Douro Valley Portugal is an extraordinary place to visit. This UNESCO world heritage site is named after the Douro River that winds through the region. Its steep terraced vineyards dotted with quaint villages and historic quintas (estates) rise from the valley. It is a place to slow down and drink in the view.
Douro Valley is also know for wine. The region is the world’s oldest regulated wine region dating back to Roman times. It is no surprise that our visit here included wine tasting, especially Port which is its most famous product.
Climate, Soil, and Science Define the Wine
The wine region’s permeable schist-based soil, hot summers and cold winters, and very limited rainfall are well-suited to growing grapes–particularly those used in Port. The appellation’s insistence on dry farming (growers cannot irrigate their fields) reduces yields to among the lowest in the wine industry (about 1-1.5 kilograms per vine) and produces the deep colors and concentrated fruit that is emblematic of fine Port wines.
All Douro Valley sub-regions, however, are not equal. This has been clearly demonstrated over the last 20 or so years. Growers have effectively combined science and art to identify the most suitable plots for cultivating Port grapes. Moreover, they have explored diverse treatments for these plots and experimented with various grape combinations that can resulting in different qualities found in the final product.
Science has even stepped into the time-honored, and contrary to popular legend, highly regimented and physically demanding process of “treading”, where men stomp on grapes to extract the juice. While we still saw treading bins and pictures of men holding onto each other (to prevent them from falling) and stomping to the persistent beat of a pacing drum, this tradition is falling to technology. A few small wineries still continue this practice, and more still hold co-ed treading parties and celebrations. Yet larger lodges, such as Graham’s, have developed a patented, programmable treading device that uses silicon pads to simulate the pressure of human feet. The devices can fully crush the grapes without breaking the seeds (which impart acids and tannins into the juice).
Douro Valley Grapes
Douro Valley’s vineyards are primarily planted with indigenous grape varieties that have adapted to the region’s unique climate and terrain over centuries. Its white wines are generally a combination of Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho grapes.
Yet the area is mostly known for its red wines, including Ports and Madeira. The robust and full-bodied Touriga Nacional grape is the most grown. Other red grape varieties include Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), and Tinta Barroca.
Tasting Douro Valley Wines and Ports
Our 2023 Douro Valley visit was a warm-up for a major round of port tasting in Porto. We began sampling ports—white, rubies and tawnies—from our first day in Lisbon. We shifted into higher gear when we reached the Douro Valley with more samples, an especially interesting and informative tasting at Quinto Dos Carvlhas, and pre- and post-dinner Ports (semi-sweet white and 20-year tawny respectively) at Dow’s Quinta dos Bomfim’s Bomfim 1896 with Pedro Lemos restaurant.
Since we visited on a weekend with schedules too uncertain to make reservations, our tasting options were limited. One worked out very well and one less so. This being said we also had opportunities to explore Douro wines and ports at wine bars and restaurants.
Its mountaintop tasting room provided spectacular views of the river and the surrounding countryside. We focused on the winery’s Old Vine wines. And when they say “Old Vines” they mean 90 years and more! More than 45 varieties of vines were all mixed together in the fields in the early 20th century . Some of the vines have not even even identified. All its 75,000 bottles per year, therefore, are field blends. We tasted two white, two reds and a port, all from these old vines, all but one aged for 12 months in French oak.
The whites were:
- 2018 Black Edition Old Vine Vinha Blanca showed some of the complexity associated with neutral oak (although it seemed like much less than 12 months) with a range of flavors and rounded fruit. Overall, this was our favorite of the non-fortified wines.
- 2018 Popa Branca Clay White Wine was the same old vine field blend but it was fermented in clay pots for about 4 months. The lees are removed and pressed again. The wine is then returned to the clay pots and aged for roughly 12 months. It was interesting and a nice preparation for the qvevri-aged wine we will soon be tasting in Georgia. The wine, however, was very minerally and lacked and perceived fruit.
We then went on to two red old vine field blend wines:
- 2018 Black Edition Vinho Tinta was a red field blend with a touch of blackberry. It was a bit acidic and had a bit of a musty taste.
- 2017 Parcela Unica was fuller bodied red wine with nice acid and a rounded finish, but not much fruit.
We ended with a 2017 Vintage Port, which is only produced in exceptional years, the previous one being 2011. It is produced in Portuguese oak casks with 75 grams of sugar per liter and 20 percent alcohol. It is relatively nice, although the alcohol does come though rather strongly.
We selected a premium port tasting at this Pinhao lodge where we sampled and learned more about Late Bottle Vintage, Vintage and Tawny Ports. We also learned more about White Port and Single Harvest Tawny, although we tested them at restaurants versus at the winery.
- Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) Port is a Ruby port that is made entirely from grapes harvested in a specific year from a variety of vineyards and is aged in barrels for four to six years before bottling. The Carvlhas makes its LBV from select grapes that are considered superior to those used in most of its Ruby and Tawny Port, but of somewhat lesser quality to those in Vintage Ports. It is aged five years in French barrels and has 20 percent alcohol, compared with 18 percent for most of the lodge’s other Ports. While it was okay, it was not memorable.
- Vintage Port is made from the best grapes of the year. Unlike most lodges who make vintage Ports from the best grapes of only the best years, Carvlhas makes them every year. We tasted a 2007 one which is generally considered to be one of the best of Douro vintages. This Port is aged for only around 18 months in Portuguese barrels (which is supposed to import more aroma into the wine than does a French barrel) before it is bottled. But unlike other Ports, it continues to age in the bottle. It was a lovely wine with pronounced fruit.
- Tawny Ports. Tawny Ports are wine from several vintages which typically are at least as many years old as the specified age of the bottle. The vintages are added to barrels of previous vintages and aged for a decade or more in small barrels which maximize contact with the wood and with oxygen. The longer the age, the more they mellow and take on the orangish-brown color that gives them their name. While it losses some of its fruit and sweetness that characterizes Ruby Ports, the longer it ages the more other flavors evolve, especially nuts and caramel. We tried the 10 and 20 year Tawny. While Joyce prefers Rubies (especially Vintage—which Tom also loves—and younger Tawnies), Tom especially enjoyed the 20 year, but in general he has a weakness for 20+ year Tawny ports.
- White Port. White Port is made from white versus red grapes. We had previously thought that White Port was dry but we learned that it comes in various levels of sweetness. While we did not try any of the sweeter whites at Carvlhas, our dinner that night offered both dry and semi-sweet white ports. Tom had a semi-sweet White Port aperitif but found the sweetness a bit cloying as an aperitif.
- Single Harvest Tawny. This aged Tawny Port is made exclusively from a single vintage, as opposed to the combination of multiple vintages in a typically Tawny.
On a previous trip to the Douro Valley, we tasted some of the region’s white, red, and rose still wines, as well as ruby, tawny, white, and rose ports. We also tasted some of the region’s almost equally famous olive oil, as well as some of its almonds, quince paste, and even cheese. (The Valley, as we learned, grows just about any and every type of produce).
This small family-run grape grower sells grapes to a major Port producer but also creates their own red, white, and rose wines under the Velha Geracao label. Our favorite was the Grande Reserve Red, which is aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak.
But as a change of pace from wine, we also visited their olive oil production museum with refurbished (and still operational), traditional equipment. Olives are destemmed, cured in brine for about 2 months and then go through a two-stage granite stone-crushing process. The first press juice is used for oil and the second for lamp oil, candles, and so forth.
The juice and paste that will become olive oil are then mixed with water. The solids sink to the bottom of the barrel, the water stays in the center, and the oil rises to the top (a process now done by centrifuge). The oil is then separated and divided (primarily on the basis of acidity) between extra virgin (less than .07 acidity), virgin (.07-10), and plain olive oil (above (.10). They bottle and sell the extra virgin under the D’Origem label.
The small, family-owned port lodge has a lovely estate high on the hillside, complete with a pretty chapel, restaurant, and lodging. We started our tasting with an enjoyable ten-year-old Tawny Port from the cask. We then tasted (from bottles) a very nice six-year-old Extra Dry White Reserve, a light easy-drinking Rose (not our taste), a Ruby Port, and a Late Bottle Vintage Ruby Port.
Douro Red Wines
Of all of the Douro Valley red wines we tasted, our tastes gravitated to more feminine wines with fine-grained tannins. Many of these blends relied on either or both Touriga Nacional, or Touriga Franca as their primary grape. During our 2023 trip, our favorite Douro reds were:
- 2019 Casa Ferreirinha Quinta Da Leda and 2020 Vinho Grande Tinta
- 2016 Quinta dos Murcas Old Vine Reserve;
- 2016 Quinta do Crasta Vinha da Ponte; and
- 2020 Prova Cega Reserva;
- 2020 Linhas Tortas Reserve Single Vineyard (which we expect will shine with more aging); and the uncharacteristically light
- 2020 Crasto Altitude 430.
Douro Valley Restaurants
River Restaurante (in Peso da Regua)
This restaurant in Peso da Regua was our first restaurant stop of our 2023 trip. It was a good reintroduction, both in the quality of the food and the wine. Joyce’s meal consisted of large servings of two very entrees: slow-cooked octopus in olive oil and herbs with sautéed potatoes and cabbage spouts all covered by a fried egg. Tom had his first steak of the trip, a perfectly-cooked medium rare Black Angus ribeye with mixed leaf salad and sautéed wild mushrooms. We added a bottle of 2018 Monte Sao Sebastiao Reserva (a blend of Tourig Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roeiz, and Tinta Barroca) which was big enough to hold up to me steak, but delicate enough to work with Joyce’s octopus. Wee supplemented this with a 2021 Setembro Vinho Blanca (Cerval, Gouveio, Esgana Cao, Viosinho and Rabigato grapes—several of which we had never before heard of).
Cozinha da Clara at Quinta de Rosa (in Pinhao)
Our patio table was perched just above the river with lovely views of the river and beyond to the terraced mountains. The meal, the wines, and the service were less impressive than the views, but still OK. Tom’s fried baby sardines with aioli were quite good as was Joyce’s roasted octopus with roasted potatoes. But Tom was much less impressed with roasted veal loin, which was well overdone despite my ordering medium rare (his bad for not returning it). They also substituted a nicely crispy stack of roasted potato slices for the whipped potatoes that were supposed to be with the meal. The wines from Quinta de Rosa were similarly disappointing–a harsh extra dry white sherry and an overly-oaked 2021 Grand Reserva Vinho Blanco and overly citrus 2021 Vinho Blanco which Joyce ordered as an alternative. Worse was the service with long delays, seemingly ignore summon, and the need to ask for some things twice.
Pedro Lemos at Quinta do Bomfin 1896 at Dow (in Pinhao)
Tom began dinner with an aperitif of a Graham’s Blend No, 5 demi-sec White Port. It was a bit sweet for him as an aperitif, although he turned down the opportunity of trying the standard practice of adding tonic water to white port.
We followed this with two entrees. Tom’s medium rare duck breast was tasty if somewhat tough. It came with a delicious dish of lentils, artichokes and wild mushrooms. Joyce had less luck with the tough and tasteless red snapper (which came with shellfish, squid and potato). She returned the dish in favor of delicious lightly grilled prawns from Portugal’s Algarve coast, Our server help us select a light red Douro that would go with both the duck and the snapper—a light, relatively fruity 2020 Pombal do Vesuvio (a combination of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and other grapes that spend six months in neutral oak).
We then sampled a 1996 Dow Single Harvest Tawny, which had pronounced vanilla and caramel notes with hints of orange, nuts, and coffee. It was an interesting experiment we will certainly conduct again with another Single Harvest port.