John Downes MW explores the port world’s long history of Anglo-Portuguese rivalry.

Porto clings for dear life to the steep banks of the Douro at its Atlantic mouth. The daytime views of the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia are breathtaking, but it’s the night view that steals the show. More reminiscent of Hollywood than Portugal, enormous illuminated letters announcing the names of the famous port houses perch high on the hillside.

While many of the signs for the English port companies are missing a letter or two, the names of the Portuguese houses shine brightly. Could it be, I wondered, that the Portuguese are at last pushing the English out of the frame? Can the likes of Barros, Kopke, Ferreira and Ramos- Pinto snatch the spotlight from such names as TAY OR’S, GRA AM’S and CO KBURN’S ? Maybe, but it won’t be easy, for history is on the side of the British. Way back in the 17th century, cut off by war from their Bordeaux lifeline, the English found a worthy substitute just around the Bay of Biscay when they fell in love with the wines of the Douro. The passionate affair was sealed in 1703 by the Methuen Treaty, an agreement that gave favourable duty rates to their new Portuguese mates, much to the disgust of French winemakers.

Unfortunately the Portuguese wines didn’t travel well, and so some bright spark came upon the idea to ‘fortify’ them with an alcohol boost against the journey home. Port was born and, as they say, the rest is history. The English soon owned quintas along the baking Douro Valley, which gave them a flying start over their Portuguese rivals. ‘That early advantage gave them a great foothold in the all-important English market,’ notes Antonio Rocha Graca, Ferreira’s technical director, ‘but we’ve since caught up.’

Times have changed. Despite healthy rivalry between individual the English and Portuguese houses, they’re working together to drive up quality. An association to improve viticulture in the Douro is just one of many Anglo-Porto initiatives. ‘They regularly taste each other’s wines and even marry each other these days,’ quips Niepoort’s Nuno Borges.The results of this collaboration are impressive, and port sales continue to grow, year on year. The Portuguese houses are at the cutting edge of vineyard technology, where advances include the planting of varietal blocks, as opposed to the old practice of planting each of the main varieties – Tourigas Nacional and Francesa, Tinto Cäo and Tintas Roriz and Barroca – willy nilly across the Douro Valley’s steep schistose slopes. ‘Planting varietal blocks not only allows optimum picking and more blending control, it also minimises vineyard treatments,’ confirms Ferreira’s Vasco Magalhaes. Levels of investment are also impressive, with Ferreira’s £2.2 million Quinta de Leda and Niepoort’s new winery at Quinta de Napoles catching the eye. However, it’s interesting to note that many quintas shun the latest technology and stick with traditional foot treading in lagares. Forty per cent of our port and all our vintage port is foot-trodden – it gives better colour and tannins,’ says Ramos Pinto’s export director Jorge Rozas.

No matter how close the two camps are today, old beliefs die hard, and as you travel around the Douro it’s not unusual to hear that the English are the vintage specialists whereas the Portuguese are the kings of tawny. Vintage port may only account for a meagre four per cent of the total market but as the flagship wine it’s critical for port’s premium image. The point wasn’t lost on the English, who made hay during their early dominance of the marketplace. In the minds of many the image remains strong, but the Portuguese are now also winning awards for vintage wines and the cliché is fast disappearing.

Historically, however, the ‘tawny specialist’ tag did the Portuguese untold damage. Without a vintage heritage, producers weren’t taken seriously, a situation that had a direct effect on their winemaking. ‘As we were not seen as vintage producers we didn’t sell much vintage, which meant that we also didn’t make much vintage. It was a vicious circle,’ explains Rozas.

The vintage legacy still pays dividends for the English, however, they were looked upon as mediocre tawny producers. ‘It’s a position that we’ve now lost, but only after years of hard work,’ confirms Taylor’s managing director Adrian Bridge.Looking on the bright side, having to concentrate on wood-aged ports has given the Portuguese definite advantages in today’s tawny-friendly market. Not only do they hold wonderful reserves of old wines, they have also accumulated mind-boggling expertise in the art of blending. ‘At Niepoort we continue to pass on tasting and blending expertise from generation to generation,’ confirms Borges.While some still hype up the rivalry between the Portuguese and the English, the disappearance of the old, fuddy-duddy market brought the two nations together long ago. In an age of multinationals and mergers, there’s no time for petty feuds. ‘The competition is now between brands and non-brands, even within the same group,’ confirms Barros. With both Barros and Kopke under his control, Barros knows that each must be successful, a puzzle that is solved by promoting each brand in different markets. ‘While Kopke is big in the Benelux countries, Barros is top in Spain, Canada and France.’

The modern alliance has also quashed the myth that each nationality produces its own distinct style of port. Today, you’re more likely to discover different styles under the same roof. ‘Offley and Ferreira are both under the Sogrape umbrella and there’s a definite taste difference between the two tawnies,’ says Ferreira’s technical director, Jose Maria d’Orey Soares Franco. A comparative tasting of 10-year-old tawnies confirms that Offley’s nutty, oxidised style is in complete contrast to the fruitier Ferreira hallmark.

The joint exploitation of the fast-growing market for the Douro’s red wines by both Portuguese and English families is ample demonstration of their good relationship, though the question of who first saw the potential is open to (sometimes heated) debate. Portal’s director Pedro Mansilha Brance is more than prepared to stake his claim. ‘If there’s one thing that makes Quinta do Portal different from the English it’s that we invested in our vineyard and winery for the production of still red and moscatel wines as well as of port.’ Another of Porto’s oldest and largest Portuguese companies, Royal Oporto, is also confident of its Douro reds. ‘We produce about 15 million bottles of wine a year and 30 per cent of these are still,’ says marketeer Joanna Santos.And, while it might well be tempting for some to promote the idea of 12 rounds between two heavyweights who are itching to knock hell out of each other, if you’re looking for such a fight in the Douro you’re about 20 years too late.

John Downes MW is a writer and broadcaster.

Written by JOHN DOWNES