Portugal’s Douro Valley is quite the destination these days. In fact, the Douro is one of the reasons Tom and I recently moved to nearby Porto! We explored some parts of the Douro region during earlier travels to Portugal, and have now begun to take a closer look at the river’s extraordinary history and the magnificent wines made here (port wine, yes, but many more). In May, we had an opportunity to spend the day with Ana Carvalho, who with her husband Marco Pinto, provides boutique Douro experiences. Ana was happy to share with us–and our readers–a personalized introduction to the scenery, food and wine of the Douro. It was a fitting complement to our first visit to a Douro port wine estate.
Douro Exclusive is aptly named: two Douro Valley natives on a mission to share with their guests, what they consider to be the most important features of their home, and to do it in comfort and style. From the moment Ana picked us up in her Mercedes van, through a day of good food, tantalizing stories and camaraderie with our small group, until she deposited us on our doorstep back in Porto, our Douro experience was exclusive, indeed.
The husband-and-wife team offer a set of finely-calibrated experiences, and tailor them to fit the interests and prior knowledge of their guests. Everyone in our group had tasted port wine in the lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, and we all had some idea what the scenery would be like. What none of us expected, but Ana certainly delivered, were the many anecdotes and “fun facts” only a lifelong resident of such a place can know.
The new highway tunnel under Marão Mountain opened just a week before our day trip, shaving significant time off the journey from Porto. It also showed perfectly the effect that the low mountain range has on the climate of this region. As we entered the tunnel, we left the maritime-influenced weather of Porto and the southern reaches of Vinho Verde country behind. We emerged into a land of deeply ridged valleys and Mediterranean crops: olives, almonds, citrus fruits and of course, the vines that produce port wine.
To the heart of the Douro
In 1758, the Company for Alto Douro Vineyards and Agriculture laid the first of the granite landmarks used to set the boundaries for the region producing the so-called ‘shipping wines.’ Ana told us about the establishment of the world’s first demarcated wine region as we passed Sabrosa, birthplace of Ferdinand Magellan, and the historic village of Provesende, with its Baroque fountain and crumbling manor houses. We wound our way past port wine estates down to the Douro. By the time we reached Pinhão, at the heart of the valley, we had also learned of the changes coming to wine-making in the region.
Five leading winemakers in the valley, aka “the Douro Boys“, have combined forces to put Douro wine-production on the map, and the strategy is working. This region, perhaps more than others in Portugal, has gained considerable renown in the past several years for its high-quality red wines, featuring Portuguese grape varieties.
‘Nothing pleases me more than sharing (with our guests) the life of my ancestors.’
In Pinhão, we boarded a boat much like the river boats–called rabelos–originally used to transport barrels of wine to the port lodges at the mouth of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. We passed under the Pinhão bridge, passing wineries bearing the names of venerable port houses. Gliding east and around a bend in the river, it was hard to picture the Douro as the wild river it was in the early days of port wine-making.
Tom and I have enjoyed a variety of port wines, from luscious tawnies–wood-aged and a light brown in color–to some fine Vintage Ports and excellent whites. But on our Douro run with Ana, she offered a glass of something very special, and completely unknown to us until our tour with Douro Exclusive: Vinho Generoso.
This unfiltered, barrel-aged wine has the character of tawny port, plus sediment that is literally worth its weight in gold. Drawn directly from the barrel, it is cloudy and comes in shades of amber. Every glass also comes with a story, often a legacy from a previous generation. Makers of Vinho Generoso must register these wines with the Port Wine Institute, but cannot sell it. They can share it, however, as Ana did with us. Uniquely Douro, and how shall I say…”generous!”
“This is our Douro!”
–Ana Carvalho, Douro Exclusive
With a drive through gorgeous scenery and relaxing on the river behind us, it was time to get serious about sampling Portuguese flavors, Douro style. Our day continued with a visit to a boutique port house, fine dining on the banks of the river and a visit with an award-winning vintner. Stay tuned!
If you go
- We highly recommend enjoying the scenery both from the river and from above. Sky and vineyards are reflected in the river in an ever-changing ripple of color, and a short boat ride adds to the experience.
- Ask to stop by the Pinhão train station, one of the prettiest in Portugal. Its azulejos depict scenes of life along the valley, and wine-growing traditions, from harvesting grapes to shipping barrels of red wine on old-fashioned rabelo.
- If time allows, ask to add one or more of the Douro’s traditional wine-producing villages, such as Provesende (manor houses and bolo de carne, or meat cakes) or Favaios (known for four-corner bread and Moscatel fortified wine and) to your itinerary.
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Many thanks to Douro Exclusive for our boutique experience along Portugal’s Douro River. It was a day designed with us in mind, and one we will not soon forget!