The Douro Valley is one of the most unique wine regions in the world
By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer and Photographer
When visiting Portugal, specifically Porto, spending a few days in the Douro Valley is a must. Just a 90-minute drive east of the Porto you will find one of the most unique wine regions in the world.
Upon entering the valley you drive into stunning vistas of terraced vineyards starting high up on the hills and growing down to the Tagus River. The Douro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region (DOC) dating back to 1756.
This means there are detailed regulations to protect the style and quality of the wine produced here. The Douro Valley’s 61,000 acres were also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Amongst its reasons were having a challenging and scenic landscape.
What makes the Douro Valley one of the prettiest wine areas, is its hand-cut terraces that are carved into the hills that are separated by the river.
This arduous work started during the Roman times and is kept up by hand to this day. The views are inspiring whether you are along the river or on top of the hills.
The Douro Valley and Port Wine
It was not until the 17th century that the Douro Valley earned its place as a leading wine exporter. What sealed the deal was a 1703 treaty between the British and Portugal. This allowed the English to import wine at one-third less duty rates than French wine.
It also made it easier to get wine from Portugal due to the wars that went on between England and France. The British importers also appreciated the taste of the fortified wine that would not spoil in transit.’
Port’s Only Legal Place
The Douro Valley is the only “legal” place where Port wine can be produced. The vineyards or quintas have to meet strict regulations for it to be called Port wine. The grapes here are all picked by hand and then stomped by feet in what is called “foot treading.”
Foot treading is done so that the grape pips (seeds) do not break creating a bitter element. During harvest, visitors can witness this. At Croft (see below) visitors can experience foot stomping.
Port is a blend of several grapes grown in the region. What makes Port different is that brandy is added to the fermentation. This halts the process preserving some of the grapes’ natural sugars. It is what gives port its signature taste.
Quinta do Panascal is home to the highly acclaimed Fonseca Port Wine and a good first vineyard to visit on the way to Pinhao.
Due to its location and the narrow road, you will never find a bus tour here. It is the perfect place to take their audio guide and stroll through the terraced vineyard looking down to the river and valley. It was very tranquil here and no one is rushing you.
The audio guide, narrated by someone who sounds like James Bond, takes you to ten stops. Here you get descriptions of what are seeing, the vineyard history, and why the grapes go so well on these particular hills.
The tour ends at the main building where you will see barrels and the grapes stomping room. At the tasting room next door, three different ports are poured. I recommend buying the local cheese platter and splurging $8 for a sample of single-year vintage port.
Our base for two nights was the village of Pinhao, long considered the “heart” of the Douro Valley. We chose to stay here not just for its central location but also because the Vintage House Hotel is located on the river there.
Pinhao, while one of the popular places in the valley, is a sleepy place with a few shops, restaurants, bars, and a couple of attractions on the river.
Train Station, Tiles, and a Bar
The Pinhao Railway Station was built in the 19th century. It is worth a walk around to see 24 different tile patterns placed on every wall in 1937. The themes of the tiles represent historic scenes in the Douro Valley. This includes the grape harvest, foot-stomping, and the rabelo boats transporting wine downriver. The station also sells wine.
Easy River Ride
Behind the Vintage House Hotel are the docks for the one and two-hour sightseeing cruises on the Douro River.
There are two competing companies offering the same river ride at the same price. The boats used are quasi replicas of the rabelo boats that hauled stacked barrels of wine down the river and rapids using oars and a rudder.
These days, the boats are motorized and run at 10 mph on the calm dammed river. I found the one-hour narrated tour was enough to see the old vineyard buildings, terraced hills, and the valley. Reservations are generally not needed except in peak seasons.
Casa de Mateus
For a good diversion from the vineyards, consider visiting the 18th-century Casa de Mateus. Located just a scenic 40-minute drive from Pinhao. This manor is one of the most beautiful examples of Italian Baroque period architecture in Portugal. It is surrounded by gardens.
Tickets for the palace and gardens allow you to walk the gardens on your own. Guides meet in the courtyard to introduce the house before being led through several large rooms ending in the impressive library.
Many of these rooms have ornately decorated ceilings and trimmings. The rooms have periodic pieces of furniture or different forms of art. For an extra fee, you can go into the chapel attached to the manor.
For those of a certain older age, the name Mateus may bring back memories of your earliest bottles of mediocre inexpensive wine while growing up. This is the same Mateus as seen on the label. The family sold their name to the winery which at one point accounted for 40% of the Portuguese wine exported.
Quinta Do Portal
Quinta Do Portal is a fourth-generation Douro Valley winery located on a 20-minute scenic and windy road from Pinhao.
At their 51,000-square-foot facility, they produce about 50 wines and ports. Tours here are by appointment.
Guides take you around the building discussing the wine process and proudly pointing out how environmentally friendly their building is.
Their giant aging room is cooled year-round naturally and the grass rooftop has views of the vines.
One interesting stop in the aging room was at one barrel having a glass plate on the end and a light showing you what wine looks like during fermentation. Portal is a good place to sample wines from the Douro Valley other than ports.
Quinta do Roêda is located just outside Pinhao. It is the house that makes Croft Port. Croft was founded in 1588. The Quinta do Roêda was acquired by Croft in 1889 and is considered the “jewel” of the Douro Valley Vineyards.
The visitor’s center is located in the former restored stables. Tours and tastes start there. The ports we tried included a 20-year-old tawny, a 10-year-old late harvest, and a vintage. We sampled their brandy as a bonus.
Croft is a good place to arrange a picnic lunch with your favorite wine from their large bottle shop. Picnic tables have wonderful views of the vineyards and the river. If you are here during harvest time, sign up to try foot treading and learn how to squash grapes properly.
About Port Wine
Port is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley that is made in different styles, and varietals, and aged accordingly.
It can get a little complicated to understand and would require more space than this story on the Douro Valley allows.
The Rabelo Restaurant in the Vintage House Hotel serves regional dishes. The dining room is an old world with murals depicting Douro Valley life 100 years ago.
The center has a table decorated with large bottles of wine and ports from the region.
The pre-fix menu had two starters, three main courses, and two desserts. The wine list was ample and reasonable.
We found the food very good and the service flawless. The roasted cod with beans was very traditional.
The pasta with lentils, walnuts, pine nuts, and roasted tomato in a cream sauce was just what was needed on this chilly spring night.
Cais Da Foz is located across the footbridge in town. This is a place not to be missed. The starter of sausage flambéed table side was very flavorful (and can feed four as a starter). Both the lamb and seafood rice dishes were perfect. Unfortunately, there was no room for their tasty-looking deserts.
The Vintage House Hotel is a 47-suite boutique five-star resort located in Pinhao directly on the river. Our room was spacious with good views from the balcony. It is a full-service hotel complete with an excellent breakfast, restaurant, and a casual bar for afternoon drinks and snacks, a nightcap, and board games.
The grounds are nicely landscaped with a swimming pool in the center and outdoor seats for dining.
Service at the Vintage House was prompt and personal. The front desk helped us book our wine tastings at the vineyards when we had problems doing it. They can also arrange a comprehensive tasting at the hotel anytime.
The staff followed up on anything we needed and there was always a pleasant greeting by name. I would not hesitate to come back here on my next visit.
When in this part of Portugal allow three days before or after visiting the Douro Valley to visit Porto.
Read Tab’s other article about Porto and Gaia.