For any oenophiles out there, you can’t possibly visit Porto, Portugal without taking a Douro River Valley. The Douro Wine Region is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world! Explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its production of port wine, awe-inspiring landscapes, and terraced vineyards. Between the various scenic lookout points, views of rolling hills and vineyards, a river cruise, (and of course – the wine!) a Douro River Valley day trip is well worth leaving the city.
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a brief history
Grape vines have been growing in the Douro Valley since ancient times. The Romans would make wine on the banks of the Douro during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.
Much later, following the formation of the Kingdom of Portugal, England and Poland signed the Treaty of Windsor. This treaty formed a convenient bond between the two nations, enabling a strong trading coalition. Douro Valley’s emergence as one of the world’s most distinguished wine regions can be traced back to the Treaty of Windsor. It was then that Portugal became an important exporter of wine. However, it was not until the mid-17th century that the Douro Valley became the source of what we know today as Port.
climate & terroir
In the isolated, rolling hills and valleys that encompass the Douro, the English found the proper area from which to export wine. Due to its location relative to the mountains, the winds from the Atlantic ocean were blocked. This means an arid climate and intense temperatures during the summer months.
The area is an incredible example of nature and man coming together to create something extraordinary. The river carved the gorged valleys out of land and Man converted the mountains into soil and walls, and planted the vines. With knowledge and experience transferred to each subsequent generation, eventually Man learned to incline the terraces in order to expose the vines to the rays of the sun, giving the grapes the warmth that the wine requires. This congruence of nature and Man created something truly remarkable. This unique environment facilitated the production of hearty, potent libations – everything the English market wanted in a wine.
exporting from the douro valley
It was near-to-impossible to transport the wine overland, so the merchants had to transport it to the coast by special boats on the River Douro. Eventually, many of the English merchants began to establish their businesses in Porto, which was only a few miles from the mouth of the river. Many still remain to this day in Vila Nova de Gaia, which sits opposite the old town of Porto across the river.
It only made logical sense to call this wine ‘Vinho de Porto,’ or wine of Porto. The English then shortened the name to ‘Port’ or ‘Port Wine.’
douro valley as a day trip
As a trip from Porto, the Douro Valley is approximately an hour and a half drive inland. I’d fully recommend hiring a driver or taking part on a river cruise or guided tour. You don’t want to have a rental car and a belly full of wine trying to make your way back to the city, trust me!
On the other hand, if you’re planning on a multi-day or weekend getaway, a road trip from Porto to the Douro Valley is an epic way to experience the Portuguese countryside firsthand! Driving yourself? Be sure to read these tips on renting a car in Portugal!
We opted for a tour, which included transportation, wine tasting, lunch, and a tour of Quinta da Roêda vineyard. This was about 90 euro per person and our group was seven people in total.
To be honest, I’ve always shied away from organized tours. Still, there are some excursions while traveling where tours simply make the most sense, both logistically and economically. We had a good group – my mom and myself, along with a group of five Finns in their early thirties.
The drive was scenic to say the least, meandering through the Portuguese countryside with some of the most epic viewpoints. The only disadvantage to taking a guided tour was the inability to stop at a moment’s notice for some photos!
quinta da roêda & vineyard tour
Upon arriving to Quinta da Roêda, the June sun had emerged in full force. The Quinta was very hot and very dusty, so dress appropriately. I’d just bought some pants that were a tiny bit too long, and I regretted my outfit choice with every step.
The tastings are held in the visitors’ center, which is located in Roêda’s old stables. These were beautifully restored in the traditional Douro Valley style. Quinta da Roêda produces Croft port wines, as well as their own extra virgin olive oil (also sampled, of course).
Our guide brought us on a walking tour through the property, stopping at points of interest along the way. At each point, our guide told us some local history and anecdotes. The tour was nice, but nothing compares to taking in the breathtaking panoramas and the stunning landscapes across the Douro River.
If you’re lucky enough to go during the harvest, you can also take part in the unique experience of stomping the grapes. This is done in the ‘lagares,’ the granite tanks in which the wine is made. The harvest takes place in September – this was something I was not able to experience having visited in June. As a friend preemptively advised, however, be prepared for sticky feet! Grapes need very high sugar levels so as to create alcohol, and in the case of Port, sweetness.
Most of the vineyards and tours set in the Douro Valley have numerous options in terms of wine tastings. These usually include between three and seven samples, priced accordingly. The tour we’d arranged came with three tastings – a pink port, a tawny port, and a ruby port. Each one was delicious, though it truly surprised me that the pink was my favorite. The staff served some cheese and small snacks to complement the wine. As we tasted, we learned about the fortification process and the history of Port and the Douro Valley in general.
learning about fortification
Since the start of Port wine production, it was normal to incorporate a tiny amount of brandy to the wine prior to shipment. This was primarily to preserve it from spoiling.
The producers added the brandy during the fermentation process, inhibiting it before all the essential sugars of the grapes were transformed into alcohol. This safeguarded the wine from spoiling and increased its ability to age. It also produced a wine whose sweetness, potency, and abundance of flavor – everything the English market wanted from Portuguese wines. Still, it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that this approach to fortification became an integral part of the process of making Port.
douro river cruise
Following the tasting, the group boarded a traditional wine transporting boat. Throughout the 17 and 1800’s, the task of transporting the new wines down the river to the ‘lodges’ of the Port shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia fell to the ‘barcos rabelos’. These extraordinary flat-bottomed river boats have distinctive, long steering oars and broad sails. They were designed to carry heavy loads of Port casks through the dangerous waters of the fast-moving Douro, before any dams were built that currently make the river much more navigable.
Our guide from the tour did not go on the river cruise with us. The river tour was given in Portuguese, so this component of the day was a bit of a let-down. Most guests on the boat were not Portuguese-speaking, so it was a challenge. Plus, I’m pretty sure I was hangry at the time, so understandably more irritable than usual.
Finally, we returned to our origin at the Quinta and headed to the nearby village of Pinhão for lunch.
Lunch was included with the tour and included many traditional Portuguese snacks, a choice of two entrees, and – surprise, surprise – more wine! This time, we didn’t have Port, however. The Douro Valley is also known for its production of standard Portuguese table wines.
The amount we drank throughout the day definitely warranted taking a tour instead of renting a car. I highly advise you do not drive yourself if you’re planning on doing wine tastings at all.
Following lunch, it was a privilege to observe the village of Pinhão from different perspectives. You’re able to appreciate that life in the Douro Valley is centered around working in vineyards, olive groves and almond trees.
other things to do
There’s quite a bit to see in the region that would likely not be covered in a guided tour. Why not take a night or two to spend in the Valley and explore? Visit the historic center of Amarante and check out the Tricycle museum. In Peso da Régua, the Douro Museum will lend an alternate perspective on the region and wine production. In Pinhão, the railway station is a must-see to appreciate its antique tiles, a homage to the cultivation of vines.
To sum up, is the Douro River Valley day trip worth it? Absolutely. Even if you only have a day to spare? Absolutely. This place is more than worthy of attention (and tourist dollars). Economic and environmental sustainability have become increasingly vital prerogatives. Producers now aim to safeguard the special heritage and environment of the Douro Valley for generations to come.
Come to admire the terraced vineyards, rolling hills, and mighty Douro River while sipping a glass of velvety vintage Port; a Douro River Valley day trip is a perfect way to spend a day in Northern Portugal. Tours can be booked from Viator.
Don’t miss the prettiest places in Porto before you go, though!