It's not hard to imagine the Auberge du Bon Laboureur…
There are many ways to explore Portugal’s premier wine region, but the best tour of the Douro Valley has to be with people who live there.
I’m not looking for the tourist schtick. When you visit the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site no less, you want to stroll among the vines, meet the wine makers and taste port that was made the way their grandmas used to make it. And you don’t want to have to worry about tasting and driving.
That’s why, when I was searching for the best tour of the Douro Valley, I was thrilled to find Marco and Ana, the founders of Douro Exclusive. They were both born and raised in the Douro Valley and they’re driven by a passion to share this unique place with visitors.
What makes the Douro Valley so special?
This deep valley in northern Portugal was carved by the Douro River, or the river of gold, which had a notably silver sheen in the morning haze that day.
On the drive from Porto in a comfy Mercedes van, Marco, our host for the day, told us that there are two secrets to the valley’s grape growing prowess: a mountain and a lot of rocks. The mountain blocks the humidity from the Atlantic ocean so there’s a distinct microclimate in the Valley – hot and dry – perfect for grape growing. The shale rocks in the soil retain the heat of the day and keep the vines warm at night.
It’s amazing to think that the terraces that line the slopes of the hillsides were built by hand. The effect is spectacular – – endless undulating contours like something out of an Escher drawing.
The famous port wine
“What do you know about port?” Marco asked us. This is what the Douro Valley is known for – – some even say it’s what put Portugal on the tourism map.
I thought Marco might have been puzzled when a few of us said that sweet wine isn’t really our thing. But, I suspect he knew that by the end of the tour, we would think differently about port.
Port is a fortified wine, made by adding a strong alcohol spirit to the wine early in the fermentation process. This means that the wine retains some of the sweetness of the grape and makes it rich, round and smooth on the palate.
The story goes that the invention of port was a happy accident. The British found that some of the wine they were shipping from the region would spoil during the journey. But when one fellow accidentally poured brandy into a barrel, the wine was preserved.
Marco gave us a tutorial (and a booklet for each guest) on the different styles of ports, from tawny to vintage, and before we knew it, it was time to taste.
Fernand Coelho owns a 20-acre wine estate where the grape varieties were blended by his grandfather.
At Quinta de Tourais (quinta means “wine estate”), the grapes are still picked by hand and stomped by bare feet. The treading in large granite tanks is an intense process. After the harvest in September, it has to be done four times a day for a period of three weeks. Fernando says his feet are black for two months after that. Friends come by to help, but “they drink more than they stomp,” Fernando said with a twinkle in his eye. Tourists who visit during that time can also participate.
Here, we tasted four wines and one tawny port made by Fernando’s grandmother 50 years ago.
They were all delicious, but I would have to say that grandma knows best!
Decadence for Lunch
After all of that wine, it’s a good thing that the next stop on the tour involved food (and more wine).
Not just any food, mind you. It was a multi-course gourmet menu by Michelin star chef Rui Paula at DOC restaurant in Folgosa overlooking the Douro River.
The glass-walled restaurant and terrace have fabulous views of the Valley which are rivaled only by its dishes. The menu included a contemporary take on traditional Portuguese fare, like grilled octopus, and some truly inventive and whimsical touches, like pop rocks as a palate cleanser.
Paired with some of the best wines produced in the Douro, it was a sublime experience. It’s not often that I say that about lunch.
Port with a view
Next on the agenda? More port tasting, of course. This time at Quinta do Panascal, an estate which produces grapes and wines for Fonseca.
The place is lyrical in its setting on a steep slope among the terraces and vines with a stunning view of the river. Here, we had a chance to walk (carefully) along the old walls and soak in the heritage of the Valley.
Tiles and trains
We took a small break in the tasting action in Pinhão, where Marco directed me to the cutest little train station.
The walls of the station are lined with azulejos (tiles) which depict scenes from the valley and its traditions of wine making. Many of them show the rabelos, small cargo boats of the type we were about to board, which were used to transport wine barrels to the city of Porto.
Cruising the river of gold
To cap off the tour, what could be better than reclining in a rabelo and cruising the Douro?
To toast our fabulous day, Marco poured us a taste of his family’s delicious port.
Our bellies were warmed by the wine, our faces by the sunshine. But most of all, our hearts were touched by the wonder of this amazing place and the welcoming people that live there.
Douro Exclusive provided a media rate for my tour, but my opinions are entirely my own.