What’s in a name: tasting port in Portugal – exploring the Douro Valley

A refreshing glass of white on a hot summer’s day, a comforting pour of red on a cold and rainy winter’s night. But what to choose on a sunny autumn day? We choose port.

Rolling hills lined with vineyards welcome us to the Douro Valley, just 1.5 hour driving east from Porto. It is not the first time that we see the cultivation of grapes against a Mediterranean backdrop, but it is the first time that we see the vine tendrils covered in leaves that are coloured yellow, orange and red.

With the Douro river on one side of the road and old stone houses with crooked walls on the other, we feel like we have entered another world. The soft autumn sunlight provides a warm  glow on a landscape that from time to time resembles a bit of our all-time favourite Tuscany. And so we wonder, how is it possible that the Douro Valley is a lot less known than the famous wine regions in Italy and France, even though it is recognized [by UNESCO] as a World Heritage Site? Sure these circumstances must allow perfect wine production?

In fact, the Alto Douro is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world – the red liquid delicacy has been produced here for nearly two thousand years already. The valley itself was carved by the river and our ancestors longing for wine decided to create terraces on the valley’s slopes. The fertile soil, the sun beaming straight down on the grapes and the water from the Douro river that even reaches the vegetation on the highest terraces through evaporation of fog, make the valley the perfect place to cultivate grapes used to produce some of the best wines from Europe.

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In Portugal, wine-producing farms are called quintas. The Douro Valley is blessed with many quintas and, lucky for us, most of them are run by families that produce wine and run tours for visitors as well.

Tasting wine obviously is not just about the taste. It is about the colour and smell as well. A walk through the vineyards sets perfect basic conditions for us. The smell of the outdoors, the colours of the leaves and the beauty of the surroundings prime us for a perfect tasting experience.

Although we have been told that some fine dry wines are produced in the region, we decide to opt for port. We are in Portugal after all. Port, also known as vinho do Porto, is a fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively from this Douro Valley; only the wines from this demarcated regions may be called port. Port comes in a variety of hues ranging from honey to a dark red, and is typically sweet in taste.

If you have anything more knowledgable to say about wine than ‘hey, this one is really tasty and goes well with the pasta’ we must warn in advance that you will not be getting any new insights from reading on because we are definitely no wine experts. If you don’t mind about that, then you are all good to continue reading.

We could start telling you stuff about how the colour indicates something about the age and tannins of the wine, but then we would just be faking it (because we can hardly tell a ruby from a tawny). Sometimes you don’t have to be a trained expert to just love something. And we do – we just love wine. Especially when enjoying it together at a picture perfect location.

Our tasting session starts with a light Siroco white port, a wine with a crisp dry finish that makes a great aperitif. We move on to the Bin 27, a tasty ruby with a bodied and round palate, and we finish with a 10 year old tawny that has a beautiful russet colour and a deliciously sweet taste. Three times yum!

Port tasting with stunning views of the Douro Valley

As we sip our drinks on the balcony of the quinta with the autumn sun warming our happy faces, we take in the views of the World Heritage Site in front of us. We feel lucky to have plenty of glasses with good wine in front of us to say cheers with as we feel grateful for this beautiful experience.

The next morning we wake up to the distant sound of dogs, roosters and church bells. We open the door to the balcony to let the fresh autumn air help us wake up and are pleasantly surprised by the stunning views of the Douro river that runs right in front of us. The best view is yet to come though – from the infinity pool of the hotel (Douro Royal Valley Hotel & Spa). No words needed, see for yourself:

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Enjoying the infinity pool at Douro Valley Hotel Spa
Enjoying the infinity pool at Douro Valley Hotel & Spa
Whoever performs well at this tennis court has seen too many beautiful places in the world
The beautiful views from this tennis court might be a bit too destracting to make this a suitable location for a serious match.

After our swim – with the best view we have ever had from a pool by the way – we hit the small, winding road that leads us to the beautifully renovated Six Senses Douro Valley. Time for lunch!

Now, there’s two things you might or might not yet know about us and that is that there are two things in the world of food and drinks we simply cannot resist: wine and chocolate (okay, and a third when in Portugal: Pastel de Nata. At Six Senses our focus on wine gets diverted – and trust us, that doesn’t happen without a good reason – by what arguably is the best chocolate dessert ever. If this pic does not convey the message, nothing can.

Bellies full and taste buds satisfied, an end has come to our culinary road trip through Portugal’s beautiful wine region. Our conclusion: the Douro Valley is way underrated. But perhaps that is bliss. The river and valley make this wine region a unique one in Europe, and the lack of mass tourism make it the perfect place to retreat. To indulge, to explore, and to discover port. And chocolate. 

Say cheers to the Douro Valley yourself!

Accommodation

What better place to spoil yourself than in a wine region? The Douro valley offers some exquisite hotels including four 5 star hotels. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to sleep in one, Douro Royal Valley Hotel & Spa and enjoy lunch in another, Six Senses Douro Valley.

The Douro Royal Valley Hotel & Spa is a comfortable five start hotel that solely offers riverside rooms. The views from the room and balcony are simply stunning, and are even more panoramic from the the infinity pool and tennis court. Guests are welcomed with a bottle of port and chocolates in their room and obviously, that was a big plus for us. With just over an hour driving from Porto, this is a great place for a city break. 

Six Senses Douro Valley is a renovated and expanded 19th century manor house with a contemporary interior including works of art in which wine making tools from the region have been integrated. The hotel is a lot more than a fancy place to spend the night, as you can easily fill your days with the many activities the hotel offers without leaving the premises. Besides the outdoor swimming pool and indoor spa, you can also opt for a yoga class or a workshop – to make your own soap for example. Learn more about wine during a tasting experience in the wine library and take a pick from the extensive lunch and/or dinner menu. Big tip: the chocolate mousse!

Activities

We absolutely loved our autumn visit to the Douro Valley in October because of the leaves changing colour, but you might also want to consider coming in September. Just after summer it is harvest time and some wine estates offer you the unique chance to join in the activity of collecting grapes and using your feet to squash them.

One of the main activities in the region is to visit the various quintas which each produce their own brands of port wine. At the quintas you can take a guided tour through the vinyard to learn more about the production process, and afterward you can have a first-hand tasting experiences of their wines. Three different wines are typically included in the tasting, and you can purchase additional snacks like nuts and cheeses to make your wine tasting an even better experience. Many quintas also offer a full lunch menu. We visited Quinta do Panascal of the Fonseca wine estate, a gorgeously situated wine house with vineyards overlooking the rolling hills and a meandering river. They offer an audio tour that allows you to walk through the vineyards autonomously, but if you prefer to go with an actual tour guide you can check the many other quintas that offer this activity.

Arriving to the Douro Valley and getting around

The easiest way to explore the Douro Valley is by car. It is just 1.5 hours driving from Porto or 3 when coming from Lisbon. Another means of transport to explore the region, is by boat. The almost 900 km long Douro River zigzags through the valley and gives you the unique opportunity to take in the beauty of the region from the water on a multi-day cruise. Or, if you prefer to be able to stop as you please at any of the viewpoints for stunning panorama views, you can also combine a road trip with a day trip on the water. If you enjoy the horseshoe bends but prefer not to navigate them yourself, you can also opt for a scenic train journey with the Linha do Douro.

Find out more at the official Douro Valley website.

Learning more about wine

For those wine lovers who would like to actually learn something about wine (not port in specific!), we highly recommend the very useful and entertaining guide ‘Wine. All the time’ by American columnist Marissa A. Ross that Sanne took home from her New York trip earlier this year.

Disclaimer: Douro Valley Hotel & Spa sponsored our one night accommodation and Six Senses Douro Valley sponsored our lunch in the valley. The story we wrote about our Douro Valley experience is based on our honest evaluation of the experience and reflects our own personal and unbiased opinion.

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