Wine producers in Portugal’s Douro region now have the backing of President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in demanding urgent reform to the long outdated regulatory system that is threatening the economic viability of their renowned vineyards.
The president has followed up on an open letter signed by the leaders of the top wine companies, such as Symington Sogrape, Sogevinus and Gran Cruz, as well as a number of medium and small-sized premium producers. The letter has also been endorsed by about 1,000 protesters insisting on rapid change.
The Douro’s regulations were put in place about 100 years ago. Some minor adjustments have been made since then, but a full review and more essential adjustments are now desperately needed “so that the region adapts to today and tomorrow’s reality,” the president has said. He noted that changes were in the interests not only of the Douro region but the whole of Portugal.
Paul Symingtom, of Symington Wine Estates, has pointed out that Douro wine regulations were designed last century almost exclusively for Port, but other wines now account for almost half of total grape production. “We need more intelligent use of the rules on maximum yields per hectare,” he said.
For those unfamiliar with Douro vineyards, they are planted on remarkably stony soil on terraces on the sides of 30 degree hills. The grapes have to push their roots deep into the ground because the soil does not retain much water.
Vines have been grown here at least since the Romans made wine during their long occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal has been exporting wine from the spectacular Douro Valley since the nation’s founding in the 12th century. Exports were hugely enhanced after Portugal and England signed the Treaty of Windsor in 1386. Port has been the best known type of Douro wine since the mid-17th century.
Portugal is now the fourth largest grape-growing country in the world and the ninth largest wine producer. But in recent times the Douro has been especially vulnerable to global warming causing a mixture of floods, droughts, and scorching heat waves with temperatures reaching more than 104 degrees F. Diminishing yields, rising costs, low sales prices, a decreasing number of farmers and other factors have impacted the industry.
The Drinks Business, a European trade journal, has issued a translation of the Portuguese open letter headlined “The Douro Deserves Better”: Some of the highlights:
- The Douro demarcated region is known for being one of the marvels of the wine world. It contains more than half of the world’s steep mountain vineyards and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is no comparable wine region.
- More than 19,000 grape farmers and 1,000 companies are committed to working these challenging vineyards, producing two renowned wines: Port and DOC Douro wines.
- Over the past 20 years, there has been a 25% reduction in total Port volumes to 7.8 million cases in 2022, while DOC wines have grown to 5.2 million cases.
- Despite these profound changes, the regulatory structure has remained unchanged and is now creating serious distortions that have impacted not only the price of grapes but also the socio-economic sustainability of the farmers, the companies and the future of the region’s wines in international markets.
- Many grapes are sold below cost. The loss to farmers is obvious, resulting in the abandonment of vineyards and depopulation of the region.
- Equally serious is that too many wines are being sold internationally at prices comparable with the cheapest wines in the world – something that would be impossible if farmers were paid a fair price.
- Over the past 15 years, various studies have been produced by highly reputable organizations. All concluded that the Douro is not sustainable under these circumstances and that regulatory reform is necessary. But nothing has been done despite repeated promises by the State.
Len Port, born in Northern Ireland, worked as a news reporter and correspondent, mainly in Hong Kong and South Africa, before moving to Portugal many years ago.