While in Portugal and the Alentejo wine grape growing region, I was a guest of Enoforum Wines. At the time, I received a well-rounded education from my friend Delfim Costa.

From the beginning of our friendship, Delfim has taught me that to understand Portuguese wines it’s most important to first understand the people of Portugal. To do this, one has to take a really thorough look at the Portuguese Age of Discovery, as well as study their early beginnings. During their early years (B.C. to Medieval history) when the Phoenician, Romans, Moors, Germans, and other Iberian people all invaded their land, each of these foreigners intermingled with Portuguese culture, creating truly unique diversity within this country.

How does all of this tie back into wine? It does seem like an immense stretch of the imagination. I’ll give you that.

I’ve come to realize that the diverse culture of the Portuguese, their early gatherings from all over the world, their openness to adventure and discovery, their passion for all things which enrich their lives… All of these things tie them back into a simple daily life that demands sustenance, but not with a mediocre lifestyle. Nay… It’s one that demands the freshest of ingredients; first from within, and then from around the globe. They have a heightened sense for the most intriguing of flavors, both in solids and liquids.

The amphoras left behind by the Romans began their wine journey. The spices from around the world began their flavor journey…. All coming back to their daily sustenance, and now their willingness to share what they have enjoyed for centuries upon centuries with others who are interested.

The Portuguese have returned to the global market with a renewed spirit. Today, we’re all able to sample their history and passion within their wines… And, if you’re lucky enough, also within their foods.

I’ve studied and written about those early days, and now want to write about the Portuguese explorations and discoveries that began in 1279, when King Diniz set out to improve Portugal’s emerging navy. So began their Age of Discovery, which is most widely recognized as the years between 1415 to 1542.

It’s fitting that there’s a Monument of Discoveries in Lisbon on the Tagus River, just 13.8 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It was inaugurated in 1960, during celebrations of the 500 year anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. There’s a sprawling walkway made from a combination of cobblestones and tiles, which leads to the actual monument. It’s an amazing sight to behold, before you even reach the memorial.

As I began to walk toward the monument, I first saw cobblestones that led toward the Tagus River. It was like I was adrift at sea. It was so realistic that it felt like the stones were dimensional, which they weren’t. It’s a flat surface.

As I continued, what was revealed was a much more significant stroll than I could have earlier imagined.

As I continued toward the monument, I couldn’t help but spend my time looking down at the stones beneath my feet, because it was such an unusual sight. I began to realize that they were giving me the impression of water in motion. But then, as I walked even closer toward the river, the stones turned into tiles, and I began to see triangular shapes, which were then revealed to be compass rose points. This all took time to interpret. As I got closer to the center, I began to see caravels. Caravels are a style of ship that Prince Henry the Navigator crafted, with their advantage over older ships being their triangular sails. These canvases could be trimmed to allow the ship to proceed in either cross or head winds. This was a first in shipbuilding; so, Henry basically invented the sails that we see on all of today’s sailboats.

Some caravels had a date and name of an important Portuguese discovery, revealing a world map of their explorations. From above, you’d immediately get the Compass Rose of Lisbon (Rosa dos Ventos do Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Wind Rose of the Stone Monument of the Discoveries), but walking toward it and in it takes an inordinate amount of time to piece it all together. It’s like walking on a puzzle and being absorbed by each minute image, and then realizing there’s something much more big picture about it. In about an hour, I was able to view history as the explorers must have done in their 127 years of circumnavigation. I didn’t come away with their spices, gold, and riches; but, I did come away with a wealth of images that I could later (right now) begin to piece together… And it is all that they explored in a visual time line.

[Above image was taken by Nol Aders.]

Why the Age of Discovery?

Overland trade routes from the east to Europe and the Mediterranean primarily ended in Genoa and Venice. From there, products and spices (a necessity for their foods) would then be distributed… In a three-tiered system. Portugal wanted to have direct access to these goods. (Sound familiar?)

Early dates:

  • 1279 ~ King Diniz set out to improve Portugal’s emerging navy.
  • 1341 ~ Three ships sailed from Lisbon, and explored the Canary Islands (NW coast of Africa).

Serious world exploration began with Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460):

  • 1415 ~ Henry the Navigator conquered the Moroccan trading port of Ceuta.
  • 1427 ~ Henry dispatched ships into the Atlantic. One of his captains discovered the islands of Madeira and Azores.
  • 1433 ~ Gil Eanes, a trusted captain, rounded Cape Bojador as ordered by Henry.
  • 1487 ~ Bartholomeu Dias sailed from Lisbon, becoming the first to round the African continent. He returned to King John to tell him of his explorations. Present at that time was Christopher Columbus, a navigator from Genoa, who had come to the king to present his own proposal for navigating to the west. The king rejected Columbus, as he didn’t trust him. Columbus then took his ideas to Spain.
  • 1494 ~ Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. This agreement divided the world along a north-south line of 370 leagues west of the Canaries, into Portuguese and Spanish hemispheres.
  • 1497 ~ Vasco da Gama lead the first Portuguese expedition around Africa to India under the rule of King Manuel I. (I’ve written in the past about Manueline Architecture). He reached Calcutta on May 14, 1498. Spices were taken on board, and he returned to Portugal. De Gama did what others failed to do… join the Old World to the older civilizations of the Middle East (Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India). This historic voyage changed Europe, the course of world history, and placed Portugal into a position of its own powerful leadership role for the future. (The riches gathered from this trip began this ornate style of architecture, which is indigenous to only Portugal. This is because it’s the blending of all their unique historically cultural invasions and influences.
  • 1500 ~ Pedro Alvares Cabral set out from Lisbon, headed toward the same route as da Gama, but was sent into another direction by a terrible storm. His journey took him to the shores of South America… namely Brazil.
  • 1543 ~ The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Japan. They arrived accidentally (another storm), landing onto the island of Tanegashima.
  • 17th Century ~ Portugal’s monopoly came to an end, but still had influence in India until the 1960s, and in Africa until the 1970s.

During the Age of Discovery the Portuguese enjoyed the following:

  • Sold Chinese silk for Japanese silver
  • Pepper from Malabar and Indonesia
  • Brought home mace and nutmeg from the Banda Islands of Indonesia
  • Introduced cloves from Indonesia’s Spice Islands, also known as the Moluccas Islands
  • Cinnamon came from Ceylon
  • Arabia horses were introduced
  • Pepper, ginger, and saffron were prized commodities in the India-Europe trade
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