History of Sparkling Wine Production in Portugal

7th February 2023

vineyard Portugal

What comes to your mind when you are asked to name a wine from Portugal? I bet that a great part of you will name a Port wine! And you will be right! This wine from the picturesque Douro valley has gained worldwide recognition and there is a great number of reasons why other wine producing countries decided to elaborate their own versions of fortified wines inspired by Portuguese Port wine. Nevertheless, this story won’t be about Port wine, but about the history of sparkling wine production in Portugal!

Douro – Landmark of Fortified Wines and Cradle of Bubbles

I started my story with the Douro valley, for the reason that this region is not only a landmark for fortified wine production, but it is also a cradle of sparkling wine production in Portugal. There is plenty of information on wine production in the territory of Portugal dating back to Roman times. But when it comes to the origins of sparkling wine production, there is a scarcity of documented information.

Despite the fact that there is no registered data as regards techniques used for the first sparkling wine production, several sources mention a ‘Casa Forrester’ in the Douro as the place of first sparkling experiences in Portugal dating back to 1860. People who managed to taste this nectar were comparing it with the best ‘Champagnes of France’ which make us think that it could be elaborated by traditional method. This seems to be the first isolated attempt to produce a new style of wine in Portugal.

Trials that Triumph with Champagne-Style Sparkling Wine

Thirty years later, sparkling wine production in Portugal started to gain on a more serious scale. As a result of exchanging experience with their French colleagues and several visits to the Champagne region, great developments were achieved, thanks to the work of the agronomist José Maria Tavares da Silva. He started his ‘sparkling’ trials in the Douro valley, where he experimented (1885) with a local white grape variety Malvasia Fina. Continuing his investigations, he moved to Bairrada to head the established (1887) ‘Practical School of Viticulture and Pomology’. Here he managed to adapt the best winemaking practices for the local terroir and adjust the technical equipment to produce sparkling wines according to the traditional method as used for Champagne production in France – with second fermentation in a bottle.

In 1890 the first ‘Champagne-style’ sparkling wine of Portugal was born, however, its presentation to the public was made a few years later. Then the production of traditional method sparkling wines in Portugal started to expand on a commercial scale in Bairrada and in Douro valley, around the city of Lamego.

Massification of Sparkling Wine Production

The establishment of the ‘Bairrada Wine Association’ in 1893, was the first step towards the industrialisation of sparkling wine production using the traditional sparkling wine method in Portugal. Long before it was prohibited by law, their labels, proudly stated ‘Portuguese Champagne’. These labels can still be found for appreciation in the wine museum of Bairrada.

From the second decade of the twentieth century, like buds in spring, cellars started to pop up in Bairrada. They were dedicated to transforming still wines, bought from the farmers of the region, into sparkling wines. These cellars provided a lot of work for local inhabitants.

Expansion of Sparkling Wine Production Around Portugal 

Up to the nineties, sparkling wine production was concentrated around Bairrada, Lamego and Távora-Varosa, locations where natural conditions were favourable for sparkling wine production. A fact that Portugal joined the EU in 1986 and later also the Eurozone (1999), which permitted them to receive EU financial support for agriculture. In turn, wine producers could better explore their wine growing regions and acquire needed modern equipment. As a result winemakers from North (Vinho Verde) to South (Algarve) of the country started to add sparkling wines to their portfolio.

Geography of Sparkling Wine Production in Portugal 

Nowadays sparkling wines are produced across all fourteen wine producing regions of Portugal, including Madeira and the Azores islands. Each region presents its unique profile sparkling wines, nevertheless, the leader in quality and consistency of traditional method sparkling wines still belongs to Bairrada and Távora-Varosa wine regions. These regions are followed by Vinho Verde and Tejo. Douro wine region occupies only fifth place (data of 2020) on a national level in certified sparkling wine production and the reason for that is Port wine. A greater portion of the grapes in the Douro Valley is still dedicated to the Port wine of the region.

To sum up this story, I must say that there is a great variety of quality sparkling wines to discover in Portugal! They are produced from traditional grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and from very local ones, such as Baga, Touriga Nacional or Arinto. Now it’s up to you to decide where you would like to start your exploration of Portuguese sparkling wines! Choose a good companion and enjoy responsibly!

Image credit: PortugalDouro RiverVineyards

Ilona Akulova

A lawyer and certified specialist in wines (WSET, CMS, IVDP), Ambassador of Wines of Portugal and a member of Association of Sommeliers of Portugal. She co-founded the first and only wine shop-bar in Latvia dedicated solely to Portuguese wines. She is an author of an online course 'Secrets of Wine Appreciation' and runs her own consultancy 'Bottled Assets.