How to drink in the beauty and traditions of the Douro Valley, Portugal's famous wine region
Centuries after it first started producing port wines, the Douro Valley has a new focus: a growing tourism scene. But even as visitors pour into this rolling landscape of dramatic hills and deep river valleys, the region’s agrarian heart stays true.
It’s late winter, and the ground in the Douro Valley is thirsty.
“We haven’t had rain since November,” Jorge Serôdio Borges tells me as we scramble up the steep and dusty slope of his prized vineyard, Pintas. Grey clouds blanket the sky above us, but despite the winemaker’s hopes, today there will be no rain. His rows of gnarled old vines — bowed and arthritic, witness to a century on this earth — will have to wait to drink.
Breathless, we soon reach the pinnacle of the plot. Jorge sweeps his arm across the hills, showing me his land. It’s a dramatic scene: abrupt and narrow schist terraces, lined with vines, while parcels of dense cork and olive trees interrupt an endless horizon of green hills, dotted with ruined stone structures. Jorge doesn’t have to explain the challenges he faces in making wine here; it’s written in the landscape. His challenge is the landscape.
Winemaking is a labour of love anywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Douro Valley. This vast, hilly area, sliced by the snaking Douro River, is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, declared in 1756. It’s famous for port, the sweet, fortified wine most often paired with our festive cheeseboards. But farming grapes here is no party.
It’s not just the intensely steep slopes. It’s the step-laddered stone terraces on them. Blasted into submission with dynamite centuries ago, they are now protected by UNESCO and must be painstakingly maintained just as they are. Then there’s the unique local blend of grape varieties. Even a single plot might contain dozens of different types — some so rare they’re unidentifiable — so replacing ailing vines is a challenge. And then, there’s the increasingly extreme climate. In scorching summer, temperatures can reach 45C. In winter, it might rain so heavily that delicate old terraces can threaten to buckle. Or, like this year, it might not rain at all.
Jorge is concerned by the dryness, but not yet worried. He knows the roots of his old vines run deep and they’ll survive. As we climb along the rows — each one so cramped it can only be harvested by hand — he bends the stalks, examining his pruner’s recent work. He checks a newly repaired roof on an outbuilding. In his little stone winery, which smells of wood and baked plums, he stops to chat with his assistant about repairing one of his grandfather’s huge wooden wine vats.
Jorge’s story is, in some ways, a common one: his family have grown grapes in the Douro Valley for generations. Whereas most people produce for the big port houses — internationally known brands whose names are splayed across terracotta rooftops in Porto’s Vila Nova de Gaia — Jorge bottles it all under his own label, Wine & Soul.
He and his wife, Sandra, also a winemaker, don’t only produce port, which has been the lifeblood of the Douro Valley these past few hundred years; Wine & Soul is also part of a new vinous movement, putting regular dry table wines from Douro on the map. It’s a brand that respects the region’s traditions, handpicking grapes and crushing many by foot in vast, open, lagares tanks made of granite. This process takes several hours and temporarily dyes the stompers’ legs an inky purple. Both traditional and innovative, Jorge and Sandra are creating something new.
And they’re not the region’s only game-changers. The morning after my visit, still dreaming about the juicy, refined reds Jorge served me from his cellars, I’m on the train to Quinta do Vesuvio. It is a journey east into the far valley, close to the Spanish border, past where most tourists venture. Speeding along a narrow precipice — hugged on one side by sheer schist, on the other by the languid green sparkle of the Douro River — I watch as the milky morning light shifts and changes on the surrounding terraces with every bend in the track. I lose my phone signal almost immediately; a good sign, I think to myself, when you’re seeking adventure.
Like Wine & Soul, Quinta do Vesuvio produces some of the most respected still wines in the Douro. The difference is that it’s owned by the Symington family, the area’s largest and most powerful landholder, and one of the biggest names in port. But my experience here couldn’t be further from corporate.
At the quaint Vesuvio platform, lined with a white picket fence, I am the only passenger to disembark. No wonder: there seems to be nothing beyond the tiny, unmanned train station but epic vineyard hills, a swirling river and a single white quinta (farmhouse). And, waiting in the sunlight, Marco — my smiling welcoming party.
Over the next few hours, I’m treated to a tour of the vineyards set at heights terraced between 400ft and 1,700ft above sea level. I watch as baby Sezão grapevines are planted — just one of the many varieties that will contribute to the estate’s complex blends. I taste Quinto do Vesuvio’s elegant red wines and devour a vast cheeseboard. And, best of all, I poke around the beautiful historic quinta, a perfect time capsule. There’s antique wooden furniture, gilded paintings, aged books, family photos. Bedrooms are neat and simple with ethereal curtains; there’s a crackling fire in a big stone fireplace. I can imagine someone swishing through the rooms in period dress. And yet this scene hasn’t been created for tourists.
Until last year, the property was solely for the Symingtons’ private use. You couldn’t step inside unless you were a family member, or the guest of one. “The idea that we would invite tourists to the quinta would have been unthinkable just a decade ago,” says Marco as he drops me back at the station. “But everything is changing in the Douro.”
A new identity
Most locals say the big shift came in the mid-2010s. Porto, the gateway to the Douro, had been named European Capital of Culture in 2001 and was swiftly moving from shabby to gentrified. Today, it’s a tourist wonderland, with hip restaurants, slick wine bars and an epic new cultural and museum district, WOW, set among old port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia. The opening of a new road and tunnel made the journey from Porto to the valley not only faster, but less queasy, too. Instead of hairpin mountain roads, there’s now a speedy, easy highway.
For centuries, wine has flowed out of the Douro — first by boat, then by rail and road. It’s only recently that tourists have started to travel in the reverse direction in substantial numbers, looking to discover the region’s scenery, its villages, its wine. Working quintas, formerly closed to the public, have begun to open their doors, inviting guests in for tours and tastings. An entire tourism industry is springing up around it all.
“Tourism has provided more opportunities in the valley,” says Fernando Sequeira, who’s working his first season with Magnifico Douro, one of the small boat cruises that run out of the riverside town of Pinhão, in the heart of the valley. The converted rabelo wooden craft would once have spent weeks transporting precious port wine casks along the river to Porto. Now it glides past the sculpted terraces several times a day, packed with a cargo of tourists.
“When there’s only wine, there’s more uncertainty,” says Fernando. “If it’s a bad year for grapes, it’s a bad year for everything; people don’t build, they don’t spend. But, Covid-19 aside, tourism is more stable.” As we drift along the water in the honeyed evening light, past striped ridges of vines and olive trees, Fernando tosses me a juicy orange he harvested that day by the riverside.
I survey the town of Pinhão, shrinking into the distance. There’s Quinta da Roêda on its banks, home to Croft Port, where you can picnic among 100-year-old vines. Next door at Quinta do Bomfim, another Symington property, a new restaurant with rumoured Michelin aspirations. Further along is The Vintage House Hotel, my base for the night. It’s a grand, old-world pile where lazy morning coffees are taken on sun-drenched terraces overlooking the river.
And yet, despite talk of the new tourist rush, there seems to be plenty of undiscovered corners. A few steps from the riverfront, swallows nest under sagging town centre balconies. A ghostly yellow building in a plum position by the water awaits redevelopment.
Compared with a decade ago, tourism may be booming but, even still, this is a far cry from glossy Napa Valley or Bordeaux.
The slow life certainly still prevails at Casa Lapão, a bakery in Vila Real, the main city within the Douro wine region. In the town’s cobbled old centre, stuffed with churches, Rosa Cramez makes pastries the same way her family has for 100 years. Her crista de galo, a half-moon pastry stuffed with a sweet egg-yolk centre, is the stuff of local legend. To keep up with demand, her small team make about 700 every day, by hand.
“The day they tell me to industrialise is the day I will close,” says Rosa, as she swiftly rolls out rounds of dough so thin they look like sheets of stained glass. Her knack ensures that each sugar-topped pastry, cut with a fringe to resemble a cockerel’s comb, emerges from the oven impossibly light and crisp. The process is art as much as science. There’s no exact recipe; the quantities of butter, flour and water change by the season. Rosa is led by the feel of the dough; she knows by touch whether it’s right.
“Many years ago, women would go to the convent to learn how to be good wives, and their families would pay for their board in sugar and eggs,” says Rosa, as she dollops the buttercup-yellow filling onto the pastry and folds it shut. She tells me that recipes were traditionally passed from one Mother Superior to the next. Eventually, the crista de galo recipe reached the hands of her great grandmother, and the bakery was born. Not much has changed since, apart from one thing: now that tourism has grown, Rosa supplements her pastry sales by giving baking classes to visitors like me.
Rosa sources all her ingredients locally, including pumpkin, almonds and, of course, eggs. As she only uses the yolks, she donates the egg whites to anyone in the neighbourhood who asks for them. Her generosity seems to know no bounds: I’m sent on my way clutching a box of still-warm pito (pumpkin jam-stuffed pastries) and tooth-achingly sweet toucinho do céu flan squares.
In the photogenic hilltop wine village of Provesende, Graça Monteiro is also doing her part to preserve the cookery traditions of the Douro. I reach its lofty heights along a vertiginous road in a mint 1952 Cadillac, driven by the charming João. His guided Luxury Douro Tours is another new tourism experience in the region, and the journey is so spectacular I forget to worry about the vintage vehicle’s lack of seatbelts.
Opening the door to Papas Zaide, I feel more like I’m entering a home than a restaurant. João introduces me to a smiling Donna Graça — or Mrs Graça, as she’s known to everyone — and acts as interpreter. But I don’t need help in understanding when it’s time to eat. She gestures for us to follow her up narrow stairs to a tiny, three-table dining room, where a floral tablecloth is spread with bread and olives under a sun-lit window.
I’m instructed to grab a glass from the neighbouring cupboard if I want wine (I do) and to ring the bell if we need anything. Then our host disappears back down the stairs, only to re-emerge minutes later with a parade of small dishes: creamy cheese with rosemary and a drizzle of honey; spicy sausage stuffed with pork and beef; pillowy codfish fritters; savoury ham pie; and a moreish port-and-pork stew that’s been simmered for so long my knife falls through the meat as if it’s butter. With great pleasure, I lose my afternoon to the ultimate Portuguese long lunch.
The wait is over
The rest of my time in the Douro brings new encounters, always with an exceedingly warm, tactile welcome. At Quinta da Aveleda, near Porto, I spot peacocks roaming opulent English-style gardens. At Quinta Nova, a small luxury hotel and wine estate, I dine on elegant plates of wild boar ravioli in a smart dining room and explore a museum dedicated to winemaking history. And at Quinta do Pacheca, a cool and contemporary stay where you can glamp in giant, wooden, port-style barrels, I tour one of the most atmospheric cellars in the Douro.
And then, before I know it, it’s almost time to bid the region goodbye. But before I do, there’s one final part of the Douro I need to experience: the Corgo Line. This walking trail, once a narrow-gauge rail line, stretches around 18 miles along a Douro River tributary from Vila Real to Régua. Fairly flat but rocky, the route cuts right through the core of the region, immersing trekkers in some of its unforgettable scenery.
Fuelled by what I suspect is a 1,000-calorie lunch at homely Quinta D’Azinheira — hearty massa à lavrador, a typical vineyard worker’s stew simmered on an open fire by gregarious estate owner Dora — I start on a truncated seven-mile stretch of the Corgo Line to Régua. Descending past modest houses, I join the trail near defunct Povoação station, with its weed-punctuated platform and rusting gates. It’s one of the last obvious signs of humanity I see before the village falls away and I am plunged into green.
Apart from the crunch of my boots on stone and the odd rasp of an eagle circling in the silver skies above, I’m surrounded by silence. I squiggle along the narrow trail, passing through thickets of cork trees. Then I turn a corner and the panorama widens. Olive groves and schist boulders tumble down to the river below. Above, terraced vineyards trail up towards the sunshine. Here, the scale of the Douro landscape is fully laid bare. Feeling so small, so far away from the region’s marks of modernity, I can fully appreciate the determination that would have been needed to strong-arm this dramatic landscape into agricultural submission so long ago.
I smell it on the soil before I feel it. The ozone scent when water drops hit dry earth. As I continue along the path, deeper into the valley, the shower picks up, splashing my face, hair and backpack, misting the landscape before me. Washed clean, the greens and browns of the terraces are highlighted like a newly painted watercolour. I don’t hurry for shelter but carry on and enjoy its fall. The rain has finally come, and after waiting so long, the Douro is quenched.
Jorge, I think to myself, will be happy.
Getting there & around
TAP flies direct from London to Porto. British Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air also fly direct from several regional British airports.
Average flight time: 2h20m.
Pinhão, Régua and Vesuvio can be reached from Porto by train. To explore elsewhere, hire a car or book with a local operator, such as Luxury Douro Tours or Living Tours, which can arrange transport from the major valley hubs. For active experiences, including guided walks on the Corgo Line, try Detours.
When to go
Spring and autumn are best, when daily temperatures range from about 20C to 25C. During the latter, grape harvests add to the viticultural buzz and some vineyards hold harvest events.
Papas Zaide. Lgo da Praça 1, Provesende
Quinta D’Azinheira. T: +351 910 923 434
Where to stay
The Vintage House, Pinhao. From £151, B&B.
Quinta da Pacheca, Régua. From £112, room only.
Quinta Nova, Covas do Douro. From £176, B&B.
Associação de Turismo do Porte e Norte.
How to do it
Kirker has three nights in Pinhão at The Vintage House Hotel, B&B, from £598 per person, including return flights to Porto and car hire.
Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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