The air-conditioned coach winds through some of the most stunning views I've ever come across in my frequent visits to the Iberian Peninsula. In these upper reaches of the Portuguese countryside, it often seems like one has reached the world's end—and, indeed, moved on to another planet. The terrain is unfamiliar and, as far as wine production is concerned, improbable. On either side of the road, and as far as the eye can see, rows of steep terraces cling precariously to the rocky surface of mountains that line the Douro River that flows from the highlands of Spain to the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Portugal.
The high altitude and craggy landscape make growing grapes—or anything for that matter—difficult. To overcome nature's challenge, locals built a massive network of terraces using granite and slate chipped away by hand from the hillsides to hold and irrigate the soil needed for planting the touriga nacional and tinta roriz grape varieties commonly used in making the area's unique fortified wine. For the local farmers' tenacity, the area's natural beauty and region's long wine-making history, the Douro Valley was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
JOURNEY'S START AT PORTO
The scenic journey up the Douro follows a path that begins in the city of Porto where the river meets the Atlantic. The port city on the northern coast of Portugal owes part of its wealth and influence to money made from the wine trade – and from the export of port wine, in particular.
Porto's most impressive building, the neo-classical jewel Palacio da Bolsa, was where the price and stocks of port wine, among other commodities, were negotiated and exchanged. The British were the largest consumers of port—as well as the biggest investors in the wine trade. Across the Douro River from the Palacio are some of the port lodges owned by wine merchants who have been in business for centuries—many still carrying English names like Graham, Sandeman, and Taylor. The cellars of these riverside lodges are still operational and continue to house barrels of port wine for ageing. A few, like Sandeman, offer cellar tours and tasting sessions on site and are worth booking.
In the past, port was shipped downstream from the wineries or quinta in the upper or Alto Douro using small, wooden, flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos. The boats were eventually replaced by freight trains and, more recently, by trucks using the modern highway. Although these barcos have lost their purpose, the sight of these sailboats docked along the Porto waterfront remains one of the most iconic views of the city. Some cruise lines begin their boat tours up the Douro River from Porto, but the most convenient way to visit the wineries in the valley is by taking the highway. The drive through the outskirts of Porto takes you past villages and vineyards in gently rolling, though largely unspectacular, landscape. It's only when the road rises steeply that the view of the valley beneath and the river winding through it becomes interesting.
THE LOWER VALLEY
The best vineyards and the most captivating scenery are found in the mountainous terrain of the Alto Douro, but there are a number of picturesque wineries in Vila Real, in a relatively low-lying part of the valley. This is the home of the world-renowned Casa de Mateus, a beautiful 18th century baroque palace built on the premises of an estate that once produced the famous eponymously named rosé. The wine, with its familiar mandolin-shaped bottle, has the facade of the palace printed on its label.
The Mateus name was sold to a multinational company many years ago, but the current owners of the estate continue to produce high quality port and other dry wines which they sell on site. Good as the wines are, the real attraction here is the palace, which is listed as a national monument by the government of Portugal, along with the sprawling Italianate gardens attached to the property. Both are open to the public for a modest fee.
THE ALTO DOURO
Driving from Vila Real towards the farms in Regua to Pinhao in the heart of the upper Douro Valley takes you off the main highway and onto a narrow country road along a ridge that hugs the river. This is now the most captivating part of the journey, the point where you come closest to the vineyards planted on terraces built by farmers in the middle of the 18th century. An ideal place to base yourself in the valley is at the Quinta da Marrocos, a boutique port wine producer that also runs a bed and breakfast on the left bank of the Douro.
The former Franciscan seminary is perched on a hill overlooking one of the most photogenic sections of the Mardo mountain range. The Sequeira family belongs to four generations of port winemakers and has opened their home to travelers by offering wine tours, traditional Portuguese meals, and overnight accommodations. Tours begin at the vineyards where granite pillars have kept the vines in place for over three centuries. It's only when you stand on the precipice of one of these that you realize the difficulty early farmers had building each terrace by hand—and stone upon stone—as they carried the heavy load from the nearby quarry on their shoulders. Port wine production today is increasingly mechanized and most wineries are owned by multinational conglomerates that use the latest technology.
The Sequeiras, however, still apply an age-old method of harvesting grapes by hand and crushing the fruit by foot in an antique granite press. As tradition dictates, the wine is fortified with grape spirit to stop the fermentation and to stabilize the process, and then aged in wooden barrels, vats, and casks until ready to be bottled as either tawny, ruby, white, or vintage port. The best part of the tour ends with tasting a selection of the quinta's wines in a traditional country kitchen overlooking the Douro River and Mardo mountains. It's a stunning view, but a troubling thought crosses my mind while standing on the terrace with a glass of late bottled vintage in hand.
For centuries, the origins of port wine have remained shrouded in mystery due to the obscurity of the grape varieties used to make it, but also because of the inaccessibility of the region it's from. Yet with new infrastructure linking the Douro Valley to the big cities of Portugal, the country's best kept secret is about to hit the mainstream. How local producers like the Sequeiras handle the influx of visitors remains to be seen, but I only hope that what took centuries to build doesn't come crashing down under the weight of mass tourism in just a matter of years.
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No. 24 2018.