The changing landscape of the Douro River Valley
At the Quinta do Bonfim vineyards in the Douro, grapes are being picked for the production of port wine. (Armando Franca/Associated Press)
Most visitors are drawn to Portugal for its sun, sea and sand, along with Lisbon’s historical sites. But the country offers an astonishing variety of landscapes for its size, with none more memorable than the Douro, a verdant valley 300km north of the capital, that cuts across northern Portugal from the Spanish border to the Atlantic Ocean. Its kilometres of stunning terraced vineyards were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in December 2001, prompting a flurry of tourism investment that is now paying off handsomely.
Most visits to northern Portugal start in Oporto (known to locals as Porto), the country's second-largest city. Known for its art and fashion scenes and buzzing nightlife, Porto’s main claim to fame is as a hub for the port wine industry. Warehouses emblazoned with company names that recall British and other foreign founders line the south bank of the Douro River, and most have guided tours and tastings. The nearby rabelo sailboats, which once ferried in barrels of wine from vineyards upstream, now offer short trips, usually accompanied by a glass of port, a fortified tipple that may be served as an aperitif or at dessert, or by one of the new cocktails that are updating the wine’s once crusty image, such as the Porto Flip, made with red port, brandy and an egg yolk.
To fully experience the Douro Valley, however, head upstream to the Alto Douro (Upper Douro) wine region. Visitors can choose between a three-hour dash by chopper to Mesão Frio, on the western edge of the wine-growing area, or a leisurely cruise upstream on one of the river’s many hotel boats, some of which have a pool and a sundeck. Alternatively (and more cheaply) take the Douro rail line to Pêso da Régua (usually known as Régua), a river port through which most of the region’s wine has been shipped for centuries. If you opt to drive the hour or so from Porto, consider taking at least a short boat trip from Régua or further upstream at Pinhão. It is only when gliding along midstream that you can fully appreciate the grandeur around you.
The grapes for port – or rather, for the wine that is then fortified with aguardente (Portuguese brandy) to make port – are grown in these upper reaches of the river valley. Curve after curve of hills unfold along the river, lined with terraces carved out from the slatey soil.
The Alto Douro is the world's oldest formally demarcated wine region; its limits were defined in 1756 by the reforming minister known to posterity as the Marquess of Pombal. Some of the original stone markers can still seen at the prize-winning winery Quinta Nova da Nossa Senhora do Carmo, one of dozens of local quintas (estates) where you can dine or stay in charming and authentic surroundings.
While the port wine industry remains strong, local grapes are now also being used to make fine red and white table wines that are attracting much foreign interest. One of the Douro Boys, a group of winemakers that drove this change, welcomes visitors for table wine tastings at Quinta do Crasto.Contact quintas directly to book visits, with lunch or dinner, or ask the Port Wine Route to put together an itinerary for you. At harvest time you can help pick grapes or even tread them alongside locals.
As tourism to the Douro Valley has grown, a handful of gourmet restaurants and ultra-modern boutique hotels have opened to complement the area’s traditional family-run estates. On a hilltop site across the river from Régua, the Aquapura Douro Valley resort has a slick design, a well-equipped spa, cookery classes and cycling tours. The nearby town of Lamego is full of fine baroque buildings and the hilltop shrine to Nossa Senhora dos Remédios is approached via an imposing granite staircase lined with azulejos (enamel tiles), a Portuguese speciality.
In Armamar, local fare gets an update at DOC, a glass-walled box on the river. Here local lad Rui Paula combines childhood memories with his gourmet training to reproduce hearty dishes in a lighter, more modern form. He uses prime regional ingredients such as bísaro pork (meat from pigs fed only on chestnuts), cured sausages and wild mushrooms, but even this far inland, traditional dishes include roast octopus.