Exploring Porto and the Douro Valley
I've long been a fan of wines from the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal, and finally escaped the 18 months of covid captivity to go and explore this fascinating region.
This post describes my recent travels to Porto and the Douro Valley, with some wine and port tasting along the way, of course.
Once I'd navigated the world of sorting Covid tests prior to departure, and organising Day 2 tests, passenger locator forms and proof of vaccination, I finally arrived in Porto - just a two hour flight from London. Porto is a city that occupies the north side of the Douro river at the point it spills out into the Atlantic. On the right side of the picture above, Porto is one of the oldest European cities with its historic core proclaimed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. On the left side of the picture is Vila Nova de Gaia, technically a separate city, and where the important port cellars are located.
We were lucky enough to stay at the Yeatman Hotel, which occupies a vast site at the top of the hill in Vila Nova de Gaia. The Yeatman family, who entered the Port trade in 1838, were among the most distinguished and enterprising of the Port families. Their descendants maintain this tradition as owners of three of the most famous Port companies, including Taylors.
In 2006 the opportunity arose for another high profile project, a landmark luxury hotel in a stunning location, and over the next four years, the ambitious hotel was built. Sprawling over 7 acres with infinity pools (inside and out), terraces and picture postcard views, it really was a treat.
Having dropped our bags, we navigated our way down the hill to enjoy the "Gaia" - the waterside - with its cafes and restaurants offering a variety of Portuguese and international cuisine. Cod (Bacalao) is their signature dish, and you will never run out of different ways to enjoy this fish. One of the most bizarre experiences was in a grand building that tourists appeared to be sucked into, so out of curiosity we wandered in.
The establishment was the "Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau" - The Portuguese House of
fishcake! An enormous ornate space with a display of cheese-stuffed fishcakes at one end, and a till point, with two staircases leading to an upper balcony. Halfway up the staircases sat an enormous organ, that was played hourly to guests munching on their fishcakes and sipping port. If this wasn't crazy enough, it all took a turn for the worse when the organ tunes turned into Abba songs.
We did wonder what Mary Portas would think of the business model, but counting up the numbers of tourists paying fifteen euros for a cheesy fishcake and port, I think the Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau was having the last laugh.
Port tasting at Graham's
Walking off the fishcake, we headed up the hill (everything in Porto involves either uphill or downhill) where Graham's Port House and cellars has a commanding spot on the edge of Vila Nova de Gaia. Sadly the terrace was closed for a private party, but we were booked onto an English speaking tour, which filled up quickly. Graham's is owned by the Symington family (one of the 12 families of wine), Port producers for over 100 years and through 4 generations, and whose ancestor made one of the first shipments of Port in 1652, more than three centuries earlier. Seven members of the family manage all aspects of the winemaking from the vineyards to bottling. The guide gave us an overview of Graham's history, and described how the grapes are grown in the vineyards of the Douro Valley, then made into port and transported down to Porto to mature, where temperatures are cooler and more suited to storing port.
In the cellars, we were shown the large barrels, where all ports start out as "ruby" port. After a couple of years, port that is destined to become a tawny port is transferred to smaller barrels, which is better for the oxidisation process necessary for the development of the raisin character and browning colour of a tawny port.
The guide was proud to show us barrels that date back to the 1880s, where it is possible - if you have deep enough pockets - to purchase a bottle.
From the cellars, we were taken into the smart, airy tasting room. There were different tasting packages you could choose from, and when paying for our tour, the lady suggested that my husband had one package and I have another, then we can both share the six samples. Between us, we had the Premium Port package and the Premium Tawny Package.
1) Graham's 2015 LBV Port
This first port we tasted was bottled to celebrate Graham´s bicentenary (1820-2020). The 2015 LBV was produced from the very best grapes from Graham´s prime vineyards in the Douro Valley. It was a deep inky purple in colour. On the nose it was full of juicy aromas of blackberries, plums and cherry with rich opulent black fruit on the palate and a lovely long smooth finish.
2) Graham's Crusted Port
This 2013 Crusted Port had a deep ruby colour and the nose was a complex aroma of black fruits and hints of mint and eucalyptus. There was a touch more body to it than the previous port. Crusted port wines are made from different vineyards and harvests, which are blended together and kept in oak casks prior to being bottled without any filtration. Once bottled, the wine is matured for a further three years in the Graham's cellars before release for sale. Therefore, by the time Graham's Crusted is ready to drink, it has gained superb elegance and style that only time in bottle can give to a great Port. The date on the label is the date of bottling, not the harvest date, because Crusted Port is a blend of excellent wines from two or three very good harvests. Graham's is one of the very few Port companies to still make crusted Port. We liked this one a lot.
3) Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos
This port is a deep, dark ruby colour with just a hint of fading along the edge. It has gorgeous black cherry and plum aromas, with a wonderful fresh fruit fragrance. On the palate comes fuller, richer blackberry fruit, intense and compact. This would be great with fruity desserts.
4) Graham's "The Tawny"
Graham’s ‘The Tawny’ is a Reserve Port made from a special premium blend of ‘lotes’ of wine that were aged in the cellars from 7 to 9 years in seasoned wood casks. This wine is the ultimate example of the winemaker’s art, blending from carefully selected wines that perfectly complement each other. This ports offered a fine balance of mellowed fruit and nuttiness as a result of extended cask ageing, which had also given the wines a characteristic warm "tawny" amber tone.
5) Graham's 10-year-old Tawny
Stepping up a notch, this tawny was a beautifully deep, rich tawny style, with almond and hazelnut aromas combined on the palate with sweet notes of honey and figs. It's packed with delicious mellow, raisin fruit and fig flavours, with a long, caramel-flavoured finish. Another favourite!
6) Graham's 20-year-old Tawny
And then we stepped up another notch and tried their flagship 20-year-old tawny port and it was perfect. Smooth, rich, with raisin fruit, and a long silky finish. Impossible to fault.
It was time to let our livers recover and take in some non-alcoholic sights around Porto. The number one spot - according to Trip Advisor - is the Ponte de Dom Luís I. This is the two tiered bridge that spans the river Douro, a project initiated by Gustav Eiffel (him of Parisian Eiffel Tower fame) in 1879. It's bottom tier is for road traffic and pedestrians, whilst the upper deck carries the metro trams and non-motorised traffic - such as electric scooters and tourists taking selfies.
Another budget friendly activity was to visit the main City train station called São Bento. Over 20,000 tiles (called Azulejo) adorn the walls as murals and represent moments in the country's history and depict rural scenes showing the people of various regions.
One of our favourite ways of sightseeing is to jump on the "hop on, hop off" bus, which gives you a perfect fleeting overview of everything the city has to offer. There are three different operators competing for your business in Porto, all offering similar loops and giving money off port tastings.
We took the line out from São Bento station and passed wonderful ornate churches and museums, and then hopped off at the coast for some fresh air and to stretch our legs. In summer, this stretch of coastline must be a lovely escape from the heat and bustle of the dense city core, but there was a storm about to roll in, and so we restricted our visit to a quick coffee on the seafront and watched a few mad swimmers plunge into the Atlantic, before hopping back onto the safety of the bus.
Port tasting at Kopke
Another day, another tasting. All the port houses offer something - whether its a self-guided tour (Taylors), a group tour, tasting packages or an ad-hoc drop-in session in a tasting room. Some tastings can be paired with cheese, others with chocolate... Some port houses allow you to book online, others need you to turn up and book on the day, and others you can just walk in. We didn't find the websites very helpful in general - a few had enquiry forms that appeared to be booking forms, but they weren't. Also, email replies from the port houses ALWAYS ended up in my junk box!
We settled on a package from Kopke - the oldest port lodge, founded when German Nicolau Kopkë came from Germany to Portugal in 1636 and began to ship wines to Europe two years later.
Their three storey shop and tasting house stands on the riverside in Gaia, and offers a cosy space and a range of packages to choose from. We opted for the traditional pack, featuring 2 white, 2 ruby and a tawny port, all paired with a chocolate.
1) Kopke Lágrima
An entry level sweet fortified wine, made from a blend of Arinto, Viosinho, Gouveio, and Malvasia Fina grapes. It was bright and golden yellow in colour with tropical fruit on the nose, along with vanilla and honey. For us, it was a little too cloying, but paired with the right sweet dessert would probably be amazing.
2) Kopke Fine White
We enjoyed this white port, made from the same blend of grapes as the lágrima. It was lighter in body and colour than the Lágrima, and it's acidity and long finish made it fresher. There were floral aromas to this wine, and a touch of spice on the palate. This would pair with a versatile range of desserts.
3) Kopke LBV 2016
The dark chocolate paired extremely well with this late bottled vintage port from 2016. Like all good LBVs, it was a deep ruby colour with medium intensity aromas of ripe blackberries, violet, black cherry, a touch of chocolate, and cocoa.
4) Kopke Colheita 1999
This was our favourite of the five, and we ordered an extra glass each of this! Luckily for us, it is on sale in Waitrose so we can treat ourselves when we get home.
We found the port was in that 20-year-old sweet spot where fruit character and ageing all comes together perfectly. The colour was turning tawny, it had a nose of dried dark fruit, spice and oxidisation. The palate was nutty, with sweet dried cherry, toffee and dates. Not too sweet, and plenty of acidity to make it very moreish!
5) Kopke 30-year-old Tawny
Another amazing complex wine. This reminded me of a PX sherry, with its christmas pudding nose, with notes of caramel, roasted coffee, and raisins. Although this was sweet on the palate and paired well with the chocolate, it wasn't sickly or cloying. It was wonderfully spicy, with a very long finish.
Trip to the Douro Valley
It was time to leave Porto and take the train ride east into the Douro Valley. Dubbed "Portugal's most scenic train ride", it takes you along the Douro Valley from Porto to Régua, Pinhão & Pocinho.
The first hour of the journey is like many other train rides heading out of a city; trundling past graffiti scrawled buildings, tower blocks and semi-urban stations. Gradually the landscape gets greener and the towns smaller, with bright white villas dotted over the hillsides and small patches of vines appearing in people's gardens.
At a town called Pala, the line starts to sweep downhill and the Douro river comes into view, with the scenic part of the journey starting at Mosteiro. The rail line clings to the edge of the river, offering passengers photo opportunities at every bend. Régua is a large industrial town where many passengers disembarked, whilst others stayed on to head for the smaller pretty town of Pinhão, or Pochino at the end of the line.
The valley becomes saturated with vines from Régua onwards, with the steep granite banks providing an interesting geometry of horizontal terraces and vertical plantings. Mingled in are patches of olive, fruit and cork trees.
It's amazing to think that some of these old terraces were constructed by hand over 400 years ago. The area is protected by UNESCO status, and all harvesting is undertaken by hand due to the difficult terrain.
We used Pinhão as our base for three days, and although we didn't have a car at our disposal to explore the quintas inland, there was enough to do within walking distance, plus the train line and river options. The train station at Pinhão is decorated with the Portuguese azulejo tiles that adorn Porto's station, and is a tourist attraction in itself. We witnessed guides bringing walking tours to the station to explaining how the tiles depict the history of the port making over the years.
Between the train tracks and the river is the Vintage House Hotel - our chosen accommodation. This is a sister hotel to Porto's Yeatman (although we hadn't realised that at the time of booking) and offers rooms with stunning views over the river, an outdoor pool (a bit chilly for us wimps), dining terraces and manicured gardens. It has a formal feel to it, but there are other options for accommodation in the town, from hostels, B&Bs to quintas within a few miles.
Visit to Quinta de la Rosa
We had booked a trip to Quinta de la Rosa having seen it featured on the Wine Show (series 3). Sitting on the north side of the river, less than a kilometre from Pinhāo, it is a vineyard, winery, boutique hotel and respected restaurant.
Our guide explained that the quinta had been purchased in 1906 as a christening present for a girl called Claire by her English grandmother. Claire's legacy lives on, as the team running the establishment today are Claire's granddaughter - Sophia Bergqvist - as a 6th generation of wine and port makers in the region. The restaurant - Cozinha da Clara - is named after Claire.
Sophia is assisted by her brother Philip, and it was their father Tim who was instrumental in keeping the business surviving during turbulent times in the 70s and early 80s, with a successful relaunch in 1988.
The first part of the tour shows where the grapes are received. It is harvest time (although work has paused for lunch) and the trucks bring the grapes to the lodge where they are put into a machine to de-stem the bunches.
The grapes go onto a conveyor belt and are hand sorted and then head down a level into the "lagar". Lagares are large square granite tanks, roughly the size of two king sized beds, where the grapes are still trodden by foot in the cool evenings. Some port houses have mechanised this process, with mechanical feet pounding the grapes, but at Quinta de la Rosa, teams of nine people come for three hours every evening and march on the grapes to extract maximum colour and juice from the grapes.
Both dry wines and ports are vinified at Quinta de la Rosa, but white wines are organised at their sister vineyard, Quinta das Bandeiras.
The wine destined to become port is fortified and stored in large casks in a cool cellar. Unlike some port houses that transport their port down the river to mature in Vila Nova de Gaia, the port stays at Quinta de la Rosa where the team have adapted the cellar to ensure it stays at a consistent cool temperature all year round.
The guide shows us the larger barrels where the ruby ports are resting, and then we go through to the area where smaller casks are housing the tawnies. The barrels are marked up with code, that looks like a complicated cataloguing to our novice eyes, but is logical to the team.
There are a few special barrels in the corner, put aside to commemorate the births of the Bergqvist children. They will be handed over at a milestone birthday in the future.
It was then time for lunch. We'd enjoyed the tour, where the guide was knowledgable and answered any questions we had. We were led up to the stunning balcony of Cozinha da Clara, where we had opted for the "Winemakers lunch" - a set three course menu with matching wines.
As a starter we enjoyed a posh version of a Findus crispy pancake stuffed full of pulled pork. This was delicious and matched with La Rosa extra dry white port. This was a lovely summer drink, with excellent fruit on the palate, with a refreshing long finish.
Main course was Iberian black pork accompanied by exquisite creamy, truffled mashed potato, asparagus & mushrooms, and we were given two dry reds to pair with this. The team kept pouring for as long as we kept drinking. The La Rosa red (2018) is made with the traditional port grapes and matured in french oak. It was bursting with rich red and black fruits, but we preferred the Dourosa Red (2017), which came from older vines and had 52% Touriga Nacional grapes. This seemed to have more elegance and softness to it.
For dessert, the port came out to pair with a small tart and chocolate sauce. The late bottled vintage (2016) was fresh and fruity. Drier than some ports, as the fermentation was stopped early with 70% proof grape spirit, which maintained the port's minerality.
It was an amazing lunch, and the view is the star of the show. With no traffic noise, the balcony allows diners to sit, relax and watch the boats cruise up and down the Douro below, and birds swoop below.
If the 3-course lunch menu is too heavy for you, Quinta de la Rosa also offers "Tim's Terrace" (honouring Sophia and Philip's dad, Tim, who passed away in 2018.) This serves up pizza and tapas during the day, paired with beers crafted by Philip and his nephew Kit. During the evenings it becomes a bar-b-que space.
Satiated with delicious food, wine and port, we made our way back to the town.
Boat trip along the Douro
There are no shortage of boats in Pinhāo offering cruises and trips. We booked a 2-hour jaunt further east towards the Douro Superior to the town of Tua, where the boat turns and returns. This is the best way to view the vineyards and as the boat glides along, you can see the names of all the quintas that have become familiar on wine lists in Porto and the Douro. We played a game of "harvest spotting" but incredibly, only spotted activity a couple of times from amongst hundreds of acres of vines.
Pictures speak louder than words so I captured a short film below:
Before leaving the Douro, there was time to squeeze in one more tasting. In the town of Pinhāo is a tasting room for Quinta Do Noval, whose vines are inland slightly, 6km from Pinhāo.
We could have tasted their ports, but chose a "Wine flight Douro", which consisted of three wines.
The Cedro do Noval is a blend of the usual Portuguese grapes, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz but also has a small portion of syrah included. This was young and fresh, but we preferred the Quinta do Noval 100% Syrah. We asked the host why the winemaker had chosen to grow and make wine from syrah grapes. She shrugged and explained that he is a fan of syrah so decided to make some. Fair enough.
We finished the flight with a Quinta Noval Reserva, made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Cão. It's a perfumed wine, and was more rounded and complex than the Cedro. It burst with bright bramble fruit, spice, and some red berries. You could taste that it was a quality Douro red, with a mineral and savoury palate.
It was then time to leave the beauty of the Douro Valley and return to the UK. We'd seen some stunning scenery, tasted some delicious wines and ports and enjoyed the welcoming hospitality of the Portuguese people. We'll definitely return another day.