It is thought to be the world's largest ancient ship rebuild project. Examination of the artefacts and remains found on board suggests that the ship probably sailed the Lisbon-Bristol trade route, probably carrying Port from Portugal.
Older than the Mary Rose
Work on the Riverfront arts centre was paused while excavations could take place, and the timbers have since been undergoing a lengthy conservation process so the ship can be displayed to the public. This ship is older than the Mary Rose, in fact, "The Mary Rose is the world's 16th Century ship, the Vasa in Sweden is the world's 17th Century ship - Newport will be the world's 15th Century ship.
The ship was a formidable three-masted craft measuring over 30 metres in length and capable of carrying around 200 tons of cargo.
According to ‘Wines of Portugal’ in the 15th century, fortified wine was transported in ships essentially as ballast, the fortified wines would age inside the barrels scattered around the holds of the galleys, where time, heat and the rocking of the sea would perform a small miracle, offering, on the return, a wine of unequalled quality, considered precious and sold at a price of gold. They called it "Roda" or "Torna Viagem" wine and it was with it that the Portuguese started to get to know and work with the ageing of wine.
Port, what a wonderful discovery
The discovery of the Newport Ship is very significant, not least as it established that by the 15th century, the UK was already enjoying fortified wine from Portugal.
Wine has been made in Portugal since at least 2000 BC when the Tartessians planted vines in the Southern Sado and Tagus valleys. By the 10th century BC, the Phoenicians had arrived and introduced new grape varieties and winemaking techniques to the area. But when did Portuguese wine start to be exported to the UK?
Portugal started to export its wines to Rome during the Roman Empire. It was thought that modern exports developed with trade to England after the Methuen Treaty in 1703. The discovery of the artefacts discovered on the Newport ship establish that wines, albeit fortified, were being exported back in the 15th century, perhaps even before that.
Portugal had the shortest sea route to the UK
Although Portugal’s neighbours Spain also had wines, Portugal had the advantage of a much quicker and direct sea route to the UK. The two countries resemble each other very little and have been politically at odds throughout history. Because of this long-standing opposition, Portugal embraced the ocean in terms of trade, culture and cuisine. Portugal was in fact a leading force in the Age of Discovery during the 15th century. The discovery of the Newport ship proves this.
Portugal and Madeira seem to have created wine export markets, and the long sea voyages helped shape two of Portugal’s most unique and historical wines: Port and Madeira. One theory is that these fortified wines were accidentally invented when sailors added a bit of brandy to preserve wine for its journey across the ocean. Was it the agitation of the wine as it was transported as ballast or the addition of brandy? Whichever, or probably both, what a wonderful discovery.
Were the Australians involved in developing Alentejo reds?
You may believe that it was the Australians who discovered and developed wine in the Alentejo. This seems to be based on the fact that a few years ago, around 1997, we suddenly ‘discovered’ Alentejo red wine.
The Medieval history of the region began with the Reconquista of Monsaraz and Reguengos in 1232. Since then, wine and olive oil have become an indelible aspect of the region. The geographical boundaries of Herdade do Esporão (originally Defesa do Esporão) was only established in 1267, and have been practically unchanged since then, despite being the setting for bloody battles and heroic deeds over almost nine centuries.
It’s difficult to establish if the Australians were involved in the development of Alentejo reds, perhaps some of our readers know. Please be sure to comment. Certainly, something happened to the red wines from this region, and suddenly they were ‘hitting the headlines’ with wine lovers everywhere. Supermarkets were frequently sold out of the best-known brands.
Portuguese wines in the UK ‘hoje en dia’
Portuguese wine still faces a struggle to gain the recognition it deserves in the UK (apart from Port, and we won’t even mention Mateus Rosé. In the late 60’s and 70’s Mateus Rosé was the best-marketed wine from Portugal at the time. Problem was that many people thought this was the only wine from Portugal).
I have spoken to those in the wine trade in London as well as a top chef. The answer is that there is no dispute about quality, it’s just that high-end buyers only want French wine. It's pure wine snobbery.
A rich tapestry of native grapes also makes Portuguese wines unique. With over 250 indigenous grape varieties, Portugal has more native grapes per square mile than any other country in the world, according to Wines of Portugal.
If you’re in the UK, don’t miss out on the superb wines from Portugal. They have been shipped to the UK since the 15th century, the Newport ship proves this. Forget wine snobbery and enjoy the excellent wines from Portugal. Cheers!
Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy.