Port and The Empire

The relationship between two nations, bound in booze


“We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.”

Mary Oliver, Of The Empire

Due to an unfortunate incident resulting in me vomiting in the carpark of the restaurant I had just become General Manager of, I no longer possess the stomach for Port.

Residing in Britain, this proves somewhat inconvenient. Whether it be a request from a customer to be drunk alongside some cheese, a bottle languishing on the sideboard of my parents’ house at Christmas or stocking retail shelves with a beer aged in its barrels, the call for Port echoes frequently. 

My definition is as follows: “Port. During the fermentation of a red or a white wine, whilst yeast is still converting sugar into alcohol, brandy (a strong alcoholic spirit distilled from grapes) is added. This addition of a high abv not only increases the alcohol but kills the yeast in the process, meaning the wine stays sweet. This process is called fortification.”

Port is named after Porto (previously Oporto), which is, as you may have guessed, a port city in the country of Portugal. Big emphasis on the word Port here because without Porto, the city, consisting of ports, the docks, we wouldn’t have Port, the drink. A trio that would not exist without the presence of ships, and the trade that inevitably comes with it.

During the 17th century, as Champagne was evolving to become the drink known and loved today, the relationship between France and England was tense to say the least. Prohibitions and commercial arguments led to William III imposing such severe levels of taxation that English wine merchants gave up on France completely, turning their attention to Portugal, leading to the signing of the 1703 Methuen Treaty. The treaty gave Portuguese goods preferential treatment in Britain and actively encouraged the importation of wine at the expense of the rest of Europe (read, France). 

The wines that proved the most popular were those of the Douro. The higher temperatures resulted in a much faster fermentation producing wines that were dark red in colour and highly tannic. The addition of brandy in order to stabilise the wines and ensure they arrived back to London in good condition quickly earned these fortified wines the nickname ‘black strap’.

(According to an 1890 dictionary of English slang black strap evolved to mean “thick sweet port. A contemptuous term, in allusion to its dark colour, strap being an old name for wine.”)

The use of fortification as preservation, the growing presence of English wine merchants in Portugal as well as the need to build trade routes further afield than France led to the materialisation of another Portuguese wine, Madeira.

The Madeira Islands, just off the northern coast of Africa and previously uninhabited, were “settled” by the Portuguese midway through the thirteenth century. It became important for two reasons: one, the island produced a naturally sweet and highly acidic style of wine by drying grapes in the sun until they became almost raisin-like, concentrating their natural sugar and two, as the final stopping point on various trade routes to India and Africa.

Before the opening of the Suez Canal any ships wanting to travel to India from Europe had to go via the western coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and all the way back up the Indian Coast. The trip took six months in total. In order to make sure the wines of Madeira—bought to prevent scurvy in the sailors and to provide goods to trade on arrival—survived the long trip, wine merchants added Brandy, just as they had with Port.

Whereas the fortification of Port resulted in very sweet, thick wine that was still somewhat of an acquired taste, the six month journey to India, with the addition of tempestuous seas and scorching weather, vastly improved the taste of Madeira, resulting in deeper, richer flavours that were soon eagerly awaited. 

“You can always trust the rich to turn greed into a fashion statement” wrote Nigel Slater in his 2007 book Eating for England. News of this delicious new wine travelled fast and soon London was eager for a taste themselves. However imports direct from Madeira didn’t quite have the same complexity, so the market for ‘ship-aged wines’ began, with the wine transported to India and back again—crossing the equator four times in total—in order to satisfy demand.  

So there we have it, the innovation behind preservation as fortification. But this doesn’t include the context of the larger trade backdrop taking place at that time, nor does it answer why Britain was taking so many trips to India to warrant that innovation in the first place. Enter the East India Company.

The East India Company was founded in 1599 London by a group of merchants—one of which was a “vintner”, another name for a wine merchant—with the aim to seek out trade in India. England, isolated from neighbouring France, was desperately seeking new routes of trade and, whilst Portugal was one such partner, eyes were being set further afield. 

Inspired by the Dutch East India Company and the success they were having trading spices the British EIC followed suit. The history of the East India Company spans centuries, a history as cruel as it is long. They were, as Leo Tolstoy succinctly put it in 1908, “a commercial company [which] enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million people”.

The history of the East India Company spans centuries, a history as cruel as it is long. 

“We still talk about the British conquering India but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality.” writes William Dalrymple in his introduction to his book The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company. “India’s transition to colonialism took place under a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors.” The motives behind trade at this time were not for the love of wine, but for the love of power.

It is against this backdrop that Port and Madeira were being fortified and transported, as well as tin can technology progress and the evolution of the India Pale Ale. It is a stage so bloodied that it is frequently and conveniently ignored. (I find it worth noting that when relaying the history of Madeira my aforementioned Oxford Companion of Wine refers to the Dutch East India Company only, with no mention of Britain’s vast involvement in colonising India.)

The history of the IPA is similar to that of Madeira, in that idyllic tales tell of the addition of hops as preservation to ensure beer lasted the long voyage to India. The reasoning behind such frequent trips to India, again, is often left out of the picture. 

It is a history dissected by David Jesudason in his powerful piece for Good Beer Hunting, Empire State of Mind - Interrogating IPA’s Colonial Identity. “The story of the IPA” he writes, “is not the apolitical tale that so many beer businesses espouse uncritically. Nor is the beer style’s origin so singularly defined. Its real history is far muddier, and is inextricable from the horrors of empire.”

The existence of the East India Company and the existence of Madeira go hand in hand, just as the existence of wars across Europe led to the existence of Port. It’s vital that these indivisible histories, and the many lives lost and changed as a result are not only acknowledged but actively included in any drinks education. 

It is important to ask the question of “why do we” as frequently as “what is” when it comes to our food and our drink. To educate ourselves on the role of trade, empire and colonisation on the drinks viewed as “quintessentially British”. To dissect that the same minds behind the fortification and expansion of Britain’s wine trade were tied with the forces behind the most “supreme act of corporate violence in world history”. To look at how much of what is consumed was born from a necessity and fetishisation of imperial voyage and how that has been romanticised as a marketing tool many decades later.  

The definition of wine fortification is far more complex than previously allocated. Acknowledging that is the very least that can be done. 

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