History of wine in medieval Portugal – producing, consumption and exports

Text by Pedro Alves



By the 10th century BC, the Phoenicians had arrived and introduced new grape varieties and winemaking techniques to the area. Up until this point, viticulture was mostly centered on the southern coastal areas of Portugal. In later centuries, the Ancient Greeks, Celts and Romans would do much to spread viticulture and winemaking further north.

Of particular importance for the development of viniculture during the medieval period were the Benedictine and the Cistercian monasteries. In Portugal it was late in the 12th century that after establishing 120 monastical communities, the Cistercians essentially became the keepers of agricultural knowledge but also provided training on how to grow wine to the faithful congregations. Through them the first quality varieties were selected and intentionally propagated. The Alcobaça Monastery is one such example.

Initially, however, Portugal did not participate in this huge international wine production due to trading constraints in the early Middle Ages and Islamic rule. Since viniculture did indeed survive and alcoholic beverages were drunk even by the Islamic elites (!), it would appear that the Islamic rulers tended to tolerate the existence of vineyards, but often in the case of Umayyad or Almohad rulers there were a few ritual persecution of people drinking wine and the destruction of vineyards, mainly around Córdoba. Also al-Andalus engaged mainly in trade with the eastern Mediterranean from the 10th to the 12th/13th centuries, when Genoese merchants became the main traders of Islamic Hispania. For this reason the Portuguese wine sector only made its appearance on the international scene later as it made contacts and cemented its new trade with Atlantic Europe, without ever having lost its relative standing in the domestic agricultural sector.

By the late 12th century viniculture and cellar technology experienced a noticeable revival, of which Alcobaça is one example. This was achieved through research and vocational training of the faithful congregation and from a cultural perspective, Portugal was no different from other European countries.

The Hundred Years’ War (1337‑1453) wreaked havoc on French viniculture, and the French lost a substantial part of the English wine market. With the end of the war, and the consequent reversion of Aquitaine to the French crown and the Turkish occupation of the Mediterranean islands England was cut off from its former procurement markets. This facilitated the entry of Iberian, but particularly Portuguese wine into English, Flemish, German and international trade. From 1360 onwards, England encouraged the importation of Portuguese wine, not so much the light table wines, which in spite of the situation continued to come from France (Bordeaux until 1460) and Germany, but rather the dessert wines, particularly those made from the well known Malvasia and Muscatel grape. These varieties doubtlessly belong to the Vitis occidentalis gene pool. They were previously known as “Greek wines” and were traded by Venetian merchants before the Portuguese took over. In England, they were thought of as Malvasia (Malmsey), and it is possible that Malvasia‑type wines began to come from Portuguese vineyards as well.

With this new alliance, Portugal intensified wine exports to England, and much later to colonial America, although only in the 17th century, already in the early modern period, due to the Anglo-French conflicts, did Portuguese wine start to gain a greater hold in the British markets. In the third quarter of the 14th century Portuguese wine was traded with the Hanseatic League, which took it to Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Baltic States. Wine was transported in vats, casks, barriques, barrels, and amphorae.

Crane in the Hanseatic city of Bruges, c. 1510. Flanders was a major Portuguese trade partner in the late Middle Ages.


The first Portuguese export successes were the wine from the Monção area (vinho verde/green wine), and the “Osoye” and “Bastardo” dessert wines. At that time, one did not speak of “Muscatel from Setúbal”, although this has to be what was referred to as Osoye. Johnson (1990: 166) writes, “… It began with the sale of wine from the North; in 1430 primarily because Lisbon was an important port of embarkation, “Osoye” gained more widespread recognition, as did Bastardo later”. Johnson (ibid.) continues, “There is no doubt about the Osoye of the 14th century; it was the dessert wine from Azóia, a small harbour situated on the South bank of the Tejo river, quite close to Setúbal.” Marques (1992: 83) gives the following names by which Osoye was also known: Ansoye, Azoy, Asoy or Azoie. Kuske (in Marques 1992: 83) writes, “Ansoye is a wine that is made from dried grapes, or even those of bastardo, so called because of its uncertain colouring”. (Dion, 1959: 321‑322) refers to it as “a small harbour situated on the south bank ofthe Tagus, near Setúbal” (Johnson 1990: 166). Franco (1938: 6) writes, “The wines from this area were famous because of their excellent quality which made them particularly rich and noble wines”. Statements such as these lead one to assume that these wines are the same as those that the Phoenicians first brought to Alexandria (Egypt) and Kelibia (Tunisia), and probably to Setúbal too, which would give them the characteristics of the so‑called Greek wines.

Vineyards close to the castle of Beja, in southern Portugal.

Although these vineyards were destroyed in the 12th century by the invading armies of the Almohad caliph Yaqub al‑Mansur, viticulture recovered and soon thereafter produced exceptional wine which was in great demand. Documents even exist on the piracy of Portuguese wine during this period. Marques (1992: 84) writes, “Portuguese wine destined for Germany was definitely seized by English pirates from Sandwich”. The punitive expedition of 1471, which King Afonso V had entrusted to the future Marquis of Montemor, was cancelled because of the death of the English King Henry VI, suspected to have been caused by the corsair Focumbridge, who was in his service (Fonseca, 2010: 29).

The stability of the genetic base of Portuguese grapevine varieties was one interesting phenomenon.They retained their “endemic” individual characteristics, which were fortified by new varieties introduced by migrating peoples, and by trade relations with colonising nations such as the Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks.

After Lisbon, the Algarve was one of the most important wine export centres in the 15th century. The wines of the Alentejo were shipped via the River Guadiana from the old Roman river port at Mértola to the Algarve from where they were then marketed.

Documents exist on the first wine export in 1456 from Madeira to England. Johnson (1999: 245) quotes António Cordeiro (1717: 79) in this regard. In his True History (1557), the German mercenary soldier in the service of the Portuguese, Hans Standen, refers to its two main products: wine and sugar cane. By improving the competitive position of Madeira wines, made possible by using “Greek” grapevine varieties, “Malmsey” (Malvasia/Malvasier) became a favourite of the English.King Afonso V was far‑sighted enough to send for plants from Candia (Crete), including the Malvasia grapevine (Cordeiro 1717: 79). Strategically, Madeira gained in importance, because it was able to compensate for supply shortfalls of “Greek wine” from elsewhere.This was to Portugal’s advantage when Crete was occupied by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Crete experienced a similar exodus with Muslim occupation as had Iberia, but this time it benefited the Iberian wine regions. That Iberia rose to become a wine superpower by supplying products comparable to “Greek wine” was thanks to the Venetian merchants, who had already secured its excellent international reputation. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which represented a victory for the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II as did his subsequent conquest of the Balkans, caused the collapse of the local wine industry, including the marketing and distribution of its wine by a Venetian Doge. This opened up a new and important market segment for Iberian wine growers who, in contrast to the French and Germans, were capable of producing naturally sweet dessert wines. The Muscatel dessert wines from Osoye, the Porto, Madeira, and Pico wines, Sherry, and Malaga and Tarrragona dessert wines targeted this all‑important new market for “Greek wines” in Northern Europe, from which the Venetians had been expelled. The centuries of Ottoman rule prevented the resurgence of original “Greek wine” in the market. It also lost its prominence because the market had developed a taste for lighter wines as processing and preservation techniques improved.



Even Shakespeare gave voice to the reputation of Madeira wines, although we must be careful given he wrote already in the 16th century: in the play Richard III, when Richard sentences to death the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, by having him drowned in a butt of Malmsey. He also mentions Portuguese wine again in Henry IV when Falstaff is censured for having sold his soul to the Devil for a cup of Madeira wine.

There have been vineyards in Minho for almost two thousand years. Because of its distance from the centre of Arab power, when Afonso Henriques founded the state of Portugal he could see extensive vineyard views in his home country. The wine was characterized by its mild alcoholic content and freshness, and was normally drunk during the year following production because it was not suitable for storage. Cultivated by growing the vine on trees as did the Romans (the arbustrum method. See Figs. 69a and 69b) – as is still the case today in some areas, incidentally – is what naturally gives this wine its low alcohol content at full maturity, and is the determining characteristic of this type of wine which is seldom found today. Because of its special geographical location Viana was a major exporting seaport. History tells us that the harbour was used by the first English traders to establish foreign branches. “The English installed themselves in Portugal with a huge number of special rights, and it was therefore only natural during their war with France that they obtained their wine from Portugal.”


One thought on “History of wine in medieval Portugal – producing, consumption and exports

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s