A vintage tour of Portugal’s wine country

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

I love how travel can blast away preconceptions – a recent trip to experience the wines, food and quintas of Porto and the Douro Valley has done exactly that.

1. I thought this was the region of Portugal that my parents’ generation went to when they had ‘done’ Madeira – a bit fusty, charming in the faded chintz sense and a tad dull. Wrong – both the World Heritage city of Porto and the exquisitely green and rolling Douro Valley feel young and vibrant with a new generation of contemporary quintas and wine lodges to complement the delightfully traditional, and sensitively updated, generations-old family wine estates. We met visitors of all nationalities and ages.

2. My knowledge of Portuguese wines amounted to Vinho Verde and Mateus Rose. In fact, the range and quality of Portugal’s Douro Valley wines alone (to say nothing of the Ports) blew that misconception out of the window – and the prices are so reasonable.

3. When it comes to tasting wine and Port, I am from the school of “I like this one”. In the august company of expert journos and our hosts, the venerable IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto), I expected to be cowed by oenophilic hyperbole – wrong again. I was inspired and fascinated by the tastes, colours and origins of each of the wines and ports we tasted. At no stage were our hosts anything less than charming and informative – it was fun, not least as there was a refreshing lack of wine snobbery and tech-speak (unless you wanted it).

Both Porto and the Douro Valley (within easy reach of the city via train, car or even boat), offer a range of traditional hotels, many of them set in historic quintas – some with a modern twist.

Quinta Nova, in the heart of the Douro Valley, is a fine example of a grand old quinta (the first wine hotel in the valley) which has updated its rooms, taken on a talented young local chef and created a more contemporary experience without losing any of its charm and grace. The pre-set menus offer a range of tasting dishes, each paired with a wine (and Port) from the estate, and there are walking trails through the vineyards and a pool with views to die for.

I was enchanted by Quinta do Vallado, another family-owned estate where you can stay in the original house or in the newly-created wing of sleek state-of-the-art rooms complete with sexy black slate bathrooms and a pleasingly simple restaurant serving traditional local dishes and, of course, wines from the estate.

There’s the relatively new Aquapura hotel too, more of a family resort developed from a late 19th century Italianate mansion and now housing a huge spa, indoor and outdoor pools and gorgeous views of the Douro River.

Perhaps the most striking – and memorable – experience, which perfectly encapsulated my surprise at the youthful vibrancy of the region, was lunch at Rui Paula’s DOC restaurant on the banks of the Douro. From octopus carpaccio to meltingly crispy suckling pig, with immaculate service and superb wines, surely a Michelin star must be imminent. Housed in a distinctly modernistic building, it was nothing short of stellar.

Porto itself has a wide range of hotels from faded grandeur classics to more modern convenience – I was beguiled by Porto’s newest hotel, The Yeatman. For a new build, it’s the right side of bling – understated and elegant – with a glorious infinity pool overlooking Porto, a Caudalie Vinotherapie spa, and (within a year of opening) a Michelin-starred restaurant. The hotel is a virtual ambassador for Portuguese wines, showcasing 40+ wine houses. Wine buffs and foodies shouldn’t miss the Thursday evening Wine Dinners (a bargain €55 pp inc tax) – each is hosted by one of the partner wine makers.

Wherever you travel in this region, you can’t fail to be impressed by the wines and Ports on offer, from classic vintages to funky new Pink Port and some cool packaging – tasting sessions are the perfect introduction. Directly across the river from Porto – and now accessible via a new cable car (€5 each way) – lies Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the great Port names’ vast cellars.

Join a tour and tasting at one of the historic lodges – at Graham’s Port Lodge, we wandered around vaulted cellars stacked with vast casks containing a staggering 110 million litres of port before a tasting of wines and Ports. The young and passionate guides really know their stuff – and the prices here, as elsewhere, are staggeringly good value. A new wine bar, restaurant and tapas bar will open in November 2012 – with terrific views across to Porto.

Within the Douro Valley, you can turn up at any number of quintas to taste their wares and there is no pressure to buy – tastings cost around €5 to €15. At one end of the scale is the sizeable Quinta do Seixo, home to Sandeman’s. This iconic brand has created a slick and impressive purpose-built visitor centre with a range of tasting experiences for coach-loads and couples – and a romantic picnic can be set up amongst the vines. This panoramic spot is crying out for a restaurant – and it will be one worth visiting, judging by the quality of what they Sandeman’s has created to date.

The more intimate Quinta do Panascal is one of the few houses to restrict their production to Port wines, specifically the Croft, Fonseca and Taylor’s brands. There’s an informative self-guided walk around the estate, with an MP3 player (€3 including 3 tastings – bargain!). Parties of 10 or so can book in advance for lunch on the terrace – lip-smacking roast kid for example, paired with regional wines and their own Ports (some hotels will put parties together).

Top tipple tips

– for a summer drink which knocks Pimms into the shade, pour white port over ice with a slice of lemon and sprig of mint and top up with tonic water.

– take your car, via the ferry from Portsmouth or Plymouth to Santander so you can stock up on the incredibly well-priced wines and ports (and estate olive oil too).

– if your bottle of port has a replaceable cork, don’t feel you have to drink it right away. It will last for 3 or 4 weeks. Bottle-aged vintage Port (with a long non-replaceable cork) should be drunk on the day of opening and decanted 2 or 3 hours before drinking.

– if you are driving, be very careful with the tastings. Most of the Douro wines have a high alcohol content.

– visit at any time of year (most places have fireplaces and heating in the winter months). Go in September for the chance to pick and tread grapes alongside your hosts and local families.

– look out for tasting opportunities here in the UK, organised by Discover the Origin – they showcase Douro wines and Port (and other distinctive European products such as Parma Ham and Parmigiano Reggiano).

Getting there

Book a short break or longer holiday with Sunvil, which offers a wide range of hotels and quintas throughout the region. Specialist companies such as Arblaster & Clarke organise regional wine tours and Douro River cruises.

A car (your own or hire one locally) is the easiest way to travel (although the approach roads to some quintas are fairly hairy!) but don’t miss a journey on the train. Go all the way from Porto (do visit the Porto railway station and its spectacular blue tiled walls even if you don’t) or take the 20-minute ride from Regua to Pinhao or vice versa, following the banks of the Douro River.

* Catherine Leech travelled as a guest of the IVDP and Discover the Origin.

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