Located in the northern part of Portugal, Douro valley is most famous for its production of the sweet and strong fortified wine, Port. But for the last decade or so, its table wine is making a come back in the wine world.
Before the 18th century, Portuguese wines were unfortified. Since the quality of the wine was not at its best, it was hard to endure the long sea journey when the wines were exported. By accident, wine merchants noticed that adding spirit into wines could stop the fermentation process making the wine stable. This left the wine with some residual sugar hence the world famous sweet Port wine was born! While Porto and the nearby Vila Nova de Gaia are the places where Port wines are kept and then shipped, to see the vineyards, you will have to go upstream along the Douro River. And there is no better way than travelling by train.
The train journey along Douro Valley is probably one of the cheapest and the most scenic in the world. Recognised by UNESCO as world heritage site, the terraced vineyards in the valley were created by human in extreme conditions. There is no doubt that cutting through rocks in ancient time required some really intense labour and determination. The steep terraces, blending with the curves of the river, make the landscape incredibly breathtaking.
The wine region in the Douro is divided into three sub-regions. From west to east, these are Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. Baixo Corgo has the largest area under vines, and it is the coolest and wettest amongst the three. Located right in the middle, Cima Corgo is the home to some of the most famous wineries and vineyards. Douro Superior in comparison is a relatively new region. Before 1789, the valley was blocked by Cachão da Valeira (a giant granitic rock) making it impossible to pass through this region. It is also the driest region in the Douro with continental climate; in this sub-region, many of the best vineyards sites are located in higher altitude.
The 170 km (106 miles) journey from Porto Campanhã rail station going east to the last stop near the Spanish border takes around 3.5 hours in total. A single journey costs about €13. Do not expect butlers on board but the experience will be unforgettable! During the first 40 minutes or so, what you can see is mainly city view, but later on, near Penafiel (Vinho Verde region), the first vineyard appears. After a while, the rewarding view of the valley will finally come into sight.
Régua in Baixo Corgo sub-region is the biggest town in the Douro valley. The Museum of Douro in the town centre is worth visiting. Further away in Pinhão (Cima Corgo sub-region), you will be able to see some of the majestic scenery of the valley, and exploring many well-known quintas is a must. Pinhão train station itself is also a gem. With 25 blue glazed tile panels covering the main building, it is a showcase of the local landscapes and winemaking traditions.
If you are in the region between July and October, you will even be able to take the historical steam trains every Saturday afternoon run by the Portuguese Rail Company (CP). The 3-hour journey will take you from Régua to Tua, accompanied by local musicians and Port wine tastings on board.
Though the best way to enjoy the view of the valley is to take the train, the boat or the cruise, to visit most ‘quintas’ (wine estates) you will definitely need a car, along with very good driving skills and a strong heart. As driving through crooked mountain roads with some continuous sharp curves is the norm.
My train journey through the Douro Valley in early October was under torrential rain. Even so, through the misty window covered with raindrops, the view was still stunning. Luckily after two hours, the rain finally came to an end; I was able to fully appreciate the amazing view and started to take pictures like there is no tomorrow!
During my ten-day stay in the Douro, I was fortunate enough to see many wineries in action: pickers buzzing around the vineyards, tractors and trucks full of grapes dashing across the road, winemakers bustling in and out of the wineries; even people busy treading grapes in lagares — shallow traditional stone trough where grapes are trodden by feet — which is typical of this region. And of course, tasting many Port and table wines from different Douro sub-regions. Here are some of the wine tasting highlights from my trip.
Quinta dos Avidagos (Baixo Corgo) www.quintadosavidagos.com
Located in Baixo Corgo, Quinta dos Avidagos has a total of nearly 80 hectares vineyards in four different sites, of which two of them were dating back to the 17th century. The winery and cellar are in Quinta dos Avidagos, where the main building of the estate is also located, along with a lovely small chapel onsite.
During my visit, I met with Pedro Tamagnini, whose family owns the business. Pedro told me that his uncle who has more than 40 years of experience in vine growing is also the vineyard manager. He treats the vineyards as if he is tending his own garden. The state of all their four vineyards is the solid proof.
Harvesting in Quinta dos Avidagos
Their focus is on the production of table wines. The Reserva 2009 is a blend of many typical Portuguese red grape varieties such as Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional, with abundant fresh red berries and plums aromas and a hint of mocha. With ripe tannins and good structure, it is quite modern and stylish. Their 2008 Grand Reserva is showing very intense ruby colour. The aromas are reminiscent of violets and black plums, very concentrated on the palate. The oaky flavour is present but well integrated.
Bulas Family Estates (Cima Corgo) www.facebook.com/pages/Quinta-da-Costa-de-Baixo/
Bulas Family Estates might sound like a new brand name in the market but their vineyards have a very long history dating back to the 13th century. The Douro valley is arguably the first delimited wine region in the world, 335 stone pillars were used to mark out the official boundaries permitted to produce Port wine. One of the original stone pillars can still be seen in Bulas Family Estates’ vineyard.
Having a total of around 40 hectares of vineyards, Bulas produces both Port and table wines. They are also very fortunate to have some of the most stunning views where Ceira River meets the mighty Douro River. Standing in the winery, smelling the new wines fermenting and enjoying the spectacular view at the same time, it’s an experience that I can still remember vividly.
It is not hard to see that Bulas Wine Estates is very lucky to have many natural resources to develop wine tourism further, and this is actually on their agenda. A brand new wine cellar, along with a small guesthouse are both under construction at the moment.
I tasted their Reserva Branco 2012 paired with “Bacalhau” (cod fish) that the young winemaker, Paulo Amaral, kindly made. The wine is pale yellow in colour, showing lots of citrus and grapefruit aromas, zesty and refreshing, it is a good match for the lovely dish for a hot autumn afternoon. The Grande Reserva 2009 made with 100% Touriga Nacional is a beautiful wine, showing violet, plums and strawberries aromas. Tannins are firm; a very structural wine but also quite elegant and feminine (maybe because the wine is made by its female winemaker – Joana Duarte). Their Tawny Port wines are also impressive. I tried the 20, 30 as well as the 40 (+) years Port. From dried peach and apricot aromas to sultana, raisins and honey; it’s nutty, sweet but with good acidity to balance out. Amazing!
Quinta da Sequeira (Douro Superior) www.quintadasequeira.com
Located in Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the Douro Superior, Quinta da Sequeira was founded in 1899. In their 15 hectares vineyards, you will find most of the grape varieties typical of the region. Douro Superior has continental climate, with hot, dry summer and cold winter. Quinta da Sequeira produces robust red wines but with the help of high altitude (450 meters), it is also able to make elegant white table wines made from traditional grape varieties with almost unpronounceable names!
The main focus for Quinta da Sequeira is the production of table wines. The white wine Branco Reserva 2012 is pale lemon in colour, with lots of citrus, peach, tropical fruit aromas and a hint of oak. The Grande Reserva 2005 is a bit smoky, showing red plums, cherries and kirsch aromas. Very concentrated and still got long to go. I also tasted one of the Port wines from 1900. It’s very dark in colour, extremely thick and concentrated, almost syrupy in texture. The aromas are very complex, with abundant raisins, orange peels, leather, liquorice and prunes. The acidity is still high enough to balance out the sweetness and the finish is very long and lingering. Quinta da Sequeira is planning to launch special bottles of the precious old Port. I am very looking forward to it!
Originally from Taiwan, Leona moved to the UK in 2005. She started her career as a PR professional, helping brands (spirits, travel, food etc) to create stories that would interest journalists. She also worked for Sopexa Taiwan as Project Manager, managing wine projects and media relations; it was then she started to be fascinated by the world of French wine and wishing to explore every single detail about wine making and vine growing.
Leona began her wine writing and translating career when she moved to the UK, firstly with Decanter Magazine (Chinese Edition in Taiwan) and is currently UK & Europe Correspondent for the most influential wine and spirits magazine (Wine & Spirits Digest) in Taiwan. She has travelled extensively to vineyards in Europe and you will almost always find her in major International Wine Exhibitions “grilling” producers.