Exploring The Alto Douro Wine RegionCreated in 1756, this 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. Although long famous for its fortified wines from such port houses as Taylor-Fladgate, Graham, Noval and Sandeman, the Alto Douro Vinhateiro, one of the most beautiful wine growing regions in Europe, has, in the last twenty years, come into it own as a producer of world-class dry table wines, especially its robust reds, including those of the oldest wine producer in the Douro, Quinta do Vallado, which dates from 1716, and belongs to the descendants of the legendary Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.
Today there is an astonishing number of wine growers in the region, from a host of small family farms composed 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.
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.