Exploring the Alto Douro

Touring Portugal’s Premiere Wine Regions

The Alto Douro

Although long famous for its fortified wines from such port houses as Taylor-Fladgate,  Offley, Graham, Noval and Sandeman, the Alto Douro Vinhateiro, one of the most beautiful wine growing regions in Europe, has, in the last twenty years or so, come into it own as a producer of world-class dry table wines, especially its robust reds, and including those of the oldest wine producer in the Douro, Quinta do Vallado, dating from 1716, and belonging to the descendants of the the legendary Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.  Created in 1756, this region is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, encompassing more then 64,000 acres, and crossed by the winding waters of the Rio Douro, which meanders west for some 900 kilometers, flowing from Spain’s Old Castile to the World Heritage city of Porto, gateway to the Douro River Valley.

Today there is an astonishing number of wine growers in the region, from a host of small family farms comprised of only a few hectares to the larger wine producers, including the largest wine and port producer in Portugal, the Symington Family Estates (Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Quinta do Vesúvio).  Surprisingly, its brittle, schistous granite soil, typical of the Douro region, sustains a wide spectrum of grape varieties, including Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, Tina Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) and Malvasia.  Tending the vines on these vertiginous terraces can be exhausting as all the work is done by hand, with some of the estates maintaining the tradition of grape treading by foot in granite tanks called lagares.  In some cases, at Quintas such as at Sandeman and Noval, visitors can join in the treading, but be aware, it’s hard work.

Exploring The Upper Douro 

Along with the wine estates dotting the steep stepped hillsides of the Douro River Valley, the region is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the Iberian Peninsula, making it a world-class wine tourism destination.  Here you’ll also find graceful Baroque churches, Cistercian monasteries, medieval villages and an abundance of olive, orange and almond trees planted alongside the vines.  There are even prehistoric rock carvings along the banks of the Côa River, in the Côa Valley, south of the Douro

River boats from Porto make regular excursions up the Douro, the larger ones stopping in Régua, others moving on to Pinhão, as does the train, and if driving, there are some exhilarating hairpin turns you’ll encounter along the way, but once you reach Pinhão your driving options are limited as there are no roads following the river beyond this point.  The train continues along the north bank, crossing the Douro at Ferradosa before continuing up river with stops in Vargelas, Vesuvio and Freixo de Numao-Mos do Douro, before finally ending up in the village of Pocinho 30 minutes later.

alto_douro-17-12aOne of the popular day trips from Porto is to take a cruise upriver to Régua or Pinhão and return on the train, or do the excursion in reverse, which can be a long day, or seem too rushed for some.  As an alternative, especially if you are planning on spending some time in the Alto Douro (highly recommended), you can cruise the waters of the upper Douro by boat from Pinhão, going all the way to the Spanish border at Freixo de Espada à Cinta if you have the time.  On our recent excursion in the Alto Douro, we opted to do a relaxing two-hour tour with Vintage Wine Travel, Pipa Douro, on their barcos vintage Friendship 1, traveling from Pinhão to the Tua River and back before lunch.  It was a perfect day in late October.

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Where To Stay

The Douro River Valley boasts a luxurious resort hotel, spa hotels, gracious manor homes and working wine estates, quintas, where one can relax after a full day of wine touring and exploring the graceful Baroque churches and Cistercian monasteries in the immediate area.  For our time in the Douro, we based ourselves once again in the center of the appellation, in the Cima Corgo sub-zone, above the village of Pinhão, the very heart of the port wine producing area, at the Hotel Rural Quinta do Pego, a small 10-room boutique property which enjoys a privileged location in the most prestigious section of the Alto Douro.  Located just west of Pinhão, it overlooks the river from its southern bank, where the sunsets are spectacular.

Other properties offering spectacular views of the Douro include Quinta de Santo António de Adorigo, a few minutes downriver, Quinta Nova, on the northern bank, and the hotel Delfim Douro, sits atop a mountain overlooking the Douro.  Quinta do Crasto  also sits on the north bank of the Douro between Régua and Pinhão and can be reached by car, train, boat or helicopter, while Quinta de la Rosa is only a fews minutes from the train station in Pinhão.  Although the Quinta do Vallado doesn’t have a view of the Douro, it’s boutique 6-suite property, Casa do Rio, about a two-hour drive, or about 100 kms upriver from Régua, in Castelo Melhor – Vila Nova de Foz Côa, sits between the vineyards and the river, and offers a spectacular view of the Douro, and makes for a great weekend get-away.

Lodgings with a river view

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Hotel Rural Quinta do Pego
Valença do Douro, 5120-493 Tabuaço
Tel: (+351) 254 73 00 70
Email: info@quintadopego.com

Quinta de Santo António de Adorigo
Estrada Nacional 323, Adorigo, 5120-011 Tabuaço
Tel: (+351) 254 789 177
Email: info@quintasantoantonio.pt

Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
5085-222 Covas do Douro
Tel: (+351) 254 730 420
Email: quintanovalwh@amorim.com

Delfim Douro
Quinta do Loureiro, 100-758, Samodães, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 960 000
Email: reservas@delfimdourohotel.com / info@delfimdourohotel.com

Quinta do Crasto
Gouvinhas, 5060-063 Sabrosa
Tel: (+351) 254 920 020
Email : crasto@quintadocrasto.pt

Quinta de la Rosa
5085-215 Pinhão
Tel: (+351) 254 732 254 / (+351) 931 461 038
Email: holidays@quintadelarosa.com

Casa do Rio Wine Hotel
Quinta do Orgal, 5150-145, Castelo Melhor – Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Tel: (+351) 254 318 081 / (+351) 279 764 340
Email: reservas@quintadovallado.com

Accommodations without a river view

Quinta do Vallado  Wine Hotel
Vilarinho dos Freires , 5050-364, Peso da Régua
Tel: +351 254 318 081
Email: reservas@quintadovallado.com

Quinta da Pacheca
Rua do Relógio do Sol, 261, Cambres, 5100-424, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 331 229
Email: reservas@quintadapacheca.com

Six Senses Spa Douro Valley
Quinta de Vale Abraão, Samodães, 5100-758, Lamego
Tel: (+351) 254 660 600
Email: reservations-dourovalley@sixsenses.com

Where To Dine

Dining in the Alto Douro has improved markably the last few years.  DOC, the sleek and stylish outpost of chef Rui Paula of Porto’s DOP and the Tea House, is undoubtedly the region’s finest and most atmospheric dining spot, as it sits about the the banks of the Douro River between Régua and Pinhão, with an outdoors terrace and pier for diners arriving by boat.

The Taylor Fladgate port house owns Rabelo, the cozy British manor style restaurant in Pinhão’s riverside Vintage House Hotel, while the traditional family-run Bar-Restaurante Veladouro is a few minutes walk along the river from the hotel.  Castas e Pratos is housed in a stylishly refurbished former wine warehouse sitting between the river and rail tracks in Peso da Régua.  Restaurant Douro Inn is located in Tabuaço, about a 15-minute drive south of the Douro, and the gastronomic restaurant in the beautiful estate of Quinta da Pacheca is located across the river from Régua.

The “Best of Wine Tourism”

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Must See Quintas

Quinta do Seixo, belonging to the iconic port producer Sandeman, has one of the most breathtakingly scenic wine estates in the entire Douro.  Here “robotic” lagares, grape-crushing machines, simulate the rhythmic movement of the worker’s feet.  In its ultra-modern tasting room, with the area’s most awe-inspiring views, you can enjoy a VIP sampling of six ports, from their refreshing Apitiv white port to the elegant Imperial Reserve Tawny.

Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, dating from 1758, and now owned by the cork-producing Amorim family, this winery focuses on first class table wine, such as their Quinta Nova Grande Reserva, on its 85-hectare estate high on the norther banks of the Douro.  The Quinta opened the region’s first wine hotel in it’s 18th-century antique-filled manor house and was awarded the Luxury Country Retreat of the Year for 2018 by the British publication Luxury Travel Guide.

Quinta do Vallado, situated on the eastern bank of the Corgo River, a tributary of the Douro, the quinta has been in the family for six generations and is one of the “Douro Boys” energetic projects.  The band of five winemakers, descendants of the old port-producing families in the Douro, have had a dramatic effect of the region’s estate bottled table wine profile.  Their Adelaide Vintage Port 2015 was awarded 95 points by Wine Spectator in September of this year, while the Reserva Field Blend 2014 received 95 points by the Wine Enthusiast.

Quinta do Portal, sitting high above the Douro in Sabrosa, its cellars designed by the acclaimed Porto architect, Pritzker award winner, Álvaro Siza, won the Douro Architecture Prize in 2011.  The winery, Casa des Pipas, is located between the vineyards with views of the mountainous Douro on the horizon.  Wine Enthusiast magazine has awarded their 2014 Grande Reserva 93 points, while the Auru 2011 received 92 points.  The Colheita 2009 was selected No. 27 of the top 100 best buys of the year by Wine Enthusiast.

Alves de Sousa, with 6 quintas (Quinta da Gaivosa, Vale da Raposa, Estação, Caldas, Aveleira and Oliveirinha) for generations supplied some of the most famous and prestigious Port companies until the late 80s when Domingos Alves de Sousa decided to produce his own wines, with the first Douro released in 1992.  Since then, 14 of their wines have been rated between 90 and 96 points by the Wine Advocate.  Quinta da Gaivosa, designed by local architect Belém Lima, and built in 2013, sits perched high on a hillside overlooking the vineyards in the Baixo Corgo region, 20 minutes north of Régua.

Others To Add To Your list

Quinta de Santa Eufemia, the 50-hectare estate is located about 300 meters above sea level on the southern bank of the Douro at Parada do Bispo, a few minutes drive from Régua.  Managed by the 4th generation of the Carvalho family, they cultivate the rare Portuguese varietals of Bastardo, Mourisco Tinto, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Carvalha, and sell only in boutique stores, including their own port house in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Quinta das Carvalhas, Real Companhia Velha, is the oldest wine company in Portugal, founded in 1756.  Quinta das Carvalhas sits on the left bank of the river, directly across from Pinhão.  The oldest vineyards of the 120-hectare estate are almost a century old and benefit from the diversity of the location with its average annual temperature variation and rainfall.  The Quinta treads its harvest n the traditional manner, and like many in the Douro, produces its olive oil from 100-year old trees growing on the steep slopes above the river.

Quinta das Torres – Casa das Torres de Oliveira, an 18th-century country manor house restored in 1999, sits on 30 hectares of terraced vineyards 4.5 Km from Régua on the north side of the Douro.

Quinta Casa Amarela, located on the left bank of the Douro mid – way between Régua and Lamego, has been in the same family since 1885.  The Quinta’s vineyards average over 45-year old and it’s one of the Quintas maintaining the tradition of grape treading by foot in granite tanks.

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