In honor of National Wine Day today, I’m sharing the below article I wrote for Coastal Lifestyle Magazine a couple years ago. The Douro Valley in northern Portugal is my favorite wine region and well worth a visit for wine-tasting amateurs and connoisseurs alike. So go grab a glass of your fave vintage to sip while giving this a read!
Tucked away in the distant reaches of northern Portugal lies the Douro Valley.
Rivaling the sophistication of the rolling hills of Burgundy and with hints of the refinement found in Napa Valley, this historic and lesser-known wine region rests upon a dramatic landscape wrought with sloping valleys, slanting hills, and pared by the Douro River that sinuously drifts between them. With a history of wine production spanning 2000 years, this once remote area continues to preserve and sustain its authentic character.
Discovering the traditions of the sleepy hilltop towns of the Douro Valley is an unparalleled experience not to be left off any European itinerary.
Nestled along the mouth of the river is the old town of Porto.
Distinguished by a cultural legacy so rich that UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in the 1990’s, Porto is a city of contrasts. Roman ruins loiter beneath medieval streets; bell towers kiss the heavens as the tributary rushes to meet the eternal depths of the Atlantic Ocean; slender alleys twist round terraced buildings to merge with sprawling plazas; But perhaps its most prevalent distinction comes from a Portuguese wine tradition heavily entrenched in English culture.
The mid-to-late 1600’s were strewn with a multitude of French wars, ultimately steering towards an impending boycott on the importation of the country’s wines into Great Britain. Recognizing their plight, the English turned to the supple Portuguese lands of the Douro Valley and the port wine trade was born.
Porto is the perfect base from which to explore this profound tradition. The local train departs regularly from Sao Bento Station to sculpt its path along the curvatures of the Douro River. Often touted the world’s most picturesque railway route, it chugs slowly upstream, transferring passengers to the vineyard-laden villages dispersed among the waterfront.
Disembarking onto the waiting platform outside the quaint town of Pinhao is like strolling through the gates of paradise. Ornamented with distinctive blue and white tiled mosaics, the charming train depot perfectly frames the natural backdrop of undulating valleys and vales while an all-embracing tranquility ensues.
In a region where accommodation is sparse, a five star hotel conveniently lies in wait behind the station. Housed in a classically converted 18th century estate, The Vintage House retains its old-fashioned architectural integrity while providing the modern comforts society has grown accustomed to. Private verandas adorn each suite and face the stepped-peaks looming on either side of the river while classic Portuguese cuisine can be savored on the al fresco dining terrace adjacent to the hotel’s pool.
With only one main street, there’s little to do in Pinhao but meander along uninhabited lanes, reveling in the sun-kissed greenery laid out beneath clear skies before stopping in one of the quintas for a mid-afternoon wine tasting. The Quinta do Bomfim is celebrated as one of the finest vineyards in the Douro Valley – a reputation garnered from the wealth of knowledge accumulated over five generations of family ownership. Each family member at one time or other has toiled in every aspect of the wine-making process.
After hosting the Prime Minister of Portugal in May 2015, this renowned quinta released its doors to visitors for the first time. Tours permit guests to trek through vineyards where grapes are exquisitely selected by hand and where the disciplined treading process is still used in the making of their special blends. The Douro Valley is one of the last places in the world where this customary ‘stomping’ method still exists.
Once readied, the wine is transported down to the resident Port Lodges stacked high in Vila Nova de Gaia which lies across the river from Porto. Here it is stirred, aged, and stored before its eventual exportation. Historically, up to 100 casks where amassed onto distinctive flat-bottomed boats called barco rabelos. In its heyday, over 25,000 rabelos plied the once treacherous waters of the Douro as they made their way from the inaccessible reaches of the wine-growing region to the waiting lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Though times have changed with the construction of river dams and the railway line, these time-honored boats still linger along the glistening waters, trading in casks for tourists. Nostalgia for the old days takes hold as one climbs aboard and traces the traditional route from Pinhao down to the approximately 60 tasting rooms still piling the hills of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Ending the journey with a port tasting in one of the area’s reputable cellars is the perfect culmination to days spent immersed in northern Portugal’s wine territory. All the sweet varieties of tawny, ruby, and vintage port can be found at Graham’s where the wine hails from Quinta do Bomfim and comes accompanied with a spectacular view overlooking both Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.
Much like a good port wine itself, the Douro Valley has an air of aged refinement accented with cultural variances that are best sampled slowly and deliberately while leaving a lingering sentimental buzz unmatched by any other European experience.
Practical Info for Visiting the Douro Valley
The three main towns in the Douro Valley easily accessible by train or car are Pinhao, Pocinho, and Peso da Regua. I recommend spending a few days in the larger city of Porto (a list of things to do in Porto can be found here) before journeying up into the Douro Valley to spend a night or two (or 10).
- Getting There: You can fly directly into Porto or fly into the country’s capital of Lisbon and take the train up (3 hour ride). From Porto, the Douro Valley is easily reachable via rental car or train. There are several companies that offer single or multi-day boat tour packages from Porto as well.
- Getting Around in the Valley: Rental car is your best option if you plan on spending several days in the valley and wish to reach multiple vineyards high in the hills. Taxis from hotels in Pinhao, Regua, and Pocinho can be arranged but it does get expensive. I solely used the Linha do Douro train line to get from town to town and then walked to what vineyards I could.
- Where to Stay: I stayed at the lovely Vintage House (mentioned in the above article) in Pinhao as my base. I highly recommend it as well as the vineyard lying right next door – The Quinta do Bomfim.
- Tasting Rooms of Vila Nova de Gaia: With over 60 to choose from, it can be tough to choose. Most casual wine travelers visit the Port lodges adorning the riverbank – most of which are rammed with tourists and aren’t necessarily the top producers of Port wine. I recommend wandering up the hills (hard on your calves but well worth it) to the tasting rooms higher up. Taylor’s and Grahams are my two favorite. Graham’s has a stunning vista with sweeping views of Porto and the Douro River while Taylor’s offers an intimate tasting experience.
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Happy National Wine Day! What are some of your favorite wine regions? Let me know in the comments below.
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