Visit to the Douro Valley (long)

My wife and I spent a week in Porto and the Douro Valley in early May. Seeing as I am a wine fanatic and that there are direct flights there, it is amazing that I never did this before!

Our time was evenly divided between Porto/Oporto (there are two schools of thought as to which spelling is preferable, even among English speakers…) and the wine country.

Both Oporto and the wine country are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and certainly worth a visit.

The city is medium-sized and quite hilly. Just across the river, a short walk over the iconic Dom Luís Bridge (built by a follower of Eiffel) is Villa Nova de Gaia, where the famous Port lodges are located.
We stayed in the Mercure part of the time, but also spent two nights in the Yeatman, which is owned by Taylor Fladgate. This two and a half year-old luxury hotel in Villa Nova de Gaia is not horribly expensive, and definitely geared up for wine lovers. If you want to break open the piggy bank to go there, you won’t regret it. Every Thursday, they have a wine dinner, so we made sure to reserve. The supreme irony of this was that, for the first time since the program had begun, they decided to feature a non-Portuguese producer. So, there we were, in Oporto, at a tasting dinner of Louis Jadot wines commented by Pierre-Henry Gagey! I jotted down notes, but this is not the thread in which to post them.

The cuisine at the Yeatman is refined and elegant. We also had dinner at the new Vinum Restaurant at Graham’s, which was very different. There were far more Portuguese people at the latter and the cooking was more typical of the hearty fare we encountered elsewhere on our trip.

We took a cruise boat with meals on board from Villa Nova de Gaia to Peso da Régua in the heart of the wine country. This took 7 hours (about 2 in a car). We were met off the boat by João Silva who was to take us around for the next 3 days. Here’s the background to this meeting, and an unapologetic plug. I don’t speak Portuguese, had no have special “in” to make appointments, had heard that finding your way around is not easy, and was wary of drinking – even tasting – and driving, so I called the tourist office in Pinhão and asked them if they knew anyone who did wine tours. They put me in contact with Quinta da Avassada, who regularly receive boatloads of tourists at their winery. It seems they were interested in developing tailor-made wine tours and, as it turns out, we were to be their guinea pigs! João Silva proved to have arranged an absolutely superb agenda for us, and took us everywhere.

The first stop was Quinta do Tedo. This has belonged to Vincent Bouchard from Burgundy since 1992. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to bump into people from France, Belgium and Quebec in the tasting room! Winemaker Hugo Fonseca who looked after us also speaks very good French. Quinta do Tedo has about 14 hectares of vines and produces approximately two thirds Port and one third Douro reds. Their vineyards are farmed organically. This first visit was my introduction to two new (to me) aspects of the Douro: a) very good table wines and b) seriously good tawny Port. My own limited perspective prior to the trip was that Port should be red and vigorous. However, I sampled some tremendous tawnies and bought a bottle of do Tedo’s 40 year-old, which is superb. They do a pink Port as well, but I was to find most producers consider this an anomaly not to be taken very seriously.

João explained to me that “quinta” means “farm” and that we would be staying at quintas all three nights. I said fine, imagining places that were rustic and simple. As it turns out, the Douro is very much awakening to wine tourism and every estate we stayed at provided excellent, world-class accommodation.
So, the first night, we stayed at Quinta da Pacheca (The Wine House Hotel) in Lamego, which also has a fine restaurant. The next morning we tasted through their wines with Maria Serpa Pimentel, whose family has owned the estate since the early 1900s. I enjoyed their white Douro, some very interesting varietal wines (Sauvginon Blanc, Riesling, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Baroca) and, of course, their Ports.
From there, we went to Quinta Santa Eufêmia, also in Lamego, where we were looked after by Bernardo and Alzira Carvalho. The winery is at an altitude of 300 metres with a sweeping view of the valley. They are very famous for their old white Ports and these were, in fact very good. I liked their whole range though, which probably represented the best value for money of all the wineries we visited.

After this visit we went to a restaurant called DOC in Folgosa, overlooking the Douro, reputed to be the best in the region. We did, in fact, enjoy our finest meal of the trip there, but I’m not too adept at uploading the photos I took of the dishes… We had 2 wines with lunch: a rare white 2011 Quinta da Revolta Touriga Fêmea (a blanc de noirs) and a 2009 GC’08 Touriga Nacional. The former was good, fresh and mineral whereas the latter was one of the few wines that week that did not appeal to me. At 15° it was just too strong and cumbersome.
Afterward, we went to Belgian-owned Quinta do Passdouro in Pinhão, but not before taking a look at (no visit) Quinta do Noval and their plot of pre-phylloxera wines that produce Nacional. Dutchman Ronald Weustink showed us around Passadouro and spoke to us not only about viticulture and winemaking, but also what it was like to live in the valley as a foreigner. I liked their Ports well enough, and their ruby reserve was the best I had all week.

Dinner was at Quinta Avessada in Faviaos. This part of the Douro is rather sunbaked in summer, and the region is famous for their Muscats. We tasted a range of these, going back years, and they were great: more than just sweet and perfumed, they had substance and complexity, especially the older ones.
We slept at Quinta do Pégo. This Danish-owned 4-star hotel and winery is a new player in the region. The hotel is great, with a wonderful view of the valley, and they put a miniature decanter of Port and 2 glasses on your bedside table. Can you think of anything more civilized? The quinta was set up for wine tourism and they have a tasting room that is not unlike what you find in the New World. I liked their wines well enough, but the 2007 vintage was a definite step up from the others. The winemaker, Wouter Pienaar, is South African.

We also had an appointment that day at the 80 ha Quinta da Roêda (Croft) in Pinhão and were honored to visit the estate with António Magalhães, in charge of viticulture for the entire Taylor group of companies, who own no fewer than 11 quintas. He explained that what makes Port unique is the combination of a hot climate and high altitudes. Differences in altitude make a huge difference in temperature and rainfall. He also described the various options for planting vines on steep slopes. The average yield is 35 hl/ha.

The next day we went to an impressive winery in Régua, Quinta do Vallado, overlooking the Corgo River. While established in 1716 (and still in the same Ferreira family), the winery, built in 2009, is strikingly and tastefully modern. We had a delicious lunch there, which ended with 40 year old Vallado tawny Port and crème brûlée. Cláudia Ferreira was kind enough to show us around their hotel facilities (housed in buildings that are quite old) and cellars. The winery is well-organized for visitors and their wines are indeed enjoyable.

The last visit that day was one of the finest, to Alves de Sousa in Santa Marta de Penaguião. Tiago Alves de Sousa is a Doctor of Enology who studied in Italy. He is truly a passionate winemaker and extraordinarily knowledgeable. I had been told he was famous for his Douro red wines and I was not at all disappointed! But before we tasted, Tiago took us up and up in his jeep to the top of the vine-covered mountain behind the quinta. The view is nothing short of breathtaking and there, on the crest, is a famous vineyard called “Abandonado”. These are tremendously old vines, with many, many missing ones. Before grubbing up the remaining ones, Tiago thought he would ferment and age the juice from them separately. The result was, and continues to be superlative. This visit was one of the most moving I have made to a vineyard region. I would say that Alves de Sousa has the magic touch because his whole range is successful. I bought the second-best red wine, 2009 Vinha de Lordelo, mostly because I think it will be ready sooner than Abandonado.

We spent the night at Quinta do Portal in Sabrosa (Vila Real). The hotel was very nice although the restaurant was not quite in the same class (perhaps they just had an off evening). The next morning, we visited the impressive modern orange and brown winery, designed by Pritzker award winning architect Alvaro Siza. Quinta do Portal produce Douro wines, Port and Moscatel and wine tourism is a big thing for them. While Portal is a new name, the Branco family that owns the winery has been making Port since the late 19th century. They have five estates totalling over 100 hectares. I tasted several of their wines and came away with some rare varietals to organize a tasting back home, including a Tinta Roriz.

I also went to visit 2 lodges in Villa Nova de Gaia: Quinta do Noval and Symington’s (Graham’s). As this post is super long, I’ll stick to the essential. Quinta do Noval only have a tasting room and office in the city. Unusually for a major shipper, their entire winemaking, ageing, and bottling operation is upriver. I tasted through 7 wines, from their “Black” ruby to their 2008 vintage (their latest one), which I quite liked.
The visit to Graham’s was stupendous. They have just completely and successfully revamped their visitor reception center. We were fortunate to be given VIP treatment by Filipe Pinto da Silva, which included a tasting of 13 wines in a small private room with leather armchairs and the atmosphere of a London club. The tawnies were great, and Filipe served us one from 1952 to celebrate the accession of Elizabeth II to the English throne. We tasted 99 Quinta Malvedos, 94 Quinta do Vesuvio, 94 Graham’s, 85 Dow’s and cask samples of 2011 Graham’s and their single vineyard Stone Terrace from the same year. Wonderful!!! Thank you Felipe!

I must come back to Porto. And, yes, they still tread the grapes. That’s something on my bucket list.

Best regards,
Alex R.

Nice write up! I love the Douro. A lot of people are worried about the influx of tourism, but I think they’ve handled it well so far.
One minor quibble, the Nacional Vinyard at Noval is not Pre-phylloxera, but the vines are ungrafted. The current vines where planted about 1928 I believe.
Glad you enjoyed the table wines. I’m a huge fan of Tawnies and Colheitas.

Thanks for the report, Alex. I am headed there next fall. Can’t wait!

Headed there this Fall too. Thanks for the info!

Eric, 1925.

Nice write up Alex! :slight_smile:

OK, 1925. [truce.gif]