In the beginning of August we set out to discover the beautiful Douro valley growing region for Port wines stretching from Porto city itself all the way long the Douro river in towards the Spanish border. Our aim was to see the area and get a feeling for the geography, and surely to eat and drink our way around!
It has been a very dry year - just like in Tuscany - and on the outskirts of the wine region, dozens of forest fires were pestering the countryside making the air smoky and hazy. But half way into the Douro valley the skies cleared up and the splendour of the region revealed itself.
The long river twirls along steep banks terraced with grape vines as far as the eye reaches and as you turn one corner another stunning vista opens up just like the previous one.
It's possible to drive along the river for a lot of the way and it's rather easy to get around, but if you venture up into the heights of the hills, you end up on narrow roads without railings and at times it felt like we were floating in another dimension, like in a paradise of vineyards.
We had rented a car for our whole stay to have full independence, but in retrospect perhaps it would have been an idea to do a train ride from Porto - the train (http://www.linhadodouro.net/) runs along the river and stops often so it's possible to visit the Porto Quintas (wineries) and see the whole stretch of the Unesco protected valley with the steep vineyards and iconic white Quintas with their name brands written in black.
We spent 3 days in the gorgeous Douro valley and 3 days in lively Porto. Port is one of the oldest appellations in Europe originating sometime back in the mid 18th century. The terraces where the vines grow have been formed over centuries and are impressive as they indicate toil & trouble in order to turn such rugged terrain into a successful agricultural area. And even if successful in terms of fame, the work is still mostly done by hand as vineyards (varieties are Tintas and Tourigas mainly) are difficult or sometimes impossible to access with machines, the yield is ridiculously low (sometimes only 2000 kilos/hectare) and the price for the grapes equivalently low. The overhead of making port is huge because of the many years of ageing, so it's mainly only historical estates in the city of Port that will invest in this part of the process. This means that most wine is moved out of the Douro valley after making and into the city of Port for ageing. In the past the river was used to move the wine, nowadays trucks are loaded with the fortified wine ready for ageing into one of the many varieties of Port (white, rose, ruby, tawny, vintage, late bottle, etc).
A new generation of growers and winemakers are wanting to play, but it's almost impossible for the Port making, so an increasing number of dry reds and some whites are being made in the region. One day by chance at a local eatery we met one of these guys, an interesting wine maker who he gave us a great insight and tasting of alternative wines.
Douro was however first put on the map thanks to the fame of the Port, that takes its name from the city in which it is aged. Or almost. We made our way to Porto city, located on the North side of the gorge of the Douro river just out to the Atlantic Ocean. The temperatures here drop drastically from inland and are extremely pleasant. Perfect climate for ageing wines, Port wine is aged in the brand name houses and adjacent warehouses on the South side of the river though, and the name of the city here is in reality Vila Nova de Gaia. This is the perfect place to taste the different kinds of Port and you can practically walk into the different port houses, some of which offer an informative tour, others just a tasting of a variety of Ports.
Here are some names to look out for in the city: Quinta do Noval (tastings are rather expensive but the quality is excellent), Ramos Pintos (there's a tour into their museum and cellar which was rather informative), Niepoort, Croft (we visited at their grape growing estate just outside Pinhao), Graham's, Fonseca, Taylor's, Quinta do Portal, Churchill's & Fonseca.
Some gourmet eateries to include if you go:
Toca da Raposa in Ervadosa de Douro
Largo do Paco in Amarante
Pedro Lemos in Porto
Orangerie at the Yeatman hotel overlooking Porto
Here are some pictures - only brought my Iphone (weight restrictions on flight), but at least it'll give you an idea of what a trip to the area could look like.