Savoring The Spectacular Sights & Tastes Of Douro Valley Wineries
Sometimes the heart knows exactly what it wants. And the minute I hit “confirm” to lock down my flight to Porto, I immediately started researching Douro Valley wineries to visit.
I’ve been a huge port fan for years (in keeping with my “I’m actually 80 years old” schtick, I guess), but even if you don’t like—or don’t think you like—port wine, the wineries in this region of Portugal are a must-visit for anyone who loves food, wine, and gorgeous scenery. And who knows, it just might convert you!
Northern Portugal made my list of must-visit travel destinations for 2022!
My driver and tour guide, Fernando, picked me up at my gorgeous winery accommodations (more on that later) after a hearty breakfast. We started winding and climbing our way through the valley toward our first destination, with a stop here and there for photo ops over the valley.
Fernando was SO incredibly knowledgeable…about Portugal’s history, the local Douro culture, the port wine industry, different types of port and how they’re made, grapes, wine-making families, and more! He was truly an encyclopedia and I learned more from him than any of my winery tours.
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What is the Douro Valley?
Many people may not have heard of Portugal’s Douro Valley, since it flies a little under the radar compared to world-renowned wine regions like Bordeaux, Champagne, Tuscany, and Napa Valley. But it shouldn’t!
Home of the River Douro, the Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world (boundaries were set in 1756). Also called DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada), it’s the only place you’re allowed to call port…port. But wine has been being made in the valley since the 3rd or 4th century AD.
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Both because of the DOC and the UNESCO designation, the wine-making process is very protected. For instance, no irrigation can be used and all the grapes must be picked by hand. The landscape is characterized by insanely steep terraces covered in vines (built to expose the vines to the sun), with the big silvery river winding through and dotted with wine-producing farms called quintas.
It’s primarily known for the port wine that’s been produced here for 2,000 years, a sweeter fortified wine made when you add brandy to the wine to arrest the fermentation partway through. This article gives a good overview of the different types of port and how they’re aged. The Douro Valley wineries do also make regular white and red wines, though.
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Quinta do Vallado
We arrived at Quinta do Vallado mid-morning, just as it was starting to warm up a bit. Established in 1716, it’s one of the oldest and most famous estates in the valley. It belonged at one point to the legendary Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, and is still in the hands of her descendants today.
The winery has a small room that outlines key figures and dates in the family’s history, as well as a nice small retail store. They also run a small winery hotel that looks gorgeous and worth a stay.
Vallado offers tours in both English and Portuguese (at different times of day). I met up with my tour guide, Antonio, who was awesome. It was only me and a family from England in my group, nice and small.
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Antonio first took us into some of the cellars, where the tawny was aging in large barrels (the rubys and whites usually age in large vats).
The little tube/straw thing shows your the color of the liquid, which will shift over the years from the initial dark red to the lighter amber of the older tawnies.
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We also saw the traditional lagares, big granite tubs where the grapes were historically tread by foot. While technology has replaced this practice to a large degree (using silicone “feet”), the traditional foot treading is still done every year for small batches of what will be the best wines. You can see a video of what it’s like here.
The Douro Valley wineries seem to strike a good balance between maintaining traditions that have been passed down, and leveraging technology that benefits them.
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We spent just a bit of time outside looking at the closest vines as well as some of the different buildings on the estate, and talking through of picking, sorting, de-stemming, and fermentation.
One thing you’ll see at many of the wineries here are old olive trees. They tend to use olive trees, which have a deep root system, to provide a kind of ground/soil infrastructure for the vines on the Douro’s steep terraces. They also were historically used to mark boundaries between properties.
Olive trees are good companion plants to grape vines (both are self-pollinating), suitable for the climate here, You’ll find delicious olive oil for sale in many wineries, and I highly recommend taking some home!
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And or course the tasting is what you’re here for! We started with their Reserva White, a very nice white wine, then switched to reds with the more intense Douro Superior and more floral, softer Touriga Nacional, a very floral, soft wine made from one of the most predominant indigenous grapes in the area.
Then it was the rare traditional Reserva Field Blend. This is made using very old vines (between 60 and 100 years old) and is complex and delicious. You want to keep it 15-20 years to age it if possible. Part of the grapes from this wine were foot-tread in the traditional granite lagares that I showed above.
Finally we ended with Vallado’s 20-year Tawny port, which was absolutely delicious. It was my first time tasting a tawny (and an aged tawny, at that), and it’s definitely now my go-to over the ruby or LBV. Pro tip: Fernando told me (and so far I agree) that the Tawny 20 is usually considered the best value for money among the aged tawnies.
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Before we left, Fernando mentioned to Antonio that I’d been dying to try a white port, so they took me back to the reception area and poured me a glass of theirs. It’s so good! White port is a new world for me and I’ve been experimenting with it in cocktails.
As we headed toward lunch in Regua (the amazing Castas e Pratos!) and then on toward our next winery, I also just enjoyed the Douro Valley’s gorgeous and unique landscape. I wish I’d had a few more days here where I could have maybe done the train or boat trip, or even just spent more time on the drive.
The N-222 which curves along the river is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world, and is worth a visit all on its own.
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Quinta do Bomfim
But we’re here for the wineries…so my next stop was Quinta do Bomfim, owned by the Symington family. They own Graham’s, Dow’s, and more…kind of a big deal in port.
This winery is near the little village of Pinhão, where the Valley transitions between temperate and Mediterranean climates.
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Lunch had run a little late, so I joined the tour after it had already started. That was fine by me, since you hear and see a lot of the same things when doing multiple tours in the same area—plus Fernando had intensely educated me so I had a leg up.
This one was quite thorough and long, including a fairly long educational video on the Symington family. My favorite part of the tour was the giant barrels, which look pretty cool.
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But then finally we got to the tasting! After having done Vallado, this one was a little more underwhelming, and without any explanation or guiding through. I had the three wines and a little placemat with a little info on it, and just drank at my own pace.
First up was Graham’s Six Grapes, one of their best-known ruby ports. It’s decent, a complex and full-bodied ruby. Next I sipped their Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage. This particular vineyard (Malvedos) has given them many vintages over the years.
Finally I tried the 20-year tawny, which was good but to me it wasn’t as good as Vallado’s. I ended up being served both the Six Grapes and the 20-year tawny at my amazing Vinum lunch the next day.
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One awesome part of Bomfim, which I didn’t get to really take advantage of, was the absolutely STUNNING patio and view. I honestly would have preferred to just sit out here and have a glass of wine versus the tasting inside…it was a beautiful day for it too.
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And I won’t spend too much time on Quinta Nova, because I’ve done a whole deep review post on what it was like staying at this gorgeous winery. That’s right, this was my home for a couple nights!
And because I was out and about exploring other wineries, I never got to do an actual tour and tasting at Quinta Nova. However, I *did* drink several of their wines, enjoyed the winery grounds, walked through the vineyards, and ate at the restaurant multiple times.
It’s not the easiest winery to get to, with a long winding road climbing up through the valley. But that makes it less crowded and gives you great views.
You can do a tour and tasting, a more in-depth experience, or just enjoy a snack or some lunch out on the terrace. One afternoon I had a cheese and jam plate and porto tonico (and then a ruby port) and watched the sun begin to set.
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And about those views…it is one of the big draws here! Great during the day, but sunrise and sunset are particularly beautiful
Where to stay while exploring Douro Valley wineries
You should definitely look at a few different winery hotels (including Quinta do Vallado). I stayed at Quinta Nova and loved the experience overall (though the dinner food quality was not what I thought it should be). You can see my full review here.
My driver, Fernando, was absolutely amazing and a great tour guide. He works for The Boutique Traveler, if you want to know more you can contact Patrick at hello (at) theboutiquetraveler.com (I think this is their website).
I wish I had a couple more days to explore the Douro Valley wineries, but as you can see I was able to do quite a lot in a short time. Of the two true winery tours I did, Quinta do Vallado was definitely the standout, and I’d recommend it on anyone’s Douro itinerary!
Other amazing winery adventures you’ll love:
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- Exploring the Wineries of Mendoza, Argentina
- Sampling The Delights Of Santorini’s Wineries
- A Weekend of Wine in Willamette Valley
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