There were nine musicians in all – playing horns, guitars, accordions – and that's if you didn't count the rest of us, improvising artful sounds with hands, feet and lips. The rain clapped down on the street next to us, but we danced on to the impromptu gypsy music under the protection of one of Lisbon’s many arcade roofs. It was one of those magical, spontaneous nights that could only have manifested at that exact place and time. Smiles were all around, but my friend Joana Teixeira, a Lisbon-native, looked pensive.
“None of these musicians are Portuguese,” she lamented. “Portugal used to be a great country. We had so much talent and so much power. Now we’ve lost everything.”
To an outsider, the birthplace of the musicians seemed irrelevant, but her concern had deeper roots – it was about a nation that was once one of the most powerful on Earth, managing a colonial empire that has left some 250 million Portuguese speakers worldwide in its wake, and losing much of its influence in the world – and much more recently, falling victim to economic disaster.
Searching for a legacy
The next morning the trains were on strike, a fairly typical experience in this new, modern-day Portugal, but I was determined to catch one of the few buses travelling from Lisbon to the city to Porto, home to the fortified dessert wine that made Portugal’s second city world famous. Considering port wine’s high price tag and wide-spread availability around the globe, it seemed to be one of the few remaining marks Portugal continues to make in the world.
Little did I know – even Portugal’s most famous export has British roots.
Port is produced from grapes grown in the Douro Valley and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, a city just a short walk across the Douro River from Porto. When it was first developed in the 16th Century, it was light and dry; the rich, sweet wine we know today was conceived in 1703, when the Methuen Treaty between Portugal and England ensured that wine from Portugal would be less heavily taxed than wine from France. This resulted in heavy English investment, and stronger regulation. And in order to ensure the wine would keep well on the long journey to Britain, producers began fortifying the wine using aguardente, liquor produced from grape must, giving port its high alcohol content (18% - 20%) and distinct flavour.
- Vila Nova De Gaia, Portugal. (Image Source/Getty)
Of the 90% of port wine that is still exported today, many of the major producers — such as Taylor’s, Sandeman’s and Cockburn’s — retain their British names; an outward marker of their international heritage.
Portugal’s most famous export may be port wine, but its most common is vinho verde, a wine produced in the Minho region, which begins about 30km north of Porto. Yet for nearly its entire history – vinho verde vines are so ancient that Seneca the Younger and Pliny the Elder both referenced the grapes as far back as 96 BC – the wine was nearly impossible to find outside of Portugal. Now, because of its affordable price tag and refreshing taste, vinho verde is finally starting to make a name for itself abroad.
In many ways – at least in terms of age, colour, alcohol content and cost — Portugal’s less famous wine is the anti-port. For one, this "green wine” (called so in reference to its age, not it’s light, bright colour) was traditionally made with young, even unripe grapes and is supposed to be consumed within a year of production. It’s also quite low in alcohol (while most wine typically doesn’t exceed 14%, and port reaches 18%, vinho verde is typically no stronger than 11.5%). Then there’s the price: many Portuguese can only afford to drink port wine on special occasions. Vinho verde, which generally ranges from three euros to 25 euros, is the everyman’s wine.
I drove 28km east from Porto to Quinta da Bela Vista, a vinho verde vineyard in the village of Parada de Todeia, for a small sampling of what the roughly 21,000 producers in the region were up to.