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Driving Portugal’s Wine Country

David Nicolas Quinta do Vallado, a wine estate and inn, sits where Portugal's Corgo and Douro rivers meet.

Photo: David Nicolas

My husband, Bronson, says “doh-roo.” I say “due-row.” We sound like the Gershwin song, arguing about how to pronounce the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, located in northern Portugal. (He is a wine dealer, so I eventually concede.) The Douro Valley has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage region thanks, in part, to a blockade during one of Great Britain’s squabbles with France in the 18th century. To spite their Gallic foes, British traders sailed past France to the Iberian Peninsula. There, Portuguese vintners readied their red wine for the long trip back to the elite gentleman’s clubs of London by stabilizing it with brandy. The result is what we now know as port.

Authentic port is made at quintas (estates) along a narrow river gorge snaking 100 miles through the mountain ranges of tumbled granite that act as a weather barrier for the terraces of vines introduced by the Romans in the third century A.D. Today, this port-producing district, with its determination to preserve the sort of rustic naïveté that Tuscany and Bordeaux can no longer claim, is emerging as the latest stop on the European enotourism circuit, with new restaurants opening and historic quintas being converted into inns. The current generation of Douro wine producers is shifting with the times (and tastes) as the global hunt for the next big wine region intensifies. To see the transformation for myself, I mapped out a drive along the region’s circuitous roads through its sunbaked landscape.

Porto to Peso da Régua, 70 miles

The visual transition from Portugal’s second-largest city to one of its most rural provinces could not be more striking. In recent years, the coastal metropolis of Porto, where I pick up my car, has sprouted contemporary art galleries, restaurants, and performance spaces, which now abut earlier Gothic and Baroque treasures. In the surrounding region east of Porto, however, the predominant architectural highlights remain medieval. Cistercian monasteries and Romanesque churches sit in the centers of ancient villages where vineyard workers drink bica (espresso shots) in cafés while their wives haggle over blood sausage and raw-milk cheeses at the Saturday farmers’ market. After passing through a toll station in Amarante, the road ascends into the mountains (which peak at 4,650 feet), and that’s when the hair on my head starts to rise as well. (Portuguese drivers tend to think the 75 m.p.h. speed limit is for tractors and donkey carts only.) Once I exit toward Mesão Frio on less-trafficked roads, scrubby pine quickly gives way to eucalyptus, then orange and olive trees, and I maneuver carefully down switchbacks with glimpses of the Douro River and its tributaries.

Outside Peso da Régua, the historic center of the port trade, I stop for the night at Quinta do Vallado, which overlooks the Corgo River from steep terraces, many of which were shaped by hand 300 years ago. Stocky and tan, João Ferreira Álvares Ribeiro is a sixth-generation port- and winemaker; he has converted the ground floor of the family’s 18th-century ocher manor into five plain but comfortable guest rooms, with rustic painted headboards, and shuttered doors opening onto a gravel path. (Next year, eight more rooms will be added in a new building set amid the 173 acres of vines.) A retired investment banker, Ribeiro’s two obsessions are vintage port and modern architecture. He commissioned Eduardo Souto de Moura, one of Portugal’s leading designers, to extend a handsome steel-frame balcony from the manor’s ancient façade; it barely obstructs the terra-cotta pots of geraniums in the granite window embrasures.

Over a chilled glass of Vallado’s Moscatel Galego, Ribeiro explains that the estate has shifted much of its production to table wines in the past decade, since the international demand for port pales in comparison with that for dense varietals that may eventually rival pricey Burgundian Pinot Noir and Napa Cabernet. His ancestor, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, was a pioneer in the port trade. Ribeiro belongs to a loose federation of vineyard owners called the Douro Boys, all dedicated to improving the region’s profile. (Despite the jolly name, they take this task seriously.) He quizzes me about American interest in enotourism, and when I want to know whether he thinks the tourism industry or the wine industry is more important for the region’s future, he replies emphatically, “The wine. We will always be winemakers first.”

In the adjacent farmhouse, staffer Dona Fernanda still cooks soup for the vineyard crew in large pots over a charcoal fire; the same building also houses an informal drawing room and a new demonstration kitchen where Ribeiro pairs the estate’s young wines with classic Portuguese dishes such as rojões (stewed pork with potatoes) for his guests.


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