A day that begins with a drive through Douro vineyards and a boat ride on the river is off to a fine start. And when that day continues with a port tasting and lunch at a top restaurant, and finishes with a private visit to a winemaker who is an artist at heart, it gets even better! On our day trip with Douro Exclusive, that is just what happened. Our day of sampling Portuguese flavors in the Douro Valley was a day of beautiful wine, scenery and food, perfectly matched.
A top port house
At Quinta do Panascal, the Fonseca port wine estate, everything is done as it was 100 years ago. Grapes are hand-harvested and crushed by foot without removing the stems to produce red wine–the base product for port wine–in small quantities.
The winery is on the side of a hill above the Tavira River, a tributary of the Douro. Quinta do Panascal is small-group friendly, situated at the end of a little road where large tour buses dare not venture. I loved its intimacy, homey feel and the fact that workers came in from the vineyards for lunch while we were on-site.
Fonseca offers a tasting that cannot be had anywhere else, including in Vila Nova de Gaia. Our visit began with a 20-minute self-paced audio tour of the vineyards nearest the winery. My narrator had some tough competition from the stunning scenery all around me, but doled the information out in easily digested sound bites.
A tasting with a difference
Our tasting at Fonseca was one of the best I’ve participated in. We enjoyed three port wines, each with unique characteristics.
Siroco, a dry white port, was refreshing and creamy. There was a 2012 vintage and to compare, a 1987 Vintage Port. Tom also had a chance to try his hand at opening a bottle of vintage port with hot tongs!
For more about the why? and how? of opening port wine with tongs, and a variation on technique, check out this video with Sommelier Caleb Ganzer of Eleven Madison Park in New York.
Along with port, we tasted Douro olive oil and locally-sourced goat cheese. The cheese can only be bought from a single butcher shop in a Douro village.
In future, Douro Exclusive plans to provide their guests with a visit to the butcher shop for tastings of the cheese and other local products.
A meal to remember
Rui Paula’s DOC Restaurant commands a stunning location on the Douro river. The restaurant, half way between Pinhão and Régua, is reached by boat or a drive along one of the most scenic roads in Europe. The restaurant offers nuanced dishes based on traditional Portuguese cuisine, re-imagined using contemporary techniques and concepts. Our three-course seasonal menu came with a bottomless bread basket and wine pairings for each course. It was the ideal follow-on to the Fonseca port tasting.
Rui Paula wowed us with amuse bouches of sweet-and-savory corn in tiny cones and a wafer filled with the essence of caldo verde, Portugal’s signature soup. Our appetizer was scallops with bright green peas and sous-vide quail eggs. Wine with the first course was Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro 2014.
Our main course was an exquisite rendition of Bacalhau with smashed potatoes and country corn bread atop turnip greens. Rui Paula’s version is guaranteed to make a cod-lover out of anyone! Wine with the main course was Vieira de Sousa, Tinto Reserva 2014.
After a pre-dessert raspberry explosion that evoked childhood fun pops, we moved on to the real thing. Dessert was a dome of passion fruit and peach with a dollop of Italian meringue and a dab of basil pesto. Dessert wine was Rozés Infanta Isabel 10 year Porto. Coffee, a lovely spot of port, and we were done!
Tasting a Douro red
The scent of orange blossoms permeated the air at Quinta de Tourais as we stepped out of the car and entered a courtyard paved with schist stones, re-purposed from vineyard terraces. We were at the small estate to meet Fernando Coelho, a Douro vintner who makes wine in luxuriously small quantities: in 2015, just 20,000 bottles.
The vintner uses only Portuguese grape varieties and makes only table wines. Before we tasted the wines, we toured the compound. The pristine vinification space has several of the granite treading tanks known as lagares for stomping grapes by foot, and a light- and art-filled tasting room.
What’s this one called? “Delicious!”
After our tour, it was time for tasting, and we sampled four wines, ending with a small glass of Vinho Generoso siphoned from the barrel as we watched. The Tourais wines were distinctly different in character–from one another and, we were told, from year to year– in keeping with the wine-maker’s philosophy. At Quinta de Tourais, the labels are printed directly onto the bottles, each featuring a design commissioned from an artist.
We tried Touriga Nacional two ways: a rosé single variety and the quinta’s entry-level red, smooth with strong tannins. A third offering added Alicante Bouschet and Tinta Barroca to the blend. Our final red was a just-bottled Furia, with the potential to hold for at least ten years.
With the wines, we munched on excellent home-grown and roasted almonds, two beautiful local cheeses and thin-sliced ham. I was amazed that I had an appetite after our magnificent DOC meal, but somehow, I did.
If you go
Douro Exclusive’s tours are tailor-made to fit a client’s knowledge of the region and its foods and wines. Ana and Marco ask detailed questions to determine the level of detail–and recommend experiences–for each client. No matter the level, though, we have a few words of advice for organizing your Douro adventure:
- Douro Valley reds and rosés are ideal with food, and there are so many good foods to try here, all local and prepared with love: breads, cheeses, ham and all manner of country fare. Let Douro Exclusive help you decide what types of meals and snacks to try.
- Be sure to taste the regional olive oil! It comes in varying degrees of spice, and is available from a number of the same growers of the grapes for the region’s wines.
- Be entertained–and enlightened–with the dramatic stories of this land of seasonal contrast and a once-wild river. If you have time in the region, visit the Douro Museum in Régua for wonderful background to port wines.
- Have more than a day to devote to the Douro? Douro Exclusive has ideas aplenty to make your stay–long or short–one for the record books.
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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!