We were on a mission to find the perfect stay in a European wine country. Our dreams of relaxing by the pool, overlooking rows of age-old vines, and getting to know the nuances of their fabulous wines were vivid… we just needed to know where.
Read on to learn how we decided on Portugal’s Douro Valley, and get our travel guide to the best Quintas & places to stay…
The European Wine Experience
Popular films like ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and ‘Stealing Beauty’ have created a fairytale of the Tuscan summer dream. The allure has proved infectious, and now over 40 million tourists flock to Italian Tuscany each year to explore the sunbaked landscape and enjoy its world renowned wines. France’s Bordeaux and Champagne are equally famous, and most deserving of their own dedicated and thorough exploration.
These are bucket-list trips to be sure, akin to a wine lover’s pilgrimage, but the savvy traveler will know to pick their dates carefully. During the high season the traditional locales of a European wine-lover’s dream can become both crowded and costly as you compete with all the other visitors chasing the same vision of paradise. These are gorgeous areas, famous for a reason and worth visiting in a lifetime, but there are other jewels still waiting to be discovered.
To the west is a true hidden gem… featuring equally complex yet lesser known old-world wines, served with the most generous of hospitality against a backdrop of incredible landscapes. Holding a prime location on Europe’s far west coast, Portugal delivers all the tenets of the authentic European vineyard dream, and it remains yours to discover.
Gateways to the region, Portugal’s capital Lisbon (a scenic 4 hour drive to the Douro Valley) and Porto (1.5 hours) are each impressive cities in their own right. Both are easily accessible from within Europe or major airport hubs around the world. If you need to mix water with your wine, tie in the Algarve on Portugal’s south coast for some absolutely incredible beaches. You will have yourself a dream holiday!
The Douro Valley
Famous for its Port, and increasingly recognized for its impeccable and complex table wines, the Douro Valley is a stunning landscape of old stone terrace vineyards built up from the banks of the winding Douro River. The grapevines are planted on steep hills of schist rock and grow under the hot Portuguese sun. The harsh terroir makes the vines struggle to break through the rock, resulting in a lower yield of more flavorful grapes. The harvest is still picked by hand each year as tractors cannot fit on the very narrow terraces, often wide enough for only one row!
A UNESCO World Heritage Site with a rich history, the Douro Valley has been perfecting its wines for the last three hundred years. In fact, it was the world’s first demarcated regulated wine region. This means true Port can only come from the Douro Valley, much like Champagne can only come from Champagne… so do not be fooled by unregulated port-style imposters.
The Douro wine region is made up of three sub-regions. The Upper Corgo is recommended if you are looking to visit a number of excellent wineries, or Quintas, in close proximity.
- Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo) | The smallest region, producing early maturing, inexpensive ruby and tawny ports.
- Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo) | The largest region, centered by the town of Pinhao, featuring famous vineyards with many excellent ports.
- Douro Superior (Upper Douro or New Douro) | The least accessible region, with only a few wineries but some of the finest ports.
If you have ever enjoyed a great glass of Port as an aperitif, or to complete a meal with a selection of cheeses, you know the allure of this intensely flavored fortified wine.
Port wines are made from a number of grape varietals, vintages, and blends. To make Port, winemakers add a neutral grape brandy, aguardente, during the fermentation process. This addition stops the fermentation of the natural grape juice sugars and results in the Port wine’s distinct sweetness.
- White Port | Lightly golden, made from white grapes primarily from the upper slopes. Fruity and full-bodied. Aged for 2-3 years and can be dry or semi-sweet.
- Ruby Port | Beautiful ruby red color with strong notes of fresh fruit. Youthful, approachable and versatile with firm tannins. Aged no more than 3 years in barrels, ready to drink young.
- Aged Tawny Port | Amber or garnet in color. Rich and mellow with nutty and caramel flavors. Made from multiple vintages. Aged 3 years in smaller barrels where some oxidization can occur, then casked and aged for 10, 20 or 30+ years before being blended and bottled.
- Late-Bottled Vintage Ports or Reserve Port | Deep red color. A complex berry or plum taste. Single year vintage, aged 4-6 years in barrels.
- Vintage Port | Dark ruby color. Premium and complex, with character. Made from a blend of the finest grapes within a vintage year. Vintage years are only declared by the Port Wine Institute for outstanding regional harvests, typically every 3 out of 10 years. Aged 2 years in barrels, and 20-50 years in bottle.
Of course, true Port wine can only be labelled as such if produced entirely of grapes grown in the Douro Valley. The numbered label is a verification of authenticity, and is tightly controlled by the Port Wine Institute. If there is no numbered label, it isn’t Port wine.
The Douro Valley also produces an extensive range of great table wines (Douro Wines) which benefit from the same environment that make the exceptional and flavorful Port. Douro wines are quickly gaining notoriety and can account for 30-50% of the production of many Quintas.
Where to stay in the Douro Valley
To enjoy a week in Douro nothing is more fitting than staying in a gorgeous family manor where you can relax by the pool while enjoying amazing vineyard views. Each day your biggest choice will be which of the many Quintas nearby you’ll visit, before you finish the evening with a long multi-course dinner paired with local wines and shared conversations among new friends.
Casa Do Visconde De Chaceleiros, near Pinhao, is the perfect accommodation. An impeccable 18th century manor is set amongst beautifully manicured grounds filled with gardens, a pool with a view, tennis court, hot tub, sauna and, of course, a help-yourself bar.
Every evening, out of a magnificent chef’s kitchen, the charming staff serve a three-course meal complete with local wine pairings while you gaze upon the view from the second floor terrace. Vegetarians are generously accommodated with divine home-cooked Portuguese dishes that spare no effort. Dinner reservations are confirmed daily in advance, so if you wish to dine in for dinner on your first night it is best to confirm this when booking your stay. Many, as we did, will choose to dine in each evening.
The Deluxe Room is your choice for the ultimate getaway, though none of the accommodations will disappoint. Separate from the other guest rooms, the deluxe rooms feature two levels, a European queen sized bed, soaker bathtub with a view and a small private patio surrounded by lavender, rosemary, and vineyard views.
A Day of Wine Tasting
If you are in the Douro Valley then wine tasting is no doubt at the top of your to-do list. The vineyard views are stunning, and the selection of Port and Douro Wines is fantastic!
When considering your plans, we do not recommend driving the in Douro Valley if you plan on wine tasting! The roads to many Quintas are extremely steep and winding. Only one lane wide in many areas, and often featuring no guard rails to the valley below, the drive through Douro’s backroads can be quite exhilarating! Instead of going it alone, invest to spend the day with a private driver or a guide. Tastings in Douro are generous and unhurried affairs, so even though they are located seemingly close together, visiting two to three Quintas is rather ambitious for a single day.
Many of the best Quintas absolutely require reservations for tours and tastings. You may be accustomed to wine regions where it is possible to arrive at the tasting room counter at any time during business hours and be served. Since many Quintas are family-run and without large commercial tasting rooms, making a reservation in advance will ensure your experience is tailored for you and most memorable.
Where to visit in the Douro Valley
To help plan your day of tastings, we’ve included the names of some of the very best luxury wineries & restaurants (as well as the best boat tour) in the area:
- Rabelo Boat Tour (Tour) | Rabelo boats are the traditional vessels historically used to take the barrels of Port down the river from the Douro Valley to the city of Porto, where they are cellar aged. Short tours up the river are available from Pinhao with Magnifico Douro. Tours leave from the Magnifico Douro pier in front of the Vintage House hotel, and cost 10€ cash per person (2016).
- Quinta do Crasto | An incredible location for the most luxurious lunch with wine pairings. This was one of our favorites with its beautiful setting, delicious vegetarian food, and exceptional wines. Not only specializing in wines, Quinta do Crasto also grow their own incredible almonds and olives on site. Be sure to leave enough time during your visit to enjoy the impressive views from the turquoise pool, one of the best in the valley.
- Quinta Nova | Fantastic wine and port tastings, with three tasting experiences to choose from (24€-74€, 2016). The Quinta has a lovely view, and offers an onsite hotel and pool (for guests). Take advantage of the winery tour, sunset tasting served with appetizers, or a luxurious 3-course vegetarian meal.
- Quinta do Panascal | A small winery specializing in Port wines, with optional ‘reserve tastings’. Owned by the Fonseca brand which is internationally recognized for excellent Ports. For 7€ (2016) you can take the independent guided audio tour through the vineyards and enjoy three Port samples. It can get very hot in the summer, so good footwear and a hat is recommended.
- Quinta do Seixo | Sandeman’s award-winning winery offers tours of the impressive production facilities and welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Choose between tours like the Vau Vintage Tour where you can learn about the history of the winery and sample 5 wines in a private setting (€ 16.00 in 2016) or go on the Wineyard Tour and take a guided walk through the vineyard, learning about the 100-year old grapes and the unique terainne of the Douro Valley (€ 18.00 in 2016)
- Quinta do Popa | A small family run vineyard that comes well recommended. This vineyard is special because of the beautiful picnic baskets they offer that you can take out and enjoy in the vineyard with some wine and a nice view. This Quinta also offers beautiful lunch or brunch experiences with wine tasting. Bookings are essential for tastings and experiences.
- DOC (Restaurant) | A luxury high-end restaurant with the choice of elegant dishes or a chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings, located in a beautiful setting next to the river.
On the drive into the Douro Valley
- Quinta da Pacheca – This is one of the oldest wineries in the region and still family run. Make a reservation to take one of the informative tours to learn the history of the estate, visit the cellars, and taste the selection of wines. There is a boutique hotel on the property and some vegetarian options available in the restaurant.
- Six Senses Douro Valley (Hotel) | A luxury hotel suited for an outstanding stay. This unique property offers an organic garden, swimming pools, great views, spa, and an exquisite chef’s tasting experience.
September and October is harvest time in the Douro Valley and this is a great time to visit! Sign up for some truly unique experiences, such as hand picking grapes in the vineyards or pressing them in the winepress. Of course, plenty of incredible table wines and Ports will be on hand to reward your hard work.
Sails & Spices Port Pairing Tips
How could we talk about the beautiful Douro Valley and its delicious Ports without sharing some pairing tips to enjoy at home?
- White Port | Enjoy as an aperitif before dinner, mix with tonic and a sprig of mint for a refreshing summer cocktail, or try a fresh take on sangria with Portuguese White Port Sangria.
- Ruby Port or Late-Bottled Vintage Ports | Beautiful after dinner with berry deserts, complimenting with strong notes of fresh berry flavors. Excellent with a rich dark chocolate mousse or homemade brownie.
- Aged Tawny Port | Bring out the Tawny Port’s caramel and toasted nut flavors with cheeses, toasted nuts, spiced apple pie and vanilla ice-cream, or a caramelized crème brûlée.
- Vintage Port | The finest of all, a Vintage Port has the complexity of flavors and distinction to be savored alone. It may be traditionally paired with Stilton cheese, salted walnuts, or chestnuts and dark chocolate.
If you are still considering where to spend your next wine holiday, Portugal’s Douro Valley is a hidden gem that’s been producing excellent wine and ports for centuries. Our time in Douro exceeded every expectation and we could not have been more spoiled by the Portuguese hospitality and generosity. The visit was truly special.
Let us know if you have any questions we can help answer, and if you’ve been to the Douro Valley please leave us a note in the comments with your top tips for our next visit!
Portugal City Guides
If you are planning a trip around Portugal, check out the rest of Sails & Spices Portugal City Guides:
- A Romantic Weekend in Porto
- Sipping Ginja in Obidos
- Lisbon City Guide
- Pena Palace in Sintra
- Pastries and Parapetes in Belem