If there was one word to describe our visit to the Douro Valley last fall it was “sun-dappled”. I don’t recall seeing light in so many nuanced colors and rays of intensity as we did driving through the spectacular Douro Valley. Breath-taking slopes and stone-walled terraces dotted the rugged landscape with vines clinging to every last angle in unpredictable patterns illustrating their quest to survive.
And survive they do. The Douro has some of the heartiest grapes on the planet which are able to withstand ever-increasing summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and scant rainfall. The same grapes that go into world-renowned Ports (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca among many others) are also made into exceptional dry red wines as well.
These grapes are special because of their heartiness which in turn produces dense dark color, racy acidity despite the heat, and tannins that run the gamut from austere to fine-grained. All of these attributes contribute to wonderful wines which are truly unique as these grapes are rarely seen together outside of Portugal.
It was for these reasons that, after an exhilarating week in Porto, my Dad and I headed out to the Douro for a few days to get a glimpse of the countryside where these grapes are grown. While staying in the rustically posh Vintage House doesn’t exactly constitute “country” living, we had the best of both worlds by walking the hot dust-filled streets during the day and relaxing by the meandering Douro on our balconies at night – sipping Douro reds of course.
The Vintage House is owned by The Fladgate Partnership and is a sister property to the stunning Yeatman hotel in Porto. Located right on the Douro River and literally steps from the Pinhão train station, this hotel offers old-world charm and class in brilliant shades of royal blue and yellow.
A highly acclaimed restaurant, the Rabelo Restaurant, is located onsite and you can step back in time at the Library Bar filled with dark wood, oversized leather chairs, and a brooding fireplace. It’s one of a handful of upscale places to stay while exploring Pinhão and the Douro Valley and well worth the experience.
The other positive about this hotel is its location. The river proximity has obvious perks with the many boat cruises that depart right outside the hotel but you can also walk to several wineries nearby. Quinta do Bomfim (vineyard that supplies Dow’s brand grapes) is literally 5 minutes away while Quinta das Carvalhas is just across the river bridge and offered some of the best wines of the entire trip.
Quinta da Roêda, the unbelievably steep vineyard that provides the grapes for the Fonseca brand, is about a 25-minute walk through some of the most stunning countyside we’d ever seen (it’s also quite an ascent on the way there but the return trip is much easier).
We also got incredibly lucky by staying at the Vintage House during their annual harvest party (last weekend of September in 2017).
This was an amazing event held outside on their sweeping hotel grounds along the river where 40-50 winemakers from all over the area came in to show their wines.
We got to try many wines we’d never heard of and may never see again as well as talk to the people who made them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a wine geek like me that wants to know all the details about a wine and how it’s made in such an unusual region.
Some harvest party wine highlights were the Morgadio da Calçada Mimi Espumante Bruto (a lean but luscious sparkling wine), 2015 Quinta do Besuvio Pombal do Vesuvio, Dona Berta Reserva Tinto 2013 (medium-bodied red fruit delight), and Lavradores de Feitoria Três Bagos 2009 (full-bodied menagerie of black/red fruit and smoky finish).
However, the best find of all were the wines from Wine & Soul (established in 2001 by Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges:
2016 Guru Douro White made from a field blend of Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Gouveio, this elegant wine tasted of pear, grapefruit, and zesty minerality. Five months aging in new French oak contributed to its textured and creamy mouthfeel.
2015 Pintas Character – a decadent red field blend of 30 Douro grape varieties lush with plum and black cherry flavors, silky tannins, and long lively finish.
2015 Manoella made from 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca bursting with cranberry, currant, clove, and mocha flavors backed by fine-grained tannins and a lingering spicy finish.
2015 Pintas Vintage Port made from 40 indigenous grape varieties, this wine was dense purple in color with concentrated notes of violet, cassis, wet stone, and brambly raspberry. A cascading drawn-out finish highlighted robust but regal tannins and savory spice.
The harvest party also had fabulous local food of course – cheese, meats, soups, olives, pork right from a suckling pig that was roasted that day, and desserts galore.
As night fell, a full moon came out and local dancers and musicians streamed in to perform harvest dances and sing. These are the kind of immersive experiences that teach you about a region like nothing else really can – truly memorable!
So needless to say, there is plenty to do for 3 days in Pinhão. Nearby wineries will also come by boat and pick tourists up for a visit to their locations down or upriver which offers two experiences for the price of one (boat ride plus winery visit).
We enjoyed the two-hour Douro River cruise so much that we did it twice. Sitting in a classic rabelo boat that sits almost at water level, you can see the Douro from a vantage point like no other. The first thing I noticed (besides the jaw-dropping scenery) was the complete lack of commercialism. Each winery (quinta)had a lone stately sign way up on the hill denoting their name and that was it. No other billboards, buildings, or signs in sight.
Every bend of the river was mesmerizing with vines growing horizontally on terraces (socalcos or patamares) and vertically (vinha ao alto) up the hills. The former are older trellis styles while the latter is a more modern attempt to prevent erosion and improve drainage on steep slopes up to 30 percent gradient.
We visited Quinta do Bomfim which has a fascinating 90-minute tour followed by several different tasting menus of various Ports which you can enjoy out on their expansive patio. We tried the Vintage Port tasting which included the Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port, Quinta do Vesuvio 1995 Vintage Port, and the Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port. While all were exceptional, the 1985 stole the show with its dried cranberry, apricot, orange peel, and spicy tobacco notes backed by racy acidity and surprisingly dry finish.
Quinta da Roêda also offers a 60-min tour followed by a Port tasting overlooking the incredible sloping vineyards. Here we tried a flight of the 2012 Quinta de Roêda Port, Croft 10 Year Old Tawny, Croft 20 Year Old Tawny, and the Croft Reserva Tawny Port.
The last day of our stay we went to Quinta das Carvalhas intending to do the 2-3 hour agricultural tour which goes into great depth on the vineyard and growing practices (one of the few of its kind) but had to shorten that to a tasting only due to time constraints. However, the tasting alone was terrific.
While sitting right at the river’s edge, we sampled a mixed flight of 2015 Branco White (medium-bodied white wine made from Viosinho and Gouveio grapes), 2015 Tinta Francisca (elegant and medium-bodied red), 2014 Touriga Nacional (the blackberry-scented red power grape of Douro), 2014 Vinhas Velhas (old vines), and 10 Year Old Tawny Port all of which were fantastic.
The Vinhas Velhas was exceptional tasting of black and red berry, spice, and dusty herbs with brilliant structure and velvet-glove fisted power. I’d not had Carvalhas wines before and now have them on my list of favorites.
If you visit Pinhão, it’s a 2-hour drive from Porto along some of the most impressive scenery you may ever see and well worth the trip. There are a handful of restaurants and shops in the small town and some of the wineries also offer meals.
We found one of the neatest experiences was at a tiny
family-owned shop (Restaurante Rufete) eating the national favorite Bacalhau (white fish with huge bones), mountains of steamed vegetables, and a sumptuous home-made Port cake (yes there is Port in it and it was the owner’s grandmother’s recipe). Cooking doesn’t get much better than Grandma’s recipe for anything. Nor was I aware Port could be used in cake which was a gustatory revelation.
You can also take a boat cruise from Porto to Pinhão or a train so there are many travel options and all offer incredible scenery at every turn. The Douro Valley is definitely a more rustic experience than Porto but absolutely worth every minute to see the birthplace of the grapes for some of the world’s most famous wines.