Welcome to the Valley of Gold: Douro, Portugal

The Douro River Valley has steep and twisting canyons that have been sculpted over the years into terraces by hard-working farmers. The birthplace of port wine, the Douro River Valley was demarcated in 1756 by the Marquis of Pombal and is one of the oldest regulated wine regions in the world.  It is also one of the most beautiful regions in the world to visit. Indeed, this spectacular region was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. It’s not surprising, given the history and beauty of this place. I was rendered speechless by the majesty of this region, this valley of gold, and what it has to offer.

While there are numerous theories on why this region was called Douro, the name might be traced to the Celtic god of water Durius, or perhaps to the phrase “De ouro,” which means “gold” in Portuguese. Either way, this region is a region of many riches and experiences to be had.  While this valley is known primarily for its port wine, it is now starting to be recognized also for its high-quality table wines.  All of these wines come from the terraced vineyards of Portuguese grapes, such as you can see in the photo below.

The Douro River actually begins in north central Spain, where it is called Duero; it then flows from there to Porto, Portugal, where it is called Douro.

How to get there: As you can see from the map below, the easiest way to get to the Douro River Valley is actually via a flight from Lisbon to Porto.  Then you can travel by boat or train to Régua or Pinhão, the two most popular cities of the Douro River Valley.

Plan on spending at least two days in this beautiful valley. Port wine enthusiasts will likely want more days to visit all the beautiful Quintas (country inns or estates) along the river. When planning your trip from Porto, it is about two hours in car, or two to three hours by train, to the cities of Régua or Pinhão. It is advisable to visit during the week, since weekends in the summertime may be quite busy.

 GLPWorldwide.com Map of Enticing Douro

Where to visit: Quinta de Covela– S. Tomé de Covelas Covela My recommendation would be to take the train from the São Bento station in Porto directly to Régua. While in Régua, stop off and visit the Vinho Verde region of the valley. Visit Quinta de Covela, where some of the best tasting Vinho Verde is made. (The direct translation of vinho verde is “green wine,” otherwise known as white wine.)  Under the management of Mr. Tony Smith, part owner of Quinta de Covela, and renowned winemaker, Rui Cunha, Quinta de Covela has come back from near ruin to prosperity.  Their award-winning wines are making strides in the wine world—in particular, their Covela Escolha Branco 2012, and my personal favorite, COVELA Edição Nacional Branco.  This last wine is made with 100% Avesso grapes.  I had the pleasure of enjoying their wines and their beautiful Quinta this past fall. I even had the chance to go running with the Covela dogs, Teddy, Alef and Spot, through the small towns of Portinha and Covelas. Stay tuned for my interview with Mr. Tony Smith.

Quinta de Napoles– Niepoort Winery in Santo Adrião Niepoort, while well-known in Portugal for their high-end quality Ports, their modern still wines are stunning. I have yet to have a Niepoort that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.  This beautiful Quinta de Napoles is situated in the town of Santo Adrião and has a brand new facility with state of the art equipment and a spectacular view of the valley. If not for the wines, come for the view.

State of the art facilities at Niepoort.

State of-the-art facilities at Quinta de Napoles of Niepoort

What to experience: 

One of the most beautiful times of the year to visit this region is during harvest, usually around September of each year.  If you happen to visit during this time, I recommend taking a three-hour boat river trip along the Douro River, starting in the morning to mid-day, and departing from Pinhão.  You can take the train back to Regua and spend the evening at Quinta Sta Eufêmia, where you can experience grape stomping in traditional lagares (a large, typically stone trough in which grapes are stepped on and pressed, separating the grape skin from the pulp to create must, grape juice).

When I first came here with the University of La Rioja as part of my master’s program in viticulture and enology, I left with unforgettable memories, including wading in grapes while dancing to accordion and drums at Quinta Santa Eufêmia Winery in the Douro River Valley. Take a look!

Quinta de Vesuvio– W.J. Grahams of Symington Family Estates

I had the pleasure of studying under Pedro Leal of Symington Family Estates and experiencing harvest in the Douro River Valley for the 2011 Vintage at one of the most prestigious and well-known Quintas, Quinta de Vesuvio.  The 2011 Vintage is now known as one of the best years for wine in general, as well as the best Vintage year for port wine.  I was honored to be a part of the punch downs of the Tinta Roiz (also known as Tempranillo grape varietal) while I was there.  Watch this:

Where to eat:

While there are plenty of great places to eat, one of my most memorable and exquisite experiences was at the Restaurante DOC- Rui Paula in the town of Folgosa, located off Estrada Nacional 222:

tel.: +351 254 858 123, e-mail: doc@ruipaula.com.

Every small plate was paired with a regional wine. Needless to say, there were many glasses of wine and many, many memories to pair it with.

Here is an example of their version of Terra/Mar or Surf and Turf.  All I can say is that it was one of the best meals I had ever had in my life.

If all of this isn’t reason enough to visit, I don’t know what is.  Time for you to add this beautiful valley of gold, the Douro River Valley, to your list of must-see places!

Note:  It is highly recommended to call or e-mail for reservations at this world-class restaurant.

If you are interested in having me lead you through a tour of the valley to a number of unforgettable Quintas in the Douro River valley, please contact me to discuss options.


Learn the basics of Port with Oscar of Vinhos Oscar Quevedo

In my recent trip to Porto and then into the Douro River Valley, I had a chance to sit down with a good friend, Oscar Quevedo. He teaches us the basics of Port 101.

Oscar’s family owns and runs Quevedo Port Wine, which you can visit in Porto, Portugal. His Port Wine Cellar is located across the riverfront of Porto, in Vila Nova de Gaia.

For more information, visit their website at Quevedo Port Wine.

Chin Chin!

Make sure to check out the most recent posts on Porto and Port wine on Sacred Drop.com

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Port wine, the nectar of the regular folk

We have champagne to thank for the evolution of what we now know as modern day port wine. In the late 17th century, champagne became known as a modern wine and was incredibly popular with the British and, of course, with the French. According to legend, a Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon, pioneered quality changes for champagne and declared, of sparkling champagne, “I am drinking stars.” It wasn’t until later, after his death in 1715, that subsequent changes in production technique following his initial invention caused drinking champagne became the height of fashion in Paris and Versailles. Because it was so limited and nothing like it had been made before, the people who purchased it were invariably rich. This left little for everyone else.

When France and England went to war in the late 17th century, the English boycotted French wine and soon began buying their wine from Portugal. Due to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, Portuguese wine could be imported into England at a third less duty than other wines. This lead to an influx of Portuguese wines into the English market. 1

The first port that was initially made was coarse and cheap, sold as an alternative to claret wine. Port was first introduced to satisfy the tavern market of the English. In 1717, the first trading post was established in Porto. The city of Porto, with its many wine cellars or adegas in Vila Nova de Gaia, has long served as the main export port for port wine. This is where the main production and export of this fortified wine has taken place over the centuries.

Port wine, also known as Vinho do Porto, is a Portuguese fortified wine from grapes grown in the Douro Valley of Portugal. Traditionally, after the grapes are picked, they are placed in Lagares, which are these large open stone basins where the grapes are trodden by foot or by a wooden stick. While the grapes are fermenting, they create must, which is grape juice. The sugar in the must is then converted to alcohol.  When the must has reached about 6-7 percent alcohol, it is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardente (a type of brandy). This simultaneously stops the fermentation process and stabilizes the wine. By stopping the fermentation before it is has completed, there is little residual sugar left in the wine, and a slightly sweet wine results. However, with the addition of the neutral grape spirit and residual sugar, there is an increase in alcohol as well as sweetness.

The first port wines produced were made with dry wines, meaning that the fermentation process had already run its course, leaving no residual sugar. This is what we would call a Dry Port. However, the traditional dessert wines that many know today are made with sweeter wines; thus when fermentation is stopped, residual sugar remains, giving this fortified wine the sweetness and potency we now enjoy.

Port wine is quality protected and monitored by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP). In 1756, the Douro Valley, where port wine is produced, was established as a protected region or appellation, making it one of the oldest demarcated and protected wine region in the world.

The Douro Valley has hundreds of varieties of grapes, but there are five key varieties widely cultivated and used in the production of port: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roiz (Tempranillo), Tourigua Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.

Ports from Portugal can be divided and then subdivided into numerous categories. There is port that undergoes “reductive” ageing, which are wines aged in sealed glass bottles. A second main category is port wines that are matured in wood barrels—a process known as “oxidative” ageing. The port wines that possibly interest you most are the Rubies and Tawnies that you have likely heard about and maybe already tried.

Tawny Port is wine made from red grapes, aged in wooden barrels known as pipas. This process exposes them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. They are generally nutty in flavor and a golden brown in color. They can be aged for 10, 20, 30, and 40 years. In the image below, you will see what we call Colheita.

Colheita is a tawny port of a single vintage, instead of an age indication of 10, 20, or other years. Rather, it has a specific vintage year mentioned. Below you will see there is a Colheita of 1998 that is still in barrel. Colheitas can spend 20 or more years in barrel before being bottled and sold.

Ruby Port is among the most popular of port wines produced. These wines are generally stored in concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative ageing and to protect the beautiful ruby color common to these wines. Rubies are generally blended to be consistent in color and flavor. They are fined and cold filtered. They tend to be somewhat fruitier on the palate and in some ways fresher. A Ruby isn’t generally a port that will improve with age.

Vintage Port is a wine that is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year by the individual Port house. Vintage ports represent approximately 2% of overall port production. While some perceive producing port wines labeled as vintage ports as a way to increase revenue by naming every year a vintage (or as some perceive it, a great year), the decisions to label certain port wines as vintage port are not taken lightly, and many reputations hang in the balance here. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling and then require another 10 to 40 years of ageing in bottle before they are ready to be consumed. Since they are aged in barrels for less than three years, they still retain a dark ruby color and a substantial amount of freshness. It is recommended to consume a vintage port wine within a few days of opening it, and it should be treated like a normal wine.

2011 is an example of  a phenomenal vintage- many wineries have released their 2011 Vintage Ports. I would highly recommend getting your hands on Vinhos Oscar Quevedo Vintage Port 2011, which was awarded 96 points by the Wine Spectator this month.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is generally a port wine that was destined for bottling as a vintage port, but which, due to lack of demand, was left in barrel longer than planned. These port wines are generally bottled four to six years after the vintage year. Some are filtered; others are not and require decanting. The wine is ready to drink when it is released.

Calem Port Tasting- Bottom Row: Left to Right- 30 yr White Port- 40 yr Tawny – 1940 Colheita – 2011 Vintage Port

There is, honestly, so much to learn about port, and there are even white and rose port wines available as well. Port wine is extremely flexible as a wine/spirit and can be used to make mixed drinks as well.

Two good friends of mine, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of CataVino, told me about a phenomenal White Port and Tonic drink. Such a drink would be a great intro to enjoying port wines, especially on a hot summer day. I found a recipe online by For the Love of Port with a great recipe to try.

How to make a Port and Tonic:

What you’ll need:

  • Bottle of Dry White Port (such as Taylor’s Chip Dry, Fonseca Siroco, etc.)
  • Tonic water
  • Fresh mint leaves
  • Ice cubes

In a tall glass, place 5-8 mint leaves and then top off with ice cubes. You can add more or less mint depending on your taste preference. Then add in equal parts White Port and tonic water and stir.

Chin Chin!

And stay posted for an interview with a port wine producer from Vila Nova de Gaia—coming soon!

1 Work Cited: Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, by Paul Lukacs; W. W. Norton & Company (December, 2012)