinta wines", i.e. wines that were produced and marketed by individual winegrowers. "Shippers", who had established themselves in Porto and primarily exported Quinta wines, increasingly replaced these vintners. In order to offer their customers port wine of consistent quality and to become independent of the unpredictability of nature and winegrowers, the shippers ultimately developed their own brands, blended the wines from different vineyards to create their house brands of port wine, fermented them in their own cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia (across from Porto) and ended up marketing them worldwide. This separation of production (vineyards in the Douro region) and maturing / marketing (trade companies in Vila Nova de Gaia) finally went so far that even a law was passed stipulating that port wine exports could only be carried out from Vila Nova de Gaia. This law was not repealed until 1986, when Portugal joined the European Union and its abolishment led to a true revolution in wine growing in the Douro region.
The law of May 8, 1986 decreed that wine producers in the Douro region were entitled to export their products independently. However, some limiting conditions continue to exist. Vineyards must have at least 150,000 bottles and sales inventory for three years in store. In addition, the sales may only involve bottles and not casks. The new ordinance initially only benefited the shippers who already owned Quintas in the Douro region and now were able to market independent brands of single-Quinta wines.
Nevertheless, quite a number of producers in the Douro region have since become independent. Since the limitations mentioned above only apply to port wine, the production of red wine ("table wine") has seen increased immensely and new and interesting wines are introduced to the market every year.
The Douro Valley is currently one of the most interesting wine regions of Europe, since producers that previously only supplied grapes are now producing their own wine and have gained more experience in winemaking and farming techniques. They have increasingly more knowledge on how to harness the soil and the typical characteristics of their land, and they have been gaining more self-esteem. An essential advantage is that producers work cooperatively and have become aware of the need to market their excellent wines jointly, in order to adequately position the Douro region in the marketplace. The fact that the original grape varieties continue to be grown in the Douro region and have not been replaced by foreign vines is an invaluable asset. This fact, together with the excellent geological and climatic conditions, ensures the independent and unmistakable character of Douro wines.