As I’m writing this post, I’ve helped myself to a delicious, crisp glass of the white I brought back from Douro Valley, and I’m thinking, ‘Portuguese wine really is underrated’.
Just like the wine it produces, Portugal as a wine destination can be unfairly overlooked. If I mention enotourism, you probably first reach for the dictionary (well, I had to), and then your mind likely drifts to France, Italy or Spain. Or perhaps further afield to the new world. I’d hazard a guess that Portugal doesn’t get a look in.
Well, if that is the case, things needs to change. Now.
While I’ve known for some time that Portuguese wine punches above its weight, I only recently discovered the grandiose beauty of its flagship wine region, the Douro Valley.
The thing that makes the Douro Valley so spectacular is all in its name. Its majestic mountain ranges give way to a dramatic valley, with the peaceful Douro River cutting through its core. Those mountains are saturated with gravity-defying vines, artfully rooted into stone-walled terraces that have been carved into the steep inclines over the centuries. The sheer gradients make the thought alone of harvesting a rather stomach-churning affair. But on the plus side, it’s practically impossible to take a bad photo there.
Our visit was far too short – barely a weekend – but the patchwork landscape of the UNESCO World Heritage Site made a lasting impression. Here are three things that I promise will make a short trip to the Douro Valley stand out:
1. Get your bearings by boat
The perfect way to kick-start a visit to the Douro Valley is to take it all in from the river itself.
As you make your way down the silent river, the scale of the Valley really sinks in. Gliding past mountain after mountain, you have the perfect vantage point to truly appreciate the workmanship that’s gone into moulding the terrain, enabling the vines to extend from mountain top to river’s edge.
There are loads of tours available, starting from as far away as Porto. We chose to depart from the picturesque, but rather sleepy, village of Pinhão. What you do on your tour really depends on your budget. We thought we struck gold with an operator called Pipaduoro. While their private day tour with winery lunch was (well) out of our budget, they also offer a ‘regular departure’ option – a two hour round-trip with a glass of wine or port (€35 per person).
Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, this was also private, and the boat itself was exquisite – a 66 foot Wooden Yacht Classic from 1957. That’s a lot of feet for four people! Needless to say we felt like royalty, and accordingly acted as such each time we passed another vessel filled with tourists.
2. Raise your blood pressure
To get the stunning views and discover some of the best quintas (a wine-producing estate), you’re going to have to venture up those mountains.
Now, when I say the valley is dramatic, I really mean dramatic. And the price for dramatic is steep drops that can only be avoided by barely-kept, narrow roads hugging the cliff’s edge. It makes for both an awe-inspiring view, and a rather terrifying drive.
On one of the quinta tours, our sassy guide dryly told us as she topped up our glass that the more we tasted, the more confident we would feel on those precarious roads. But having witnessed a commercial bus struggling to navigate past an oversized caravan on said roads, I do not endorse this view!
Adrenalin junkies will love it. My mother would not.
3. Tour a quinta, stop for lunch
But of course, you’re in the Douro Valley to taste wine. The region is the home of Port, so if you’re a fan, you’re in for a treat. If not, the good news is they also produce plenty of non-fortified wines here, and based on what I sampled, they’re bloody good – lively whites and smooth yet complex reds. There’s no shortage of quintas to choose from, and most offer tours (which you’ll probably have to
endure do in order to get a tasting).
Quite a few of the quintas also have highly-regarded, albeit small, restaurants onsite. My recommendation would have to be Quinta do Crasto, perched high on a promontory above the Douro River. It’s a relaxed vibe sitting in the courtyard enjoying home-cooked specialties while taking in the panorama. Even better, there’s an infinity pool that borders the deep valley below (which they will proudly tell you was designed by Pritzker Prize winner, Eduardo Souto de Moura). So the Quinta really can’t be beaten for stunning views and the ability to take a quick dip between courses. (Their wine is also top-notch, so perhaps take a taxi.)
Many quintas also offer picnic options – a basket full of Portuguese goodies and wine to carry with you to your own secluded section of the vineyards.
We chose the picnic at Quinta do Bomfim, with its postcard view of Pinhão below. We ran out of time to try the picnics at Quinta do Seixo and Quinta do Popa, which were high on my list. They’re for my next visit. Two days was just too short (and Eurovision is in Portugal next year after all). I will be back!
In brief – quick tips when travelling to Douro Valley