Any Port in a Storm!

Port bottlesCara/Andrea here,

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!

RowlandsonepicurebigActually, 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.

History3The 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.

Rabelo_Douro_en–PortoIt 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!)

Marquis_pombalNow, 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.”

BarrelsNow, 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
Grahams Vintage 1948became 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!

Lisbon’s Link to the Regency

here, I’ve had a very quiet summer, and while a number of my friends have been gallivanting around the globe, I’ve been working diligently on the first book for a new trilogy—which means I’ve haven’t strayed far from home. So as you can imagine, when I recently received an invitation to visit Lisbon later this fall, I jumped at the opportunity.

WellingtonIt’s always exciting to have the chance to see one of the world’s historic cities, but Lisbon is even more alluring because of its ties to Regency England. Now, for those of you who know the era’s history, the Peninsular War looms large in the struggle between France and Britain. Napoleon seemed unbeatable on land, conquering most of Europe with his well-trained armies, while only the heart-of-oak British navy kept him from invading the Sceptered Island and perhaps ruling as a modern-day Alexander the Great.

PW1In 1808, however, Napoleon deposed the reigning monarch and put his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, which provoked a uprising by the Spanish people. Britain decided to send military support, and given the strategic port cities along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Lisbon became one of the main landing areas for the expeditionary armies . . .

Baixa-(2)But first, let’s take a short look at the earlier history of this ancient city. Legend has it that it was founded by Ulysses and named Olissopo, which derives from the Phoenician words "allis ubbo," meaning "enchanting port." Its nautical tradition continued from ancient times into the 15th and 16th century, when the Age of Discovery flowered in Portugal. Explorers like Vasco de Gama, whose discovery of an ocean route to India, made Lisbon one of the richest trading centers in the world, led to the establishment of colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil, making Portugal a wealthy maritime power.

PacoRibeira-18thCenturySpain slowly became a more dominant power that its smaller neighbor, but Portugal still enjoyed great prosperity, and the magnificent—and sometimes extravagant—architecture of Lisbon reflected its wealth from spices, silks, gold and jewels. Built overlooking the Tagus River, it was known for its striking beauty.

MapHowever, on November 1, 1755, disaster struck. Three major earthquakes devastated the city, setting off raging fires and a tsunami. It’s estimated that perhaps 90,000 people were killed out of the 270,000 inhabitants, and the Royal Ribeira Palace was among the many landmark structures destroyed. The city was slowly rebuilt, but its former opulent splendor was never recaptured. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t beautiful—it is!) The disaster shook the rest of Europe. Voltaire wrote a long poem about it, and his critique on optimism in his famous book Candide, is said to have been partly inspired by the event.

John-IVWhen Napoleon’s armies marched into Spain, they continued on right to the sea, conquering Portugal in 1807 and forcing its Royal court, including Queen Maria I and the Prince Regent, the future John IV, to set sail from Lisbon to set up a temporary government-in-exile in Brazil.

Soult won’t attempt a detailed history of the Peninsular War here—it’s far too big and complex a subject (those of you who have read the Richard Sharpe books will have gotten a wonderfully vivid picture of the campaigns and the horrors of guerilla warfare, which was a harsh reality of the fighting through Portugal and Spain.) However, here are a few highlights.
In 1808, Arthur Wellesley—later made the Duke of Wellington for his military victories over the French—landed with British forces and marched south toward Lisbon. He won several skirmishes and set up a defensive line to protect the landing of reinforcements. Attacked by Junot, one of the top French commanders, he won the Battle of Vimeiro, which was the first time Napoleon’s offensive tactics of combining, skirmishers, battle columns and artillery fire were repulsed. Wellesley’s victory led to the French withdrawing from Portugal, though Wellesley himself ended up being recalled to England.

PW6Later that year, Napoleon himself came to lead his troops into battle on the Peninsula and the British army was forced to retreat to La Coruna, where it was evacuated n by sea. Napoleon turned commanded over to General Soult and never again fought in Spain.

PW5Wellesley returned in 1809 as head of the British-Portuguese forces. He reorganized the army—including riflemen with each brigade!—and beat Soult at Porto. From there he slowly moved into Spain, where he won the Battle of Talavera. He was later forced to retreat back to Lisbon, where he created elaborate defensive works called the Lines of Torres Vedras, which proved critical in defending the city.

PW3n 1811, Wellesley—who was now Viscount Wellington of Talavera— forced the French to retreat from Portugal, a turning point in the war. 1812 saw some of the most famous battles of the Peninsular War take place—Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca, and by 1813, victory at the Battle of Vitoria helped convince Austria to re-enter the war as a British ally, thus sealing Napoleon’s fate.

Coaches-museumI’m looking to spending a lot of time in the museums. So far, I've discovered that there is a fabulous Coaches museum, a military musem with rooms devoted to the Napoleonic period, a Tile museum and a Decorative Arts Museum. (Oh, to have more than a few days there) And then of course there is that staple of Regency excess—port! Stay tuned for a full report on that famous Portuguese wine.

So what about you? Have you traveled to any interesting destinations this summer? Learned any new history about a spot that intrigues you? And lastly, if you could choose one city in Europe to visit, which would it be?