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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

Peso da Régua to Cotas, 25 miles

Before I depart, Ribeiro’s cousin Francisco Cabral recommends the view from São Leonardo da Galafura, which encompasses both the valley and the Serra do Marão mountain range, but the secondary roads leading there are poorly marked, and soon I am faced with an 18-point turn, impassively witnessed by the residents of Poiares. I eventually extricate myself from a cobblestoned square that predates motorized vehicles. Returning to the river, I cross over it and turn east, driving parallel to rows of vines and almond trees. I roll down the windows and listen to the birds nesting in the blooming mimosa. I can tell by the parched landscape that, as the season progresses, the sun intensifies. “Three months of winter, nine months of hell,” jokes a waiter on the waterfront deck at D.O.C. Restaurant in Folgosa, where I order smoked duck breast with requeijão cheese and a glass of tinto. Most restaurants in the valley pour wines from smaller estates such as Cristiano van Zeller’s Quinta do Vale D. Maria and cult favorite Casa de Casal de Loivos, on whose grounds the Pimentel family has a six-room guesthouse similar to Vallado, in the hills above Pinhão.

The town of Pinhão is a railroad hub where a steam engine that pulls antique carriages still stops during the summer at a charming station decorated with blue ceramic azulejos, Portugal’s distinctive illustrated tiles. It also has a riverfront promenade where speedboats dock. I climb aboard a teak-and-fiberglass launch that belongs to the most upscale of the newly converted wine estates, Quinta da Romaneira (from the Portuguese for “butterfly lavender”), for a cruise between the grassy banks. The pilot, Miguel, slowly navigates past so-called mortuaries—crumbling terraces that are no longer cultivated—and weekend fishermen concentrating on their bait.

Back on dry land, I cross over the Douro again and head toward the town of Cotas, stopping on my way at a monolithic winery. It’s common to find local estates where grapes are still harvested by hand and crushed with bare feet in lagares (granite vats); however, larger enterprises like Quinta da Romaneira are also investing in stainless-steel fermenting tanks before aging their wines in oak barrels. Now owned by a French consortium, the 1,000-acre domain has two handsomely renovated manors halfway down adjacent slopes on a bend in the river. Dona Clara is the more traditional, with curlicue entrance gates and an interior courtyard fountain, while Velha has an infinity pool and a tribal art collection.

Romaneira is run like an elaborate house party. The concept requires a great deal of orchestration and a little conceit. Every meal is set in a different location—on a terrace shaded by lemon trees, in the refectory, in a fire-lit library. At studied intervals, the staff hands out poems (in French, no less). The original wine cellar has been converted to a pool and hammam (a subtle nod to Portugal’s Moorish era). But my favorite structure is a storehouse turned chocolate factory, where tea cakes and creamy fudge are laid out every afternoon. At dusk, as the natural light disappears below the Douro Valley’s craggy hills, candles illuminate the gravel paths of the quinta’s grounds and lead me back to my guest room and its grape-purple sleigh bed.

At turndown, one of Romaneira’s staff delivers a glass of delicate white port, a reminder that it still has relevance at the end of the day. As I take a sip, he explains that the Douro River’s name (similar to the Portuguese word for “golden”) can be pronounced several ways. It makes me feel like singing.

Shane Mitchell is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.


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