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Weekend Traveler

The Dazzling Douro Valley

Vila Galé has a commanding view of the Douro. (Photo: Vila Galé)

The Douro Valley is a verdant area in northern Portugal that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. One of the oldest wine regions in the world, it wasn’t until the 17th century that the English transformed the dry wine of the region into the sweet, fortified wine for which the country is known: Port. Beginning in the 1960s, many of the grapes were also made into quality still wines.

The Douro River flows down the center of the valley from the mountains of Portugal’s eastern border with Spain to the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the breathtaking city of Porto. It is the longest river in northern Portugal. The weather in the Douro Valley is extreme: Dry, hot summers and cold, rainy winters.

Today, the Douro Valley embraces wine tourism and welcomes the many guests who visit by boat, car, train, and even helicopter. The landscape is mesmerizing, with vineyards planted on the steep terraced banks of the river. Driving the switchback roads of the hillsides that climb several thousand feet above the Douro River is quite a challenge, one my husband and I eagerly accepted.

STAY

A visit to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the first wine hotel in the region, is the essence of the Douro Valley — a beautiful estate perched atop a hill, knock-out views, wonderful wines, and accommodations and restaurant (see “Dine” below) that cater to your every need.

The winery was started more than 250 years ago, and today you can tour the underground cellar, barrel room, and the Wine Museum that showcases tools from the 1800s. Stop in the tasting room and wine shop, relax on the patio or by the pool (reserved for overnight guests), or pick up a map and wander through the vertically planted vineyards along three marked trails.

The main building is a renovated 19th century manor house and is the gathering spot with bar, comfortable living room, and fireplace that opens to expansive terraces and gardens. The rooms have period furniture and modern baths with all the amenities, and some open directly onto the patios. No matter where you are on the property, you’re guaranteed views of the river, the vines, and the surrounding hills.

Each morning, the buffet offers homemade pastries, smoked salmon and meats, cheeses, fruit from their orchards including figs, oranges, plums, and much more. (quintanova.com).

If winding up hillsides isn’t your thing, then stay at the Vila Galé on the left bank of the Douro. Here you’ll get a front seat to the comings and goings on the river, including the many cruises that are available by the day or week.

The view from Quinta Santa Eufemia. (Photo: Bo Links)

The modern hotel’s unique design is carved into the slope of a hill. This affords a view from every room. Relax on the patios: Outside each guestroom, the restaurant, or by the outdoor Jacuzzi. Awaken to a full buffet of fruits, cereals, meats, cheeses, breads, and juices. (vilagale.com/en/hotels/porto-and-north/vila-gale-douro)

WINERIES

Switchback after switchback finally led to Quinta Santa Eufêmia overlooking the Douro from a stunning 1,000 feet. Established in 1864, it is now operated by the family’s fourth generation who makes the Port and still wines the same way their great grandfather did — it’s a real family affair driven by their passion for the land, the grapes, and tradition.

If you visit during harvest, you might be able to participate in picking, even stomping the grapes, and enjoying lunch. No matter when, there is always time to taste their delicious wines and Port. Favorites include the 30- and 40-year Tawny Port (all hand harvested) and the Perene Douro Tinto 2012 (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Francisca) and the Douro Reserva 2011 (Touriga Nacional Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Bastardo) (qtastaeufemia.com/ingles/p2por.html).

Tawny Ports from Quinta do Vallado. (Photo: Bo Links)

It’s an easier drive to Quinta do Vallado located on the Corgo River, a tributary of the Douro near its mouth. Last year the winery celebrated the 300th birthday of this family business involving eight generations. Its state-of-the-art facilities, wine hotel (unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stay), and of course the Port and still wines make the estate a popular destination. Visitors can tour the property, visit the gardens, hike the vertical inclines into the vineyards, and if arranged in advance, enjoy food and wine pairings.

Don’t miss the 20- and 40-year-old Tawny Ports (also hand-picked) and the Reserva Field Blend 2013 (made from more than 30 varietals, including 85-percent Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, and others from 80-plus-year-old vineyards and 15 percent Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca from 20-year-old vineyards). We also enjoyed the 2012 Touriga Nacional from estate vineyards (quintadovallado.com).

Sitting on another dramatic hill is the spectacular Quinta do Crasto. Dating back to 1615, the Ports and still wines that are produced are the products of four generations of passionate family members. All of their grapes are grown with an eye toward preserving the environment.

Quinta do Crasto sits high above the Douro. (Photo: Bo Links)

Booking in advance is a necessity to insure a quality experience customized for each guest. Wine and Port tastings can be combined with lunch or dinner; you can even arrange to stay for the day and enjoy their amazing infinity pool or combine that with a boat trip on the Douro.

We opted for lunch on the spacious patio of their 100-year-old house. Started with salumi, cheese, and smoked salmon, then it only got better: Luscious oven roasted pork and chestnuts. Accompanying the food, some of the wines we enjoyed included the Douro Reserva Old Vines 2009 (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Amarela Tinta Francisca, Sousão, Rufete, Arinto, Rabigato, with another 40 varietals from old vines) and the Reserva Old Vines 2013 (made from 25–30 similar grape varietals) and these Ports: the LBV 2011 (multiple varieties, old vines) and the 2009 Vintage (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Francisca, Sousão, Rufete, Arinto, Rabigato, plus 40 varieties from old vines). Stop by the wine shop on your way out to purchase favorites (quintadocrasto.pt/idade-legal/?lang=en).

EAT

In a cozy upstairs room in the manor house at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo find the Conceitus Winery Restaurant. Here the chef creates dishes with ingredients from the garden, the fruit orchards, and local producers. If the weather is warm, guests are invited to enjoy dinner on the patio with its panoramic views. The night we visited, we chose from one of two tasting menus, starting with tuna and sweet and sour vegetables with a Quinta Nova Port vinaigrette. Next we had a pea and mint soup, and for the entrée, pan-fried sea bream with stewed vegetables garnished with fennel and tarragon. We finished with a decadent chocolate caramel with sabayon mint. Some of the wines we tried included the 2012 Referencia Grande Reserva (numerous old vines and Tinta Roriz), the 2012 Pomeras (Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional), and the LBV 2009 (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Sousão, Tinta Barroca) (quintanova.com/en/conceitus).

Quinta Nova at sunset. (Photo: Bo Links)

Riverfront Restaurants: In the Douro Valley, it’s all about the spectacular setting, delicious wines, and local flavor of their food and outlook toward life. You’ll find it at these spots nestled by the river: Castas e Pratos is a hip space in a restored historic railroad warehouse with indoor and outdoor seating (castasepratos.com). DOC is upscale with knock-out views from inside and on the deck; even has a boat dock in case you arrive via the Douro (ruipaula.com/web/doc-en/presentation/?lang=en).

OTHER ESSENTIALS

Douro Valley: dourovalley.eu/en

Visit Portugal: visitportugal.com/en

Wines of Portugal: winesofportugal.info

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Patty Burness can be found @pattygb (twitter.com/pattygb) or reached by e-mail at patty@marinatimes.com.