Tuesday, 13 August 2019

A wine lover's guide to the Douro Valley


Recently I went to Portugal for a holiday. At least that was my cover story to my wife. The truth was that I wanted to visit the legendary wine-producing area of the Douro Valley and I needed an excuse to go! I wrote a piece recently about my experiences visiting the city of Porto (or Oporto in Portuguese) which you can check out by following this LINK.

In this post I am going to share my experiences and recommendations from my trip up the Douro river to where the magic happens. 
 

Setting and Geography


What makes Douro region special?

The most important aspect for the region is the Serra do Marão mountain range which stops the rain clouds and cool Atlantic air. This helps to create a micro-climate on the other side of the mountain range. There is a common phrase used to explain the climate of the Douro: “they have nine months of winter and three months of hell”. Essentially, you have a quite comfortable and temperate climate for most of the year and then in the summer it gets a little ridiculous. We were there at the end of May, but the temperatures were already hitting the early thirties… 

The Port-producing area of the Douro is divided into three sub-regions as you can see from the diagram to the left. The Baixo Corgo (or “below Corgo”) is the closest region to the coast and to the mountain range, hence it is the wettest and coolest area which means that it is not quite ideally suited for top-quality port. Next along is the Cima Corgo where many of the finest ports are produced as the temperatures are warmer and the amount of rain is just enough to promote growth, but not too much. Furthest inland is the pancake-flat Douro Superior area, which borders Spain on its eastern side, where temperatures in the summer regularly touch the mid-forties and the levels of rain are very low. This area tends to be used for the production of red table wines.

As the whole area is a valley that is created by the river Douro running through it (cue everyone remembering back to geography lessons…), the whole area is blessed with many beautiful views with dramatic backdrops of precipitous vineyards ranging up from the crystal-clear blue river. I have been fortunate that I have visited quite a few beautiful places in the world; but the Douro is now firmly embedded as one of the most stunning places that I have ever seen. Be prepared for some wonderful pictures in the rest of this post…!      
  

Getting there

               
There are various ways that you can get to the Douro Valley. A lot of people drive from Porto, but I have been told that the roads are pretty windy and tricky and not altogether a pleasant driving experience as the roads can be very windy with some fairly precipitous drops over the edge. As such you are better off letting the train take the strain - we took a train from Porto Camphana station (one of the most beautiful train stations in the world - see picture) to Peso da Regua which is the beginning of the main part of the Douro Valley in the Baixo Corgo sub-region. Word of advice here; you can’t book the tickets for this train online in advance, you have to book them in person at the station (although you can book them for subsequent days at the station). Also, the tickets that you buy don’t have a reserved seat and this is a popular train so make sure that you arrive early on the day that you want to travel. Particularly if you want to secure a seat on the right-hand side of the train (in the direction of travel) so that you get the best views of the valley.

The train journey starts out like any regular regional journey, but after an hour or so the line starts to wend its way along the north bank of the Douro river, which gives rise to some pretty special views. The line continues going up the river and many people continue up to Pinhão which really is the heart of the Douro region.

The other option that is worth considering when planning your journey that a lot of people favour is to take a boat. This is again a nice pleasant option as the river is normally very calm and it affords you plenty of opportunities to take in the wonderful views that make the Douro Valley such a special place to visit.

Places to Visit


So, enough of the admin – it’s time to tell you about the Port! We visited three different Port Houses and enjoyed them all tremendously. 

Dow's

 

Our first visit was to one of the region’s most famous names: Dow’s Quinta da Bomfim, which is walkable from Pinhão station and therefore is a very accessible place to visit. Dow’s is a part of the Symington Family Estate, which contains such illustrious houses as Graham’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesúvio. Dow’s is the driest and spiciest brand in their portfolio, which suits me as I wanted to try port wines across the taste spectrum.

The vineyard and tasting centre are set amongst a backdrop of the most splendid scenery. Our tasting was held in a room with a jaw-dropping view over the south bank of the river, which all helped to make the tasting experience even more special. 

We tasted a few of their table wines (2018 Altano Branco, crisp and dry; 2015 Quinta Do Ataide, nice and supple; and the 2016 Quinta do Vesúvio, a star in the making, intense damson and plum notes), but the main event was going to be tasting their ports – naturally!

We tried the Dow’s 10yo and 20yo Tawnies. We concluded that we preferred the 10yo as it had a lovely caramel and treacle nose and featured tremendous precision. I also particularly enjoyed trying the Dow’s LBV 12yo, which had a fruity, sweet nose with a lovely balance to the wine and a not-overly sweet taste on the palate.

The star for me, though, was trying vintage port from Quinta Do Vesúvio, where grapes are still foot-trodden in the traditional style to this day! We tried the 1995 which had a remarkably dark colour in the glass. The wine itself was incredibly decadent and rich with some sweetness, but the main notes were of deep, rich chocolate and menthol/eucalyptus, which gave it a freshness to counteract all the decadence! Incredibly long finish of two minutes plus. I had no option but to buy a bottle of this one – it is drinking wonderfully now but will get even better over the next few years.
 

Sandeman's  

 

Our next visit was to Sandeman’s at Quinta do Seixo. This vineyard is about a 10 minute drive from Pinhão (it is walkable but it’s quite a climb to get there, so would take over an hour and quite a lot of energy!). The situation of Quinta do Seixo is phenomenal, with some of the most beautiful views over the valley and the northern banks of the river that we saw. The winery and tourist centre are also both incredibly well done, with a lot of money having been spent on them. Sandeman’s are one of the larger producers of port, with over 2m litres of production per year.

I enjoyed trying a glass of the Sandeman’s 20yo Tawny which sits a light caramel in glass, with a slightly floral nose with touches of honey. On the palate it was nicely sweet without being too sweet, there were nice flavours of orange and a little vanilla evident too. I will always remember this glass, as through the wonders of technology it was here that I had a WhatsApp video call with my brother so that I could see the last five minutes of the Play-Off final to see Aston Villa get promoted back to the Premiership. I was able to raise a glass to the team in the most tremendous of settings – a special moment!
 

Churchill's


Our last visit was to Churchill’s at Quinta da Grisha. This was definitely a place that you had to drive to as it is much more remote compared to the last two locations, with it being a 30 – 40 minute drive from Pinhão through some rather windy and “adventurous” roads. Once more, however, the journey was worth it as you get stunning views over the valley from the south bank at a serious elevation. Churchill’s actually have a residence at the Quinta that you can stay at, which is certainly something that I will be looking to do when I next visit the area. The residence comes with a swimming pool that you can chill in whilst taking in the views over the valley – bliss!

Churchill’s production is at about 0.5m litres / year, of which it is split 50:50 between table wines and port wines. Here because I had already done a comprehensive tasting in Porto of their ports I focussed on their table wines. Some of the highlights for me were: their 2013 Touriga Nacional which had a fragrant, floral nose with some black cherry notes and a good, well balanced tannic structure, which combined sweet fruit notes and some darker, mocha like flavours. The 2016 Talhao 8 (also Touriga Nacional) had a massive power and intensity to the wine, on tasting it had huge concentration and structure with bags of tannins counterbalanced with acidity. This wine will really open up in a few years’ time. The 2012 Quinta Da Gricha had bags of rather brooding fruit (black cherries and blackberries), it was nice and supple and ready to drink right now.

As a little surprise, we were given the opportunity to try the newly-declared 2017 Churchill’s Vintage Port, which is being sold now en primeur. The nose was particularly concentrated, with a deep blueberry profile. On tasting what was noticeable was that the wine was already showing its balance, it was not overly sweet and was already holding its own as a pleasant drinking wine. This wine will suit both drinking young, but also benefit from cellaring and holding onto.
  

Places to Stay 


There are plenty of places to stay in and around the main centres of Peso da Regua and Pinhão, but we opted to stay a little off the beaten track in a B&B called Quinta da Portela, which is just near the charming town of Lamego, about 30 minutes drive from Peso da Regua. Set high up in the hills this B&B is set in a working vineyard that produces both table (still and sparkling) and port wines. Indeed, we had carafes of port wine (tawny and ruby) waiting for us upon arrival in our apartment, which were replenished throughout our stay – bliss! We were taken around the vineyards in the owner’s 4x4 and given a tour, which was fascinating. Their production is small (only 11ha of land), but they are justifiably proud of the work that they do. It also features a rather spectacular swimming pool with views over the vineyards, which we certainly made sure we took advantage of.

Each morning, the B&B staff put on an exceptional breakfast spread featuring fresh fruit, bread, cold meats, cheese, cereals and more. This really was a lovely way to start each day – I even decided on some days to start the day the Porto way, with a glass of Port to accompany my breakfast; it’s supposed to be good for you…!

We had a mini-tasting of their wines, including the 2018 Ardinia Douro DOC Premium (Rabigato, Arinto and Viosinho) which had a nice rich, buttery nose with some vanilla flavours giving that tell-tale oak indication. This was a very pleasant, easy to drink white – just what we needed after a hard-day’s tasting!  

You can find Quinta Da Portela on booking.com.

If you fancy something that is going to really going to give a once in a life-time trip then you could always stay in a hotel room that has been made from an over-sized wine barrel, like the ones at Quinta da Pacheca. These looked to be a lot of fun and I definitely want to stay in one – unfortunately they were all booked up when I was visiting; I’ve been told that you have to book them up well in advance, as you can probably understand!    


Right - who's up for a trip to the Douro then??