A Portrait Of The Alto Duoro
“Oh, the places you’ll go” has never been truer. The saying and the book by Dr. Seuss were often used as a send-off and inspiration for students upon graduation. Nowadays, these words capture the mood of avid travellers anticipating the safe restart of international travel. As we patiently wait to explore the world, let’s not lose sight of the next best thing to travelling…the curiosity of places.
In the last of our 3-part Portugal travel-inspo blogs, we continue to indulge your travel curiosity with some photos of historic wineries, terraced hillsides and dramatic valleys of the Alto Duoro. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s oldest formally demarcated wine region, dating back to 1756. Best known as the birthplace of the sweet dessert wine – Port, the upper Duoro River boasts some of the most captivating landscapes in the country.
Adventure awaits. Let your travel curiosity lead the way! – Kathy, Kake2Kale
<< See Picturesque Portugal Part I
<< See Picturesque Portugal Part II
Explore Hillside Vineyards And Port Valleys
The Duoro is best known as the exclusive wine region for Port, one of the world’s most iconic, tradition-bound fortified wines. The hot climate and terroir (particularly schist rich soil) are what makes the upper Douro or the Alto Duoro ideal for growing the grape varietals to make robust Port.
Every wine region has interesting landscape, but few impresses the way that the Alto Duoro does. The scenery of the upper Rio Duoro is mesmerizing – undulating hills covered in a cascade of vineyard terraces carved into slopes, rising steeply from the river’s edge. And, here-and-there, the hillside terrain is dotted with small chapels and white-walled villages.
The Rio Duoro – known as the “river of gold” – flows into Portugal near the town of Miranda do Douro on the border of Spain, then meanders 320 km through twisty gorges and dramatic valleys towards the Atlantic Ocean, ending at to the country’s second largest city – Porto.
Traditionally, Port wines were ferried downriver from the upper Duoro by Rabelo boats to the caves or lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia (Porto’s south bank) for aging, then loaded onto ships bound for England. Today, these traditional boats are used for tourists visiting Porto.
On our last trip to the Duoro, we opted to skip Porto and stayed at a winery near the pretty wine town of PINHÃO, considered the heart of the upper Duoro. We loved it – not least because of the picture-perfect scenery but for the relaxed local charm. Pinhão is a small and sleepy riverside town with only a few wineries in the centre. The better wineries to visit are tucked high up in the hills and best reached by car.
Be warned, the zig-zaggy roads to reach the wineries are for confident drivers only. Hairpin turns and nauseating roads that hug the hillside are the norm. Some roads are barely the width of 1.5 cars and there are no safety barriers between you and the steep embankments. But, we thought it was worth it – each twist and turn unfurled stunning vistas.
The surefire way to visit the best of Alto Duoro is to drop into a variety of smaller, historic quintas or wine estates. Many of the big heavy hitters, like Taylor Fladgate, Niepoort, and Sandeman are a bit further away. The Symington Family of mega brands, including Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s are brought together at Quina do Bomfim in Pinhão, but this Quinta turned out to be our least favourite to visit. The takeaway – these are our recommended Quintas for ports, wines and hospitality: Quinta do Portal, Quinta Nova, Quinta do Tedo, Quinta do Crasto, and Quinta de la Rosa.
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Port. How Sweet It Is!
What really defines modern Port is the blending of brandy to red wine during fermentation and aging. Port is divided into two main types – wood-aged (98%) or bottled aged. And, generally, it’s produced in five main styles – White (white grapes, aged shortly in stainless steel or concrete, sometimes wood), Ruby (blend of young ports, barrel-aged for ~3 years), Tawny (oak barrel-aged for ~5 years), Vintage (single vintage year, bottle aged for 20 years) and Late Bottle Vintage or LBV (barrel-aged for 4-8 years).
Ruby and Tawny are the most ubiquitous port wines. The rarest, most expensive, prestigious, and sought-after of them all are the Vintage Ports. A Vintage Port is not declared every year but in the best years; sometimes only 3-4 times in a decade. The 2016 Vintage Port has been touted as the greatest vintage year since 2011 and possibly the most declared vintage of all time. Vintage greatness means a bottle can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars!
Great Ports for us invariably are LBVs with interesting full-body complexity and refinement at a fraction of the Vintage Port cost. Of course, Port is generally sweet but there’s a range of flavour profiles for ports. We can usually detect intense notes of dark fruit/berries, roasted nuts, vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, or chocolate depending on the port style.
Only a portion of grapes grown in the Douro valley are made into Port. The rest are used for world-class table wine production. More or less, the same grapes are used for Port as for wine. These are the top five red grape, local varietals of the Duoro: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. White port varieties are mainly Viosinho, Gouveia, Rabigato and Malvasia Fina.
But we didn’t visit the Alta Duoro just for Port – we were also interested in the non-fortified wines. Previously driven by demand for Port, wineries are now balancing old world traditions and modern wine making to become better known for their table wines, especially reds. As wine devotees, we were enthralled with the range of wines coming out of the Duoro.
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Recommended Accommodation & Dining:
Quinta de la Rosa – Historic wine estate on the Douro River within walking distance of Pinhão. We stayed at this estate for 4 nights.
Quinta Nova – Wine house with luxury accommodation and excellent restaurant.
Foz do Tavora Bar/Restaurant – Riverside restaurant run by Quinta do Pego.
Final Thoughts & Tips:
We wrap up our 3-part photo blog on Portugal with a few tips about Lisbon and a unique cooking/nature hotel on route to the Duoro region.
LISBON is a lovely city and well worth visiting if you don’t mind the over tourism and hords of visitors, as experienced in the pre-Covid19 days. Our suggestion for Lisbon is to visit the Berardo Collection Museum, focused on modern and contemporary art with works from artist ranging from Warhol, Pollock to Picasso and a light installation from one of our favourites – James Turrell. Nearby, is the stunning MAAT building (Art, Architecture and Technology Museum). For foodies, the Time Out Market is worth a side trip for lunch. And, when the sun sets, hit up a few of the rooftop bars – our top choices are the Sky Bar at the Tivoli Lisboa and the Limão at H10 Duque de Loulé, which happens to be our go-to hotel when staying in Lisbon.
Lastly, if you’re driving from Lisbon to the Duoro, consider taking a 2 or 3-night stop at the Cooking and Nature Emotional Hotel in the pristine SERRAS DE AIRE E CANDEEIROS NATURAL PARK. It’s a unique, boutique hotel with twelve rooms designed based on different emotions. It serves as an ideal base for hiking, biking, horse-back riding but also for cooking lessons, which is highly recommended!
In closing, thank you for enjoying our 3-part photo-essay of road trips in Portugal. We hope you enjoyed it and are more curious than ever about visiting Portugal. As Dr. Seuss says, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
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All photographs and images are copyrighted © 2014 – 2020 Kake2Kale Photography.