The Methuen-Pombal Link and the Demarcation of the Douro
© 2006 by Roy Hersh
|Joana Mesquita examines one of the first feitoria set in place, a 250-year-old marker at Quinta Nova, originally Burmester. (Photos by Robin Garr)|
|The year "1758" is still clearly visible on this granite marker at the top of the old Burmester property.|
Since the beginning of the New Year, I've enjoyed researching all facets of the Demarcation of the Douro, from poring over dozens of books and translated Portuguese documents in my library as well as visiting websites. There are many great pieces written on this interesting historical topic, but I was searching for a distinctive perspective from which to carve my words. I found that perspective by exploring circumstances surrounding the Methuen Treaty of 1703 and its impact on the relationship between the British Factors and Portuguese producers over the next half century, culminating in the 1756 Demarcation of the Douro. The greatest challenge in tackling this vast topic is to adequately and fairly present two very divergent perspectives which emerge in current writings on these historical events. One of these is the Portuguese perspective -- that of the Port growers and producers who were without a means to market the wine at the time. The other is that of the British, who settled in Oporto as part of a trade agreement, and provided the capital, network of contacts and export acumen to the Portuguese. These partners in Port have survived the many challenges that faced them during the past few centuries. Here is a shortened version of some important historical episodes that shaped the Port trade during its formative years.
During the last 30 years of the 17th century, British merchants established a presence in Oporto, for the purpose of trading their products for the red wine of the Douro, which became known as "Port". The 18th century brought a few monumental changes to Port wine:
- The process known as fortification, which resulted in sweet flavors and higher alcohol in the wine of the Douro.
- The iron-fisted Portuguese Prime Minister, the Marquês de Pombal rose to power.
- Glass bottle production evolved and cylindrical wine bottles were created, facilitating proper racking and cellar aging of Port in bottle.
Each of these revolutionary developments helped change the face of Port wine forever. The story that follows will provide some insight into the pioneering days of this great beverage known as Port.
Methuen Treaty of 1703
Beginning in the first decade of the 1600s, Spain ruled Portugal, until the English came into Portugal to help defeat the Spaniards. Portugal was strategically situated with seaports located on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and was highly prized by the English. In 1668, Portugal declared its independence, just three years after the young John Methuen, a British subject, graduated from Oxford. Methuen held various diplomatic posts throughout his career and in 1691 became the Envoy to Portugal. Six years later when he became Chancellor of Ireland, he ensured that his son Paul would be made Envoy to Portugal, a position John had held before his move to Ireland. To make a long story shorter, John performed poorly in Ireland and was sent back to Portugal to try to persuade Portugal's King Pedro to sever his coalitions both with Spain and France. .
That task was a failure, and two months later, England declared war on France (War of the Spanish Succession 1702-1713). The senior Methuen's son Paul, who was a more gifted statesman, remained in Lisbon and finished what his father had failed to accomplish. With Portugal now firmly on the side of the British, Paul signed a military treaty between Portugal and the allied Powers who had rallied around England against France. Notwithstanding all of those accomplishments, it would be his father that would be remembered for another treaty with far greater historical significance.
On December 27th 1703, John Methuen created a commercial agreement known as the Methuen Treaty, which became the basis of a "most favored nation" trade agreement between England and Portugal with far reaching consequences. England would bring woolen cloth into Portugal without any trade restrictions or duty, and permit the Portuguese to pay in trade, requiring no expenditure of their prized gold bullion.
Portugal, in turn, would be permitted to export its wine to England at a favorable duty rate that was equivalent to two thirds of the tax levied against imported French wine. The British had been deliberately creating obstacles for the importation of French wine, by charging steep tariffs and at times prohibiting the wine altogether. It should be noted that wines from competing countries within Europe also enjoyed comparable dispensation and it seems that Portugal already enjoyed the lowest duty on their wine of any nation. However, the residual effect of the Methuen Treaty would weigh heavily on the wines of France until the duty situation was finally reversed in 1866 by British Prime Minister William Gladstone.
The Growth of the Port Industry
Demand for the wines of Port, and to a lesser extent Madeira, grew steadily. Although the Methuen Treaty was extremely controversial at the time, it lasted in force until 1840. Initially, English wine lovers were not terribly enthusiastic about the Treaty, as they believed their beloved French claret was being replaced with inferior Portuguese "plonk." Nonetheless, that sentiment did not endure and Port has maintained its popularity in England ever since. It appears that the Methuen Treaty created the thirst for Port in the UK, and this correlation can not be ignored. However, for at least a dozen years following the Treaty, exports of Portuguese wine actually diminished.
The English merchants (also known as "Factors") who traded woolens and other textiles for Port were growing as a unified commercial force in and around Oporto. The grape growers and Port producers in the Douro realized their good fortune and for a time, worked closely with the British Shippers. In 1727, the British Association was established by the British Factory (The Factory House came later, in 1790). They created and implemented import and export regulations, as well as stipulated lower prices to be paid to the Douro growers for their wines.
From the mid-1720s through the late 1740s, there was increasing demand for wine in England as the Port palate was firmly established. At the same time, there were improvements in the overall quality of the Oporto wine, to a point. A variety of less profitable crops were being ripped up by the roots to make room for new vineyards. They were planted as quickly as humanly possible, while the price for "pipes" (550 liter casks - though export pipes held 534 liters) of Port continued to increase. The good times like the pipes themselves continued to roll. Some of the now well-heeled Douro producers could be seen in Oporto wearing expensive clothing, unthinkable just a few decades earlier.
To be clear, "Port" at the time was simply Douro red wine with no "fortification," yet the best of these were deeply extracted and concentrated wines from the upper Douro region. However, brandy was often added to the finished wine (prior to shipping) to stabilize it during its sea voyage to England, much like that of Madeira. The fortification process for Port wine was in its infancy and still experiencing significant growing pains. This process evolved slowly and was not fully perfected until somewhere between 1820 and 1840, when the amount of brandy added, grew from about 20 liters per pipe to about 100 liters per pipe. Note: Fortification of Port is the process in which grape brandy is added to the fermenting grape juice. The high alcohol content of the neutral grape spirit (77 percent alcohol) prematurely arrests the fermentation by killing the active yeast cells, thereby creating a wine which is naturally sweet and retains an alcohol level approximating 20 percent by volume.
The strong and successful alliance which lasted during the first half of the 1700s between the British shippers and Douro growers and producers, turned acrimonious. Complaints and finger pointing went back and forth and created ill will. The shippers in Oporto banded together and formed a trade association in an effort to control the ever increasing prices of Port and to deal with the inconsistency in quality provided. They rightfully claimed that since demand had outstripped supply, some of the new vines had been planted in unsuitable sites, which produced weak wines. Considering the steady price increases for the juice, the variation in wine quality became a growing problem. The English clientele demanded darker and richer Port and whether by collaboration (as the Portuguese contend) or of their own volition (as the Factor's assert), adulteration of the wine was taking place up river in order to bolster the quality.
It seems that the adulteration actually was being done by the shippers in Oporto as well as the producers in the Douro, but this is impossible to prove, except for reports of brandy being added prior to shipping. Along with the quality, Port exports started to plummet. The decrease in price for Port no longer supported the expense of cultivation and the farmers were as miserable as the shippers in Oporto. It appeared as if the golden goose had been cooked.
The accusations and reports by the English to their agents back home and in the Douro, frequently mentioned the topic of "adulteration". Their complaints specifically centered on: the addition of sugar to sweeten the Port, utilization of Baga (Elderberry) and grape skins to darken the color of the wine and deliberate addition of cheap brandy to strengthen the Port. I've also read that cheap wine from other regions and countries, (most oft mentioned is Spain) was occasionally blended in to "extend" volumes. In the early 1750s, while the bitterness over these quality issues reached a crescendo, the good name of Port was besmirched. The disgruntled Douro growers and producers alleged that the British factors had prudently encouraged, if not surreptitiously recommended the adulteration practices, in order to obtain the requisite quality for the approval by their agents back home.
Tensions grew into open hostilities and the British Port shippers' trade association wrote a letter to their agents in the Douro in 1754. They complained bitterly about the producer's "diabolical" and growing penchant for adding brandy during the fermentation to fortify the wine, rather than adding the brandy after the fermentation in order to stabilize it. Of course we know that a century later, this would not only be the accepted practice, but the backbone of Port wine. Much to the Factor's utter amazement, their agents supported the views of the producers and in a return letter explained that it was the greed and pressure from Oporto which had caused the producers' dilemma in trying to please the Shippers incessant pleas for higher quality. Adulteration was a sticky wicket, to say the least.
A miserable vintage took place in 1755 which exacerbated the fact that demand and prices were at historic lows. The British Shippers were virtually unable to sell pipes and their business was in dire straits, stuck with a back log of Port. At their wits end the shippers sent a razor-sharp letter to the growers and producers. The text of their widely spread letter can be found, but to paraphrase -- unless the Douro producers did not stop adulterating the wine and improve the quality of the Port, the British Factors would not even consider buying the wine at any price. In fact, they said they would not even taste the wine sent to Oporto.
|Still a national hero in Portugal, the Marquês de Pombal's bronze image - with lion - presides over Lisbon.|
These developments took a back seat to a much larger catastrophe. On Saturday, Nov. 1, 1755 at 9:20 a.m. on All Saints Day, an enormous earthquake decimated the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon, killing an estimated one third of Lisbon's 275,000 inhabitants. The King of Portugal, Dom José I, had coincidentally left Lisbon with his family just after attending a sunrise mass. He returned the following day and empowered his Secretary of State, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo to take charge (he was appointed as Prime Minister a.k.a. Marquês de Pombal in 1770, after an unsuccessful attempt to kill him). When questioned about his course of action, Pombal is reported to have replied pragmatically, "Now? Bury the dead and feed the living."
The quake's significant destruction reached the Algarve which was hit hardest by the oncoming tsunami. Reports by contemporary geologists that have studied the major earthquakes of the past few centuries hypothesize that the Lisbon quake approached a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, the epicenter of which was just 70 miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. The shock waves were felt in Europe as far away as Finland. The duration lasted between four and six minutes long and fissures in the streets of the city center appeared as wide as 17 feet. The earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami which touched land 30 minutes later, cresting at heights varying between 20-30 meters! It hit North Africa an hour later, touched most of Europe's ports, then hit less intensely in Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic, later that afternoon. Two more tidal waves followed, along with enormous fires, which destroyed whatever the initial quake had not -- and burned for five days. Only 15 percent of the city's buildings remained.
The following day the Prime Minister, Marquês de Pombal immediately began organizing the recovery and reconstruction. He sent firefighters into the city to extinguish the flames, and ordered teams to remove the tens of thousands of corpses. He then went about the incredible task of rebuilding Lisbon and other devastated parts of the country. Pombaline buildings are among the first seismically-protected constructions in the world. Small wooden models were built for testing, and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them. Sorry to digress, but this is just too important to ignore!
Back to Oporto and the Douro: The grape growers and producers of the Douro did not take kindly to the Port shippers' disrespectful attitude and sent a delegation to Lisbon to hand deliver the letter directly to Pombal. He had spent seven years in London as a diplomat earlier in his career and was not one to lose sight of economic opportunities for his country or for himself. Pombal had always kept a green eye on the profitable Port trade and was well aware of the goings on in Oporto and the Douro. He was not amused by the letter or chess gamesmanship of the British shippers or their treatment of his countrymen. After all, in his view, the British were guests doing business in Portugal and were making a handsome living off of the Port trade. The anger or arrogance of the British, who behaved as if Northern Portugal was one of their colonies, may have caused them to underestimate Pombal, a grave error in judgment as it turned out.
Pombal's new Companhia
Before the next harvest, Pombal delivered a swift and punishing blow to the Port shippers, with a breathtaking checkmate maneuver. On Friday, Sept. 10, 1756, Portugal's Marquês de Pombal enacted legislation creating the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhos do Alto Douro, (which translates to: the company for the cultivation of vineyards in the upper Douro). Later this company would be renamed: Real Companhia Velha, which today is known as Royal Oporto. During the 18th century, the Portuguese people knew it as, "The Company."
Although the Charter was "blessed" by the King of Portugal, this was very much Pombal's company. He ran it like an autocratic fiefdom, in one sense acting like a control freak reformer while at the same time, implementing discipline and reorganizing the entire Port trade. The Company was formed to: "uphold the reputation of the wines, the culture of the vineyards, and to foster at the same time the trade in the former, establishing a regular price for the advantage of those who produce and trade in them, avoiding on the one hand those high prices which, rendering sales impossible, ruin the stocks, and on the other such low prices as prevent the growers from expending the necessary sum on the cultivation of their vineyards." In other words, the main mission was to improve the overall quality of Port and make the Company extraordinarily profitable. Never before had there been such a monopoly anywhere in the wine world!
Here are some of the other areas under the direct control of The Company:
- Protect the authenticity of the product and ensure that adulteration was a dead topic. This included strict punishment (fines and prison) for those involved in adulteration. Due to their use to adulterate Port, Elderberry trees were uprooted for miles around and virtually eliminated in the Douro. Certain types of fertilizer would be outlawed, in order to prevent overproduction, as well as the prohibition of blending white and red grapes.
- Given exclusive rights to the production, pricing and sales of neutral grape spirit (aguardente) to all producers in the North of Portugal.
- All exports would be strictly managed and special attention paid to those pipes heading to England and Brazil.
- Determination of production quotas (the beneficio) and the apportionment of production licenses amongst all the registered farmers, after deciding the total amount of Port to be produced according to market conditions and stocks in Oporto.
- Raise taxes for various resources at Pombal's discretion including his unscrupulous diversion of funds for the renaissance of Lisbon (after the severe earthquake damage) and the hiring of an "official" Company taster.
- Sole right to distribute and sell wine to the taverns in Oporto and the surrounding areas.
- Raised prices that would thereafter be paid to the growers and producers in the Douro.
- Fixed pricing on Port to create market stability.
- Pombal appointed an enormous administrative Board of Directors for The Company, without selecting a single British shipper.
- Last but certainly not least; the famous demarcation of the Alto Douro was one of the greatest achievements of the entire Pombaline reign and certainly one of the most important dynamics in the history of Port wine.
The demarcation of the Douro will be discussed in greater detail shortly, but before doing so I must digress to the aftermath surrounding the Marquês de Pombal's creation of The Company, as this is a defining moment between protagonists. The British shippers had suffered enough insolence and they were not going to have The Company wrest control of the Port export business away from them. They sent a contingent of Port merchants to see Pombal and have their protestations heard loud and clear. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Pombal was a tyrant, actually considered by historians as a dictator. He treated the British Factors with harshness in regards to "the letter" which had raised his blood pressure considerably. He basically told them that they could leave Portugal or accept the fact that their letter provided the rationale behind the need to create a company that would oversee the quality of Port wine. The shippers realized they were not going to make any sort of progress with Pombal and headed back to Oporto.
Since the growers and producers were now being paid significantly more money for their Port, the trickle down theory proved bloody potent in Oporto. The sharp and sudden price increase of wine to the Tavern owners and therefore to their patrons, drove them to the streets in a violent rage on a day that came to be known as the Tipplers' Riots of Feb. 23, 1757. Pombal was exceptionally harsh in response as he believed the Factors had intentionally stirred this hornet's nest. The riot was repressed with immediate brute force by 3,000 soldiers marching into Oporto and crushing the rebellion. Dozens of the Portuguese sympathizers were shot dead and thirteen men plus four women were hanged, twenty five others were condemned to the royal galleys, eighty six banished to Africa and India, while fifty eight received significant fines, properties were confiscated and warehouses which had been suspected of aiding and abetting the British in adulterating Port were demolished. John Methuen must have been turning over in his grave.
Although the Portuguese citizenry had been quieted, there was still another very unhappy group to deal with. The British Port shippers brought up a number of very legitimate issues to their agents in England and finally to their own government, reaching as high as British Foreign Secretary William Pitt. Their petition of Aug. 1, 1768, stated their case succinctly and took issue with the new monopolistic Company as well as their concerns for the ongoing adulteration of the Port. Unfortunately, Pitt was deeply immersed in the Seven Years War with France and Spain. The shippers' petition was ignored by Pitt, who chose to stay in the good graces of Pombal. Had Pitt not been involved with the military actions with his two enemies, he probably would have petitioned Pombal directly or at least, sent an emissary to seek redress at the Court of Lisbon.
In late April of the following year, the Shippers took a collaborative approach and sent a second letter to Pitt, which readdressed their concerns and their disappointment at not having received a response to their initial petition. This time their grievances were taken more seriously and a dispatch reached Portuguese Minister de Cunha. After looking into the issues, he provided the insight from the Douro grower's point of view and sent off his missive to the British Earl of Kinnoul. Nothing was done to rectify the situation and the Royal Wine Company maintained business as usual, much to the chagrin of the British Port shippers.
To add insult to injury, in 1762 Spain declared war on both Portugal and England. Spain walked across the border into Portugal and captured important territories without resistance. The King of Portugal pleaded with England to send help and committed to rectifying some outstanding commercial issues without mentioning any specifics. England delivered money and arms to Portugal as well as a mercenary General to lead the Portuguese Army which quickly dispensed of the Spanish and sent them homeward bound. The English government attempted genteel diplomacy with the Foreign Minister at Lisbon as well as the Portuguese Minister in London to remedy the situation for the Factors in Oporto. Gracious letters went back and forth for the next three years, but nothing changed and the English government did not force the issue and the Portuguese therefore, did nothing. It took until 1777 for the regulations to be relaxed but the shippers had found creative ways to work within the Pombaline system. That doesn't mean that they ever enjoyed the reign of Pombal, but at some point the realization set in that it made no sense to continue to expect any reversal of fortune.
In 1777 the King of Portugal died and his daughter Maria I took the throne as the Queen of Portugal. She immediately dismissed Pombal from power and started to undo many of the dastardly deeds which he had perpetrated on his people. She released nearly a thousand political prisoners the day after her father's death and in August of the same year, reversed the monopolistic hold of The Company. The Pombaline era came to an end and the Marquês left office in disgrace.
The geographical survey (Primordial Demarcation) of the Douro wine region in which Port is produced would not have developed without the Marquês de Pombal. The surveys included the classification of every vineyard and their respective wines and keeping track of all the information, including maps drawn by hand. The first demarcation incorporated the traditional area, mainly the Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo, as little went beyond Pinhao at the time. Not until 1788-1792 did the vineyards encompass the Douro Superior, which is at the Eastern most section of the Douro Valley. Today this delimited area encompasses the entire upper portion of the Douro River Valley known as the Alto Douro, which extends from approximately sixty miles East of the "entreposto" (export trade zone) at Vila Nova de Gaia, to the far reaches of the Douro Superior.
Two zones were created. The first was for Port produced for consumption within Portugal, called "Vinho do Ramo" - usually from the Baixo Corgo and of lesser quality and cheaper. The second zone was specifically for Ports crafted for export markets, or "Factory Wines" - which were of higher quality, more expensive and typically from the Cima Corgo or Douro Superior. This makes up an area forty to fifty miles in length and between five and twenty miles wide, consisting of a quarter of a million hectares (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) of land. Of the region's 40,000+ hectares of land planted to vine, approximately three quarters of those hectares are designated for Port production. It is easy to see how this event created the boundaries of the Port wine region we know today. Of all the historic mountain vineyards in Europe, the Alto Douro with its vast terraced land and Quintas represent about 18 percent of all European mountain vineyards registered.
The demarcation of the Douro region in addition to other Pombaline measures, such as fixed prices, to ensure the financial well-being of the growers, strict production quotas to prevent the reduction of selling prices and controls placed on all new plantings in the Douro, to name just three - made a significant improvement in the organization of the Port wine trade and provided some discipline (albeit often ruthless) and much needed stability. Exports of Port rose 33 percent during the 2 decades of Pombal, from 1757-1776, compared to the five years prior to setting up The Company that Pombal ruled.
A Boundary Commission was organized and it required three separate attempts to map out the Northern and Southern banks of the Rio Douro between 1758 and 1761. This group set the granite markers (Feitoria) in place, to perpetuate the Commission's findings. Finally in 1761, it all came to fruition, restricting Port production to the vineyards within the boundaries of the demarcated region. All vineyards were then classified A to F, depending on many factors such as: altitude, productiveness, inclination of the land, aspect and exposure to sunlight, age of the vines etc. Points were given for each specific characteristic and then a final grade (A-F) was designated for the specific vineyard. This method of classification of properties by points, the first of its kind in the world, still exists today and has made possible, the control of the demarcated Douro region.
Placement of 335 large rectangular, flat, or semi-circular granite stones with the word Feitoria and the date, were carved on the side facing the road. Remarkably, there are 103 "Feitoria" that remain standing today. There were 201 Feitoria set in place between October 4th and November 9th 1758 and the balance of 134 markers were placed between April 17th and May 4, 1761. To put this in historical perspective in terms of American history, this was right around the same time as Bull Run 1 at Manassas, Virginia during the early stages of the U.S. Civil War.
In addition to setting in place the extremely heavy granite markers, the surveying team had the incredibly arduous task of walking up, down and across the intensely steep mountainous slopes of the Douro. There were no jeeps or helicopters to make their transport any easier, not to mention that they traveled on bad roads and through places where neither comfort nor sustenance was to be had at any price. The vineyard land owners were not happy campers when the surveyors decided that their land did not fall within the boundaries they were setting in place. These protests were carried out by many a farmer whose future earnings would be greatly diminished if his vineyard was just outside of the boundary. Even the difference in the districts that represented export or Factory Ports was huge in comparison to what they'd get paid for the domestic market wines. The original topographic map which was used for the demarcation was finalized in November of 1761 and sent to archives in Lisbon. Incredibly, somehow the original map has disappeared and nobody can explain how this happened.
Although the original demarcations were completed in 1761, Queen Maria I expanded the demarcation of the Douro region in 1793. Further changes were made in 1788, 1907, 1908 and its current borders were amended on Dec. 10, 1921 and for the last time on June 26, 1986. In 1979 the demarcation was extended to cover table wines. The demarcation of the Douro region is often mentioned as the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. I recently learned from a member of the FTLOP Forum that this is incorrect and that the authoritative Portuguese historian and director of the Museu do Douro, Gaspar Martins Pereira states that two regions were demarcated earlier: Chianti and Carmignano in Tuscany in 1716 and Tokay in Hungary in 1737.
The First Stone
One last facet of the story of the demarcation, will neatly tie it all together. Three years ago, I was trying to find the location of the very first Feitoria that was ever placed during the 1758 demarcation. I was not as interested in where it was originally placed, but where it was located in 2003. I offered up a great bottle of Vintage Port as the reward for the correct answer. There were a few different versions of the story and I have never found out which is accurate and where they found the first stone. I would appreciate an email from anyone who is certain as to its discovery (and original location if known). Here are some of the answers I received from some astute British wine enthusiast who were researching this topic, back in 2003.
Scenario No. 1 and the most believable: "It was first set in situ at Quinta de S. Gonçalo da Ribeira in the village of Resende on October 9th 1758. It was "re-discovered" in 2001, when renovations on the house revealed a second stone wall, in which this mark had been used as part of a door frame! It is now on display at the Douro Museum in Régua at the IVDP's Solar do Vinho do Porto which was new as of July 28th 2003. Later on, the stone will be placed in its original location. The majority of the markers were removed from their original locations and can now be found in various museums and as decorative displays at a number of Quintas in the region."
Scenario No. 2: I understand that after it had been hidden due to raised water level, it was found during technical maintenance of some turbines, and is now leaning against a wall at the Quinta da Manela.
Scenario No. 3: It was located two hundred meters from where in 1875 the Bernardo railway station building was built, which was adjacent to Quinta do Bernardo.
As you can see, the story of the development of the Port industry derives from the success late in the life of John Methuen back in 1703, the adulteration of the "Oporto wine" which led to discontent, an infamous letter, a major earthquake and a tyrant named Pombal who sat atop The Company and created the early demarcation of the Douro region. All of these interesting characters and diplomatic events led to the very first Feitoria laid back in 1758, the very first of which was not rediscovered for 243 years.
As reward for joining me on this historical tour, please find a comfortable spot and settle in for a nice glass of Port!
Roy Hersh www.fortheloveofport.com
© copyright March 2006