How a Woman Saved Portugal’s Wine Industry - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Dona Antónia didn't mess around when it came to port.

People have been making wine in the rolling hills of the Douro Valley since a few thousand years B.C.E., if wine pips found in archaeological sites are any indication. Centuries later, it became the world’s first regulated wine region, which in 1756 was demarcated for the creation of port. As of 2018, Portugal was the 11th-largest wine-producing country in the world, though it still produced only about 161 million gallons of wine a year (compared to over a billion each from Spain, France and Italy).

But that long history hasn’t been without its valleys. Less than 200 years ago, the country’s entire wine industry was on the brink of extinction. But in a business historically hostile to women, one female entrepreneur not only made it through — she also sustained the entire industry.

Antónia Ferreira, or Dona (Lady) Antónia, as she was known, was born in 1811 into a country wracked by political crisis. The Napoleonic Wars hadn’t been kind to Portugal, and the royal family had fled French aggressions for Brazil, temporarily relocating Portugal’s capital to Rio de Janeiro. Antónia’s family was wealthy — a fortune made in wine shipping — and she was known as Ferreirinha, aka “the little Ferreira.” While her wealth and position gave her an advantage, her rise to the top of the wine world was hardly assured.

“She had to summon all her strength to compete in a man-led world,” says historian Natália Fauvrelle, a coordinator at the Douro Museum in Peso da Régua. “We can’t say she was born with an inclination to do all that. Her life made her be that way.”

She sold off her husband’s most extravagant assets (like horses and chandeliers), settled their debts and took to the wine fields, learning about the process from the soil up.

Ferreira was married off at the age of 23 to her own cousin, in what was widely seen as little more than an economic match. They were both only children, and the marriage consolidated the family fortune. But her husband had his flaws: He spent money lavishly and drank to excess. Just 10 years later, he died, having contracted first syphilis and then typhus. Antónia was alone against the world, but she was well-equipped.

“She had an unusual sense of management for her time,” says biographer Gaspar Martins Pereira — who penned Dona Antónia along with wine producer (and Ferreira descendant) Maria Olazábal. “Her condition as a widow forced her to take care of the family’s estate.” Just 33, Antónia set about defending her fortune from her largest competitors: English wine exporters who had set up shop in Porto.

She sold off her husband’s most extravagant assets (like horses and chandeliers), settled their debts and took to the wine fields, learning about the process from the soil up. “She wanted to know how things were going, she oversaw the works [and] she was present at a time landowners were mostly absent,” says Fauvrelle. In 1856, she married again — this time to a wealthy man who understood and supported her attachment to the Douro region. Aside from her business, she attempted to support the people of Douro with generous financial donations — which, given that Portugal was then one of Europe’s poorest countries, earned her a saintly reputation.

Views And People Of The Douro Valley

Female workers step barefoot through fermenting wine at the Quinta do Noval winery in the Douro Valley.

Source David Silverman/Getty

In the 1850s, wine researchers collected specimens of American grape vines and brought them back to Europe. With them, they brought phylloxera, a vine-destroying insect that was behind the great European wine blight that devastated viticulture across the continent. Portugal didn’t escape unscathed: In the 1870s, the Douro region saw myriad plantations destroyed and their owners financially ruined.

Antónia wasn’t one of them. Instead, she drew on international know-how — such as ordering sulfur from Britain to apply to the decaying plants — so she, by trial and error, could learn exactly how they’d dealt with the blight. Despite a naturally cautious nature, she decided to implement new forms to protect Douro’s plantations through new grafting techniques imported from other countries. After her, small farmers in the region were inspired to try the same techniques — a wave of regeneration that salvaged the entire region’s economy. Wine remained Portugal’s primary export until 1930, and Antónia died the richest woman in Portugal.

After Antónia’s death in her mid-80s, her children’s profligate spending saw her estate partitioned and sold off. But while some was sold to larger companies, other pieces have stayed in the family: The owners of at least two local vineyards, Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, are descended from the Dona herself.

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