Portugal’s Douro Valley Should Be Your Next Wine Trip
The Douro Valley is one of the world’s best known wine regions. (In fact, it’s the oldest demarcated wine region—declared way back in 1756, when it was a powerhouse for the fortified wine known as Port.) But this corner of Portugal has been a wine tourism region for only about two decades.
UNESCO granted the valley, with its steep terraces and adorably oversize name signs, World Heritage Status in 2001. But like so many other things in these pandemic times, celebrations and commemorations are delayed. What’s another rounding error? Let’s call it the 20th anniversary.
Jorge Dias, the CEO of Porto Cruz, a Port house with more than 150 years of history (and one of the few with Portuguese ownership), helped spearhead that UNESCO application.
“I am proud to have participated in this entire process, from the outset as vice-coordinator of the candidacy, then in public administration and, more recently, on the private investment side, at Quinta de Ventozelo,” says the businessman, referring to his new winery hotel. He continues that he’s proud to have worked in “landscape management and in the creation of tourist offer in line with the values I have always defended.”
The designation, he says, changed many things, “fortunately for the better. It increased the civic awareness of the population and the administration about the importance of preserving and safeguarding their heritage; in vineyard management, there are greater concerns with environmental sustainability; the cultural offer and, above all, the tourist offer increased enormously… I have no doubts in stating that the World Heritage seal has contributed positively to the development of the Douro.”
Dias and Gran Cruz acquired Ventozelo in 2014, but opened it as a luxury hotel only in 2020. A forerunner in wine tourism was Luisa Amorim, whose Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo was the first winery hotel to open in the Douro, in 2005 (and which became the Douro’s first member of Relais & Châteaux in 2021).
“The phenomenon of tourism opens many opportunities for young people and locals to grow their small businesses and rebuild their properties,” she says. “We had traveled a lot around the world. We knew and understood Napa Valley and so many other wine regions. Our idea was for people to come and [try] a quinta (estate) in Douro, from a Portuguese family house and winery. Now we try to consistently improve our wine tourism experiences so that every year we have more guests from all around the world.
“We have also to bear in mind that 20 years ago we almost didn’t have any [quality] still wines or strong brands, for that matter. Douro was a Port wine region, but today we are worldwide-known not only for the Port but also because of the amazing DOC Douro still wines (rated 100 points in some of the most influential specialized magazines).”
But Cristiano Van Zeller, part of the one of the most important winemaking families in the region since the 17th century—and more recently a founding member of the influential Douro Boys collective—cautions that “dry wine is not a novelty.” The owner of Van Zellers & Co continues, “It never was. A lot was always dry…but for decades it was seen as a waste of good grapes. It was considered a sub-product. Nobody cared.”
Now people care. A lot.
Van Zeller and his fellow Douro Boys started focusing on good-quality table wine in the 1990s. “It was the beginning of a small revolution,” he remembers. “The region has always had a strong magic because of Port wine mainly, but it was set to have a strong position around the whole world of wine.” And that’s why, he says, Dias and others fought for UNESCO recognition at the beginning of this century.
Now the Douro Boys are working to counter the notion that Portuguese wines are “cheap and cheerful,” merely good value for money. “We’re in an expensive region,” says Van Zeller, acknowledging the challenges of the climate, environmental changes and soil. “We need to make people dream about the quality.”
Another dreamer, from another generation, who has similar aims is Tiago Macena, who recently came on board as the winemaker at Quinta da Vacaria, after having previously worked at other wineries elsewhere in the valley and other regions in Portugal. The biggest change in the past 20 years, he says, is the “attention to still wines. Everyone knew our fantastic fortified wine, the demarcated region… Now the still wines hold their own against wines from other great regions of the world.” Even the whites, a yet newer phenomenon.
hat’s Vacaria’s role in the valley’s transformation, he says. “We want to have different good whites based on traditional grape blends, from the oldest vineyard blocks, to show that the Douro is not just about Port but about great wines. We aren’t reinventing the wheel. We’re taking advantage of the variety of grapes, expositions and soils.”
They’re in on wine tourism too, with a small, comfortable hotel and “100% visit-able winery” set to open this summer. Their aim is for their guests to spend two or three days in an “immersive experience, an integrated circuit” of learning about wine.
How to Visit (According to Insiders)
Where to Stay
On one of the biggest and oldest farms in the Upper Douro, Dias’s Ventozelo has 29 rooms, a restaurant from talented chef Miguel Castro e Silva, a wine-tasting setup in a grove of orange trees, a visitor center and plenty of walking trails through the vineyards and into wild nature. It’s all polished, but none of it is aggressively slick. Rather, it still feels like a farm where good old-fashioned hospitality is extended to everyone.
Amorim’s Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo—dating from 1764—is a deeply lovely place, with spectacular views and a profound sense of calm. It has the feel of a large Portuguese family home, one that recently saw an upgrade of its 11 sumptuous guest rooms. The place is notable also for the museum, full of the Amorim family’s collection of more than 500 vintage tools, documents and other winemaking ephemera, and for its unusual wines, especially the Burgundy-style white called Mirablis, which winemaker Jorge Alves singles out for its “silky sophistication and oaky aromas.”
When it opens this summer, Quinta da Vacaria will offer another immersive take on the Douro Valley experience, while for visitors who wants a more traditional luxury hotel experience (less focus on vines), the Six Senses Douro Valley—recommended by everyone I spoke to for this article—continues to be the standard-bearer for five-star service (and fabulous forest bathing) in the region, and the design-forward Douro 41, at the western edge of the region, offers spectacular river views.
Where to Eat
Universally recommended, the riverside DOC in Folgosa is the sexiest fine-dining spot in the area, with excellent food from chef Rui Paula, who holds two Michelin stars at his outstanding restaurant outside Porto, Casa da Chá da Boa Nova.
Dias singles out Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro, known for regional classics like wild boar stew and oven-baked rice with baby goat, and Casa dos Ecos in Pinhão, the recent pop-up at the Symington family winery from Michelin-star chef Pedro Lemos. And Macena always makes a beeline to O Lagar in Escalhão, a local spot that’s known for its welcoming service and excellent bacalhau (salted cod).
Where to Sip
It goes without saying that Quinta de Ventozelo, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Quinta da Vacaria are worth a visit. It’s wise to book ahead, particularly for their harvest-related activities.
The winemakers I talked to also emphasize Quinta do Seixo (Sandeman) in Valença do Douro, Quinta do Crasto (known for a variety of white and red table wines as well as Port), Quinta da Vallado for its 300-year history, and Quinta do Bonfim (Symington), also the current home of Casa dos Ecos.
And So What’s Next?
A theme that kept coming up in conversations with winemakers was sustainability. “Since the acquisition of Quinta de Ventozelo,” says Dias (echoing sentiments of the others), “we have sought to enhance the enormous potential of the property. This involves not only working on the richness and diversity of its wines, but also investing in olive oil, gin, honey, organic gardens, valuing ecosystems, wine tourism and nature tourism.
“We have been developing land management strategies that are closer to nature, to regenerate ecosystems and their support functions for sustainable production…. Spaces do not belong to us; we just enjoy them, with the obligation to take care of them for future generations.”
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