Originally published in February 2016
Nelson Carvalheiro is an award-winning travel, wine and food blogger and author of “The Portuguese Travel Cookbook.” He also works with Wine Tourism in Portugal to further promote Portuguese travel and culture.
The Douro Valley is the oldest denominated wine region in the world. Some, myself included, argue that it is also the most beautiful. This introduction to the Douro Valley is intended as a guide to the best wine experiences in the Valley, which is one of Europe’s must-visit wine regions.
What is unique about the Douro Valley?
The Quintas (Estates)
The Douro Valley was established as a wine region for the production of Port Wine in 1756. This was twenty years before the independence of America and almost 100 years before the Bordeaux Premier Crus were established by Napoleon. This means that the majority of the wineries and wine company offices are amazing 18th-century heritage buildings. Almost all have been extremely well maintained and refurbished to today's modern standards of wine making. Even more interesting is that the Douro riverside palaces, which the owners of the Quintas (estates) used as residences, are also in prime condition. It is like an open-air museum that can be best admired from the water.
Family-owned and Operated Wineries
Even though there are over 200 Quintas (estates with a dedicated winery) and a vast array of DOC and Port wine brands, the great majority of these estates managed remain in possession of the founding family. Some have been in the hands of a single family for three centuries or more. Examples of this lineage among Port and DOC winemakers are the Guimaraens family, Ferreira, Silva Reis and Symington. While some heritage buildings have been converted into boutique hotels, others remained private and act as the summer or even permanent residence of some family members who work daily in the vineyards.
World Heritage Site
Another aspect that makes the Douro Valley unique is its UNESCO World Heritage classification. This distinction was assigned in 2001 and recognizes the long tradition (over 2000 years) of viticulture in this Northern part of Portugal, which resulted in cultural and geographic landscapes of unparalleled beauty, while also reflecting its technological, social and economic evolution.
Landscape and Terroir
The vineyards of the Douro rise steeply above the river at inclines of up to 45 degrees as part of an amazing riverine landscape. The old-growth vines struggle to find a toehold in the rocky slopes growing deep into the schist in search of water in a region that knows very low annual rainfall. This seemingly hostel terrain is actually ideal for the cultivation of grapes because of the excellent drainage, sun exposure and the stress placed on the vines. All of the plant’s energy is concentrated on the fruit. But grapes have a tendency to grow in beautiful places and the Douro Valley is no exception. The unforgiving terrain restricts the use of mechanized labor and forces nearly all viticultural operations to be performed by hand.
The Douro Valley offers Unique Wine Experiences
Vintage Tour—Quinta da Carvalhas
The Vintage Tour at Quinta da Carvalhas may be the best wine experience in the whole of the Douro Valley! It is the extravagant idea of Alvaro Martinho, the agricultural engineer at Quinta das Carvalhas and the operations manager. Disappointed with the way other Quintas neglected their visitors, he found a way to transmit to wine travellers a real sense of what the "Douro Valley sense of place is all about.” It is one of the most customer-oriented experiences in the Douro Valley.
Winemaker for a Day—Quinta Nova
Sónia Pereira is the resident enologist at Quinta Nova and the person responsible for the first ever Carvalheiro's 2015 DOC Douro Red Wine—a wine I blended with her guidance. This is a great program that gives you a hands-on experience with DOC Douro Wines. Rather than just tasting and comparing, you can make your own blend.
Sunset Douro Wine Cruise
This was by far one of the most enjoyable experiences that I had while touring the Douro Valley. The hilly terrain and the insistence (thank God for this) of bridges can prove to be a difficult when one is hoping from Quinta to Quinta in the Douro. Luckily nature has taken care of this a long time ago and I will say it now: the best way to enjoy the Douro is board a private yacht.
Pipadouro – Vintage Wine Travel
+351 939 196 262
Quinta do Crasto
The wines of Quinta do Crasto are highly acclaimed worldwide and they can easily be considered among the top producers in the Douro Valley. The views from the winery itself are spectacular and this is compounded when admiring them from their infinity pool.
Where to Stay—Wine Hotels
Quinta da Pacheca in Régua
Quinta da Pacheca is an ancient winery that has been adapted to the demands of the modern wine traveler. The main houses in the center of the estate were recently renovated into a chic, boutique, luxury wine hotel. The restaurant menu was organized by Chef Carlos Pires, who comes from Trás-os-Montes in Northwest Portugal. Bold Portuguese flavors are the main driver of an elegantly plated menu.
Quinta de La Rosa in Pinhão
All the rooms and suites at Quinta de La Rosa overlook the river. The spectacular views are enhanced by the sunsets, which illuminate the landscape with a golden hue. It is not the largest Douro estate, but the rooms, suites and villas are scattered through the vineyards lending it a very spacious feel.
Vintage House Douro in Pinhão
Vintage House Douro is the by far the closest the Pinhão region gets to a full-service, five-star hotel. Vintage House Douro brings a bit of class and style, offering travellers a more mainstream alternative to the rusticity of the nearby Quintas.
Where to Eat
Gourmet Experience at Quinta do Panascal
Quinta do Panascal does not directly overlook the Douro, its location is on the left bank of the Távora River. The estate belongs to the Guimaraens family and the Fladgate Partnership, a colossus of the Port Wine world owning the Croft, Taylor and Fonseca Port wine Brands. Here you can have a private lunch in the Guimaraens family quarters.
Picnic with a view at Quinta do Pôpa
Quinta do Pôpa is a new winery that has only been open a couple of years. What the estate lacks in historic charm, it more than makes up for with its progressive and modern accommodations. They offer either a wine brunch or Pôpa Picnic on the grounds.
Castas e Pratos Restaurant in Régua
Castas e Pratos checks all the boxes when it comes to showcasing the best of traditional Portuguese cuisine with a modern twist and also offers over 700 different wines. This restaurant showcases the bold flavors of the Douro and Northern Portugal paired with a vast array of Portuguese wine (over 700 are on the wine list).