This guest article is the first of a 5-part Wine Travel Guide written by Nelson Carvalheiro exclusively for Social Vignerons.
There is no doubt that Douro Valley is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. As I am truly passionate with the food and wine heritage of a place, I have always wanted to explore deeply this unique part of Portugal.
In July 2015, I was invited by Wine Tourism Portugal to a tour in the Douro Valley. My goal was to explore the first demarcated wine region in the world and offer you a complete guide to travelling the Douro.
In this guide that I will share throughout five articles, you will find my suggestions and personal opinions for the best wine hotels, the best wine experiences, the best food experiences and the best belvederes in the Douro Valley.
We are witnessing a time where competition in wine tourism is very strong. It would be easy to fall into the century’s old “my wine region is better than your wine region” dispute. This is not my goal with this article. I want here to prove that the world of wine tourism is not only restricted to Rioja, Bordeaux, the Loire or Napa Valleys. Other wine regions are worth visiting.
What is visiting the Douro Valley all about?
The Quintas (wine estates)
I want to show you what it is like to travel through the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, while talking about what makes the Douro unique.
The Douro Valley was established as a wine region in 1756 for the production of Port. That is almost 100 years before the Bordeaux Premier Crus were established by Napoleon. As a consequence, most of the estates, wineries, and wine company offices here are astounding heritage buildings from the 18th century. Almost all have been extremely well-preserved or renovated to today’s modern standards of wine making.
Even more interesting are the Douro riverside palaces that wine estate owners were using as residence. They are also in great condition, like open air museums which can be best admired from the water level in a river cruise as I will describe in another article.
Although there are more than 200 Quintas (estates with its own winery and with a significant size) and a wide array of DOC and Port wine brands, the great majority of these estates remain the property of their founding families, for more than 300 years in some cases.
Great examples of this lineage of Port and DOC winemakers are the Ferreira (Sogrape), Symington, Guimaraens family (Fladgate Partnership) and Silva Reis (Real Companhia Velha). While some heritage buildings have remained private and still act as residence for family members who work daily in the vineyards, others have been converted into boutique hotels.
UNESCO World Heritage
Another unique characteristic of the Douro Valley is its UNESCO World Heritage classification. This distinction was achieved in 2001, in recognition of the long tradition of wine culture in the region (more than 2,000 years).
This history produced a cultural landscape of breathtaking beauty that reflects its social, technological, and economical evolution.
Nearby, the Porto’s Historic Centre (the gateway to the Douro Valley) and the Pre-Historic Rock Art Sites of the Côa Valley (not very far from the Douro Valley) are also classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
The Native Portuguese Grapes
Needless to speak about new world wine culture here, as the grape varieties planted there all came from Europe. I will only establish a comparison to the European regions.
The grape varieties that are cultivated in the Douro are not only 100% Portuguese, but are also native to the region. Many of them like Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca or Rabigato are direct descendants of the pre-historic vines developed in this very terrain and have survived millennia of human presence.
Many Port and Douro DOC wines are produced from 100% Portuguese grapes.
In the Douro, the number of grape varieties is not limited to 4 or 5 like in Bordeaux or New World wine regions:
- more than 200 grape varieties native to Portugual are being used to make Douro DOC and Port Wines.
- over 500 indigenous Portuguese grape varieties have been classified.
Talking with wine producers and wine workers in the Douro Valley, everyone in the wine business will try to explain how their terroir is unique. They promote the mild climate with balanced temperatures, the fertility of the terrain, the sea breezes, and frequent rains. They explain that the vines in Douro have everything they need to thrive. They argue that abundance of substance is what makes their wines special and superior.
But now imagine the Douro Valley.
The soil here is one the most infertile ground one can think of. Made almost entirely of schist, it has less than 5% organic matter. In some extreme cases in the Alto Douro, the percentage drops below 1%. For comparison, a normal fertile cultivated soil has about 40% organic matter.
The terrain is extremely hilly, with steep inclines that can reach a 45º angle between the water level and the top of the surrounding hills. With such an extreme topography, there is very little chance for mechanized labor. To this day, most of the work in the vineyard is manual, especially during harvest.
Temperatures in the Douro Valley range from cold in winter (generally around 4/5 Celsius, sometimes below 0, it can even snow), to a scorching 50 Celsius in summer.
The locals use to say that a year has nine months of winter (from October to June) and three months of Hell (August, September and October). They call it hell because of the extremely high temperatures and also because of the stress and anxiety caused by the harvest in September and October.
The weather phenomenon in the Douro Valley states that at the bottom of the valley, just above the water line, is where the temperatures are the hottest, while the coolest are at the top of the mountain. This is the reason why red varieties are planted on the bottom and are harvested first. This is a unique place and you will find no other wine region in the world where vines are cultivated like this. In addition, rain is scarce throughout the year.
Wine = Life
All these factors put together show how difficult it is for vines to thrive in the Douro. They suffer and struggle.
For the first 15 to 20 years of their lives, vines are just trying to survive:
- They have to bury their roots deeply in the schist in search for water. Irrigation is forbidden by the IVDP – the Douro and port wine governing body.
- They have to fight for space – the vineyards are normally planted very close together, never more than a 1.5 meters apart. In the old vineyards with 50, 60 or 70 year-old vines, that gap can be as close a single meter. This crowding forces the vines to spread their root system down into the earth, rather than sideways.
This aggression and violence makes the vines work amazingly hard throughout their life. The result is an extremely effective behavior when it comes to producing quality grapes:
- Vines never grow abundantly and only produce the necessary leaves and grape clusters
- Stems are thick and sturdy
- Roots are buried deep into the rocky ground, sometimes as far as 30 meters deep
- Grapes develop a strong concentration in nutrients and sugars creating the intense flavor profile and full body that are found in the wines
- Seeds are covered and filled with vital oils
- Grape skins are thicker than average in order to decrease water evaporation.
I feel it was essential to write this long introduction to portray the connection between the realities of the Douro: from the characteristics of the vines and the wines, to the people who dedicate their lives to them.
When we, as visitors, understand the depth and history behind the wine production in the Douro, only then can we truly make the most of a tour in the Douro Valley.
All images in this post are the exclusive copyright of Nelson Carvalheiro.