Lots of people have heard of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, etc. Less people have heard about the Douro Valley, or even how wonderful Portuguese wine is. As business school students, our primary conclusion was that the Portuguese people have no clue how to advertise all their wonderful food and drink! Let’s just put it into context shall we? A bottle of 150 year old Tawny Port (we’ll get into the differences in a bit) costs 2,500 euros today. 150 years! That means the wine has survived both world wars, countless financial crises, multiple regime changes, even the fall of the Ottoman Empire! For comparison, a 2016 bottle of Romanee Conti averages 13,000, nearly 5 times the price. Kudos to the French.
UNESCO labeled the Douro region a World Heritage Site in 2001. While it seems like UNESCO has been putting their stamp on every location these days, this one of those unique locations in the world that is absolutely worth a visit. Gentle sloping hills alongside a very calm river (there are several dams in just the Portuguese portion of the Douro), and very little crowds. Many of the vineyards here are owned by the biggest companies (Fonseca, Taylor, Sandeman, etc), but the individual vineyards are all quite small. In fact, at some of the vineyards, one can even crush grapes with their feet during harvest season!
The Douro region is split into 3 regions, the western (Baixa Corgo), the central (Cima Corgo), and the Douro Superior. visitors will find the majority of vineyards in the Cima Corgo region. The region covers two large categories of wine: table wines and port. While the Portuguese have always been famous for their port, the Douro vineyards only recently began to mass produce table wines.
Ways to tour the Douro:
- By car: For the brave and those willing to be a designated driver, a car is probably the most flexible way to see the Douro. However, most vineyards do not have easy reservation processes. In fact, having a local guide will probably be the best solution. For a longer stay, the Douro contains numerous beautiful design hotels with wine tastings at insanely affordable prices. During my research, I stumbled upon this article that only reaffirmed my desire to visit! With very windy small roads, I would only recommend this if you do not plan to drink! Also, despite how small the region looks on a map, navigation can take quite a while.
- By group tours: Several companies run day tours throughout the region. Depending on what the tour contains and the lunch, the prices can also vary greatly. However, most of them will happily pick up and drop off at locations in Porto. Because we only had one day, our group chose to go with Douro Exclusive (review below!).
- By rail: Trains run into various sections of the Douro, different cities and towns along the Douro. Regua is the capital of Douro region, but it does not contain that many vineyards. Pinhao is one of the more common stops for people visiting vineyards.
- By boat: Boat cruises of all lengths run along the Douro River. There are day trips, half day trips, hour long, etc that you can choose between. Some include lunches, some include tastings, and some will stop at various wineries along the way. However, because many of the dams are not operating or open during the winter, many of the boat tours are not available until April. I personally can’t provide too many insights into the boat tours because we went in March!
As someone who enjoys her wine and doesn’t like compromising the tasting experience to drive… my friends and I chose a guided tour.
It became one of the highlights of our Portugal trip. The tour itself contains: 1 hour boat tour from Pinhao, a set lunch at one of the top restaurants in the region DOC, wine/port tastings at two vineyards, and various stops along the way for photos. If you want a guided tour, I couldn’t say enough about our wonderful experience with Ana and her team! As a local who grew up in the region and studied tourism in the Douro, Ana can talk about the region all day. She can talk about anything: the various types of stone and rock that make up the bedrock of the region, the countless types of grapes, as well as the history of Portugal. She also knows all the great photo spots – we stopped randomly on a side road somewhere to capture the featured photo up top!
Lunch also left an incredible impression. The location of the restaurant alongside the river makes for amazing views. When the weather is warm enough, people must fight over the outdoor seating. By the way, for those who are worried that two wineries does not serve enough wine, lunch is free flow. At some point during the day, I had mentioned that I was not the biggest fan of rose. Ana remembered this, and asked the restaurant to substitute my rose for white wine. I became one of the first guests of the restaurant to try a new 2016 white they had just brought in! All the dishes on the set menu can also be substituted.
Depending on the size of your group, they may add additional people to the van. We met two guys from the US who loved their port as much as we did.
- White: These range from extra dry (less than 40g of sugar per liter) to extra sweet (more than 120g of sugar per liter) depending on sugar content. White port can be served as an apertif or a dessert drink.
- Red: What we typically think of as port (sweet dessert wine). The years label on port is not necessarily the number of years that particular bottle has been aging – most are blends (i.e. mix of 20 and 10 year tawny could be anywhere between 10-20 years). Some particular outstanding years become vintage years, with bottles limited to those particular years.
- Ruby: Less than 7 years – bright red in color
- Tawny: More than 7 years – more of a brown, tawny hue
- Red: Some of the more popular red grape varieties are Touriga Francesca, Touriga Nacional, Moreto, etc.
- White: Alvarinho, Malvasia Fina, etc
- Vinho verde “green wine”: Specialty of Portugal. Can be red, white, or rose. Definitely an acquired taste for some people – the grape contains far less sugar than other varieties.