Driving Portugal’s Wine Country
Is the Douro Valley about to become one of Europe’s next great wine destinations?Shane Mitchell winds her way through the sunbaked countryside, stopping at converted manor houses, in search of the answer.
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.
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.
When to Go
Spring and fall are mild, with daytime temperatures in the 60- to 75-degree range. June has pleasant weather and is less crowded than July or August. The harvest season starts in September.
Where to Stay
Great Value A 17th-century estate near Pinhão with six antiques-filled guest rooms.
Great Value Near Douro National Park, a small inn that offers 12 comfortable rooms.
Just south of the Douro Valley, Carmen and Paulo Romão have converted six stone structures into guesthouses with modern suites.
At this 19-room estate the rate is steep, but it includes lavish meals, wine tastings, and boat trips along the Douro.
Where to Eat
During summer, meals are served on a riverside deck. An extensive wine list accompanies chef Rui Paula’s modern Portuguese menu.
A popular restaurant that specializes in regional cuisine and wines from boutique vineyards.
Regional dishes are served on the patio, which has views of the Aquapura hotel’s vineyards.
Tours include tastings and a visit to the wine cellar. The Pimental family plans to open a 14-room inn on the property later this year.
Vineyard tours and tastings are by appointment only at this boutique producer in the Rio Torta Valley.