Updated: Aug 4, 2020
In all of our travels to date, the dramatic landscape of the Douro Valley in Portugal is almost unmatched. There the roads cling to the sides of mountains, winding through valley after valley with terraced vineyards as far as the eye can see. Villages and houses seem to be defying gravity as they precariously balance on the edges of cliffs. The Douro is a very harsh place to live and farm. Almost all the vineyard work has to be done by hand because of the severity of the slopes. The weather is very hot in the summer, and the trek from town to town is dizzying! All of that said, it is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been to, with an old world romanticism that still exists. The winemakers, vineyard workers, and farmers all have a tough jobs to do here, but the return on their investment of brutally hard work is an equally beautiful product.
The Douro Valley is the birthplace of Port wine. This area is where the large port houses grow their grapes (here wineries are referred to as Quintas), and where the wine is fortified before it is sent about 70 miles down river to the city of Porto to finish the aging process in the lodges, most of which bear British namesakes. Check out the documentary, "A Year in Port", if you are curious for more historical background. Aside from the Port wines, this region is becoming more and more known for its dry wines - they are becoming recognized as a tremendous value within the wine world. Compare wines of similar quality from California, France, Tuscany and you would be hard-pressed to find a better value in your glass.
While traveling, Mike and I like to rent a car because it gives us the freedom to explore, take the pace that we want, and discover things along the way. Be aware that most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions, so you have to be traveling with someone who can drive stick! The 3.5 hour drive from Lisbon to the Douro Valley was quite scenic - we drove through the cork tree farms and the flat plains of Alentejo - all a very different kind of beauty than the Douro.
We stayed at Hotel Rural Quinta do Silval, a lovely bed and breakfast perched high in the hills about a 15 minute drive up the mountain from Pinhão, which is the main town right on the Douro River. This is where you will find river cruises departing and returning, as well as some other local excursions. The hotel wasn't over-the-top luxurious, but it was on a beautiful and peaceful property, had a really nice outdoor pool, was adjacent to hiking trails through their terraced vineyards, and close to some truly beautiful vistas. We chose this hotel because it was reasonably priced, in the countryside, and not in a touristy town. It is a functioning winery, has a restaurant, and it has very good reviews on TripAdvisor. It is a beautiful place, and exactly what we were looking for.
These pictures were taken at or within walking distance of Hotel Rural Quinta do Silval.
In the weeks leading up the our trip, we did a fair amount of online research in order to figure out where and how to visit Quintas throughout the Valley. All of them require reservations in advance either through a web portal reservation system or a direct email to the winery. Some of the more elaborate experiences at the bigger houses that include picnics with the tasting tend to fill up quite early so be sure to plan accordingly. Since it can be tricky planning a day of tasting in a foreign country that you've never been to before, we decided to let the pros handle a full day of tasting for us. There are multiple outfitters that offer these services and we chose Tourvent. They provided us with a plan that included door-to-door service in a Mercedes, a wonderful American driver who spoke fluent Portuguese, and arranged visits to 6 Quintas (one was a lunch stop). All in all, it was an incredible (and very full) day. Because this company has a relationship with each of these locations, our experiences were a bit more personal than if we had somehow managed to set them up ourselves (which would have been very unlikely!). We have never hired a service like this before, and although it wasn't exactly cheap, it was worth every penny. Here is a link to the exact tour that we did.
On to our tasting highlights!
Quinta de la Rosa - a larger wine estate that makes both dry and port wines right on the Douro river. The tour and tasting was OK, but there were quite a few people on the tour so it felt a little impersonal for our tastes. We did have a very nice dinner at their restaurant overlooking the river one evening and saw their traditional grape crushing party - which was a sight to see!
Quinta do Poeira - This place was fantastic and absolutely one our favorite tastings of the trip. It is off the beaten path a bit and driving there is not for the faint of heart! We even missed the dirt road to the winery since it appeared as if we were going to drive right off the mountain had we taken it! We stopped in the nearest town to ask for directions, doubting our navigational skills, and they confirmed that yes, the dirt road next to the green tractor is the one we wanted. Over the course of 2 hours, we walked some of their 9 hectares of vineyard, toured the winemaking facilities, and eventually settled in at a picnic table with 4 of their expressive and high quality wines.
Dow's - The tour and tasting at Dow's was like a well oiled machine. It started with the long history of the Symington family (a large Port house which owns and operates a number of different brands), a tour of their beautiful facility right in the town of Pinhão, and ended with a tasting of 5 wines. They have so many different wines from their various labels that we were able to customize the tasting to our own liking. On offer here are the many different types of port - vintage, ruby, chip dry, white, and aged tawny ports. Overall, this was a great and memorable experience.
Quinta da Fonte do Milho - Everything about this experience was completely intoxicating (pun intended) and thus it became our standout during our trip. From the micro-production of their wines and olive oil, to the charisma and passion of Nunu (the owner and winemaker), the beauty of the property, and the pride that could be tasted in every glass - this place was exceptional! These wines had personality, verve, and deliciousness in spades. We happened to come at exactly the right moment - one of the few days of the year where they crush their grapes (by foot!) and they let us in the vat to experience it. If you taste any of their 2019 vintage, we will have had lent a hand....er, foot in the production!
Pacheca - To us, the experience here was more akin to a large California winery than any of the others that we visited. It was incredibly beautiful, but the tasting felt a little too "salesy". There was pressure to join the wine club, buy the most expensive bottle etc... We did end up leaving with a bottle of 40 Year Tawny Port since we were unlikely to find this bottle Stateside. Certainly nothing wrong with this producer, or their wines, but it didn't quite have that charm we are drawn to.
Gueda - Gueda was another stand-out small producer. It was the last tasting of a full day, so we were feeling quite good when we arrived. Mike had predicted earlier in the day that Liz would buy a case of wine at our last stop - this prediction came true... We ended up shipping a case of wine, port and olive oil back to the States for a reasonable price. Their wines are absolutely delicious and didn't set us back more than $15USD for any one bottle!
Another memorable experience was a dinner booked through an Airbnb experience at a tiny local Quinta - delicious home cooking with the family who grew the food, hunted the meat, made the wine and cooked the meal. Talk about farm to table! Check out these pics below and here is the link to the experience.
All in all our experience in the Douro Valley was unforgettable and we hope that you consider it if you are planning your next trip. If you have been there, have something to share, or have any questions please comment or send us a message. We would love to chat! Also, we are not receiving anything for these recommendations, we just want to share the standouts of our trip so you can make a more informed decision if you ever decide to go.