All of a sudden, the Douro Valley in northern Portugal seems to have become the hippest place to be for wine lovers and everybody else.
It’s actually easy to see way. The landscape is truly breathtaking: rows after rows of lush green vines nestled on steep terraced hills along with small historic villages and imposing Quintas (wineries) sitting either directly on the riverbank or strewn high on the slopes, with narrow curvy roads leading up to them. Cutting through all this like a snake deep down in the valley is the blue band of the Douro river.
Despite all the hype, you will hardly run into large crowds of tourists; although day trips from the nearby city of Porto are now hugely popular and numbers are slowly rising.
The Douro Valley was declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, and is indeed the oldest demarcated wine region in the world; established around the mid 1750s to produce above all the famous local port wine.
Wines of the Douro Valley
I must confess, I have never been a fan of sweet wine. Hence my enthusiasm for port wine tasting was somewhat limited at first. But since the Douro Valley is the birthplace of port wine (in fact, only ports from this area are actually allowed to be called port wine), there was no real excuse not to go for a port wine tasting. It did not make me a convert, but it was actually an interesting experience; I even purchased two bottles of tawny port to take home.
Port wine is a fortified wine that is obtained by adding brandy to stop the fermentation (usually when half of the natural sugar has been converted) to leave more sweetness in the wine. It has a high alcohol content (between 19-22%) and a high persistence of flavour and taste.
Though port wine remains the poster child of the Douro Valley, today most Quintas also produce excellent dry red and white wines, and some do sparkling as well.
Which are the best wineries to visit?
There are many wineries producing excellent wines (port and others), so which ones to visit can be a difficult decision.
My go to approach when visiting a new wine region has become to find out if there are official wine routes; as wineries associated with wine routes usually offer a number of different experiences, from vineyard to cellar tours, wine tasting and often food. Which is not to say there aren’t fantastic wineries that are not part of a wine route. However, it makes getting round a wine region you are not familiar with much easier.
There are two official wine routes in the Douro Valley. The port wine route – which was created in 1996 – includes around 50 port wine wineries and is divided into three different areas: Baixa Corgo (Lower Corgo), Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo) and Douro Superior.
The Cister wine route was added in 2011 and includes some newer wineries. It covers eight areas in the Douro Valley: Armamar, Lamego, Moimnta da Beira, Penedono, Sao Joao da Pesqueira, Sernacelhe, Tabuaco and Tarouca.
Most of the wineries along these routes are open to visitors. Nevertheless, many still require appointments made in advance so if you want to visit one or more specific ones, you should find out in advance if you need an appointment.
What else can you do in the Douro Valley
Douro Valley is not necessarily an activity packed place. Indeed, it is ideal for a mixture of wine tasting, spa treatments and relaxation. However, if you want to do more, there are several places worth exploring.
There are a number of small picturesque towns including Lamego, Pinhao and Regua where you can find cafes, restaurants and shops. However, it’s perhaps the town of Lamego that is the one offering the highest number of attractions. It is home to the oldest surviving chapel of The Corinthian columns (built in the 1100s), the Lamego Museum (hosted in a beautiful palace itslef and hosts a number of paintings, sculptures and tiles along with archaeological and liturgical artefacts from different eras), Lamego Castle and the Lamego Cathedral dating back to 1129.
The most famous Lamego attraction however is probably the stairway leading up to the hilltop chapel named The Shrine of our Lady of Remedies, which was built in 1791 and today has become a site of pilgrimage.
Another fun activity is to take a boat ride on the Douro river, which will give you a different sense of the landscape. Traditional rabalo boats start from the town of Pinhao and there are a couple of options, starting with tours of one hour to tours of around three hours. If you are up to – and you had not yet enough wine tasting – many boat operators also offer tastings on board.
Where to stay in the Douro Valley
Part of the reason tourist numbers are still contains is the difficulty to obtain planning permits (including extensive remodelling of existing premises) and thus only a limited number of hotels and other accommodation in the area. So if you plan to stay overnight, make sure you book well in advance as rooms are in high demand.
That said, there are several beautiful hotels in the Douro Valley, many of which are in converted wineries.
Next time I return to the Douro Valley, my three favourite hotels to seek out are:
Vintage House Hotel in Pinhao, which belongs to historic port wine maker Taylor’s. The hotel is located directly on the river bank and makes for a great starting point to explore the region. Originally built in the 18th century, it was turned into a 5-star hotel preserving the old style of the property. The hotel also hosts a Wine Academy, offering wine courses, gourmet experiences and introductions to the history and production of port wine.
Douro Valley Six Senses near the town of Lamego. It’s the brand’s first European hotel, and it’s quite telling they have chosen the Douro Valley. The hotel is located in a converted 19th century manor house in the middle of the vineyards, overlooking the Douro river.
Also close to Lamego it the 18th century Wine House Hotel, which is part of Quinta da Pacheca. On site, wine courses and cooking workshops are offered.
Have you been visiting the Douro Valley yet? Let me know about your experiences!