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Education and Inspiration in the Douro Valley

When I asked friends who had recently been to Porto whether they recommended a day trip to the famed Douro Valley for a wine and port tasting tour, the answer was a resounding yes. I had seen photos of rolling hills packed with vine-filled terraces, steep slopes ending in the winding Douro river, and sometimes humble and other times grand quintas (wineries) perched high above it all on breezy hilltops – and I was ready to drink it all in.

Joe and I booked a full day tour with one of the dozens of companies offering Douro Valley experiences and hoped for the best (we used EFun Tours). We were not disappointed, and ended up having a terrifically fun, fulfilling, educational and delicious day with seven strangers who would quickly become friends.

We visited three quintas during our tour – one of the largest port producers in Portugal, installed imposingly on top of a little mountain accessible only by a steeply, sharply winding, cobblestone-paved, one lane road; one much smaller winery owned by a Californian who lives in the Napa Valley and visits her Douro Valley operation regularly; and one somewhere in between whose dappled, whispering glades and cavernous, tarnished barrel room provided the perfect backdrop for wine tasting. Throughout each tour, we learned more and more about port: how it’s made, the various ways it’s bottled and aged, why single lines of olive trees run up and down slopes all over the valley (and why occasional olive trees were entwined with bright blooming rose vines), how best to enjoy a glass of fabulous port, and so much more! (See “Fun Port Facts” at the bottom!)

Visiting Sandeman’s, the massive producer whose ports are ubiquitous all around Portugal and throughout the world, proved to be a slightly overwhelming and awe-inspiring experience: the main building housing the 4×4 meter, granite processing tanks (called lagares), tasting room, bottle and barrel storage facilities, etc could have held several Texas Hill Country wineries within its concrete bowels. The views were telescopic and sweeping, and endless terraces, grape vines, and the characteristically steep hills of the Douro stretched out beyond and around the winery. Our tour guide, a young man named Luis, was decked out in the black cape and Spanish sombrero worn by Sandeman’s iconic logo, “The Don,” and delivered his information with a twinkle in his eye and a playful lilt in his speech. Everything about Sandeman’s is meant
to impress: the dimly-lit passageways connecting all the underground and interior rooms, the 10,000 dusty bottles stacked and stored on their sides in the basement, the expansive 360 degree views on offer. We sipped our port on the front deck while the warm, Douro sun kissed our faces.

In stark contrast to the Sandeman experience was our visit to Quinta do Tedo, a small, almost boutique winery owned by the somewhat mysterious “California lady.” Nestled into a small hillside in front of a small, olive tree-flanked lake, this quinta looked more like a comfortable but luxurious Spanish-style hacienda you might find in the Hollywood Hills. Vines on delicate trellises shaded parts of the long, narrow front porch, olive and oleander trees lined the parking lot, and three large, fluffy, Great Pyrenees dogs lounged lazily around the property. We were guided through our tasting by a young woman who got quite excited while discussing their ports – tawny is her favorite, but she is also a fan of their refreshing “swimming pool” pink port as well. By this time, all eight of us on the tour had bonded and started becoming fast friends (as only sharing the experience of consuming delicious beverages seems able to do), and we stayed chatting and sipping so long that our tour guide had to hustle us on to the final stop on our journey.

We ended our tour at Quinta da Pacheca, down a long, sycamore-lined drive under a canopy of lofty, leafy trees that filtered the sunlight gently down to our wooden table. Inside the lofty barrel room, our guide directed us to look up: high above us, the ceiling, once white, was now a sooty, splotchy black – resulting from the slow evaporation, through the porous wood of the barrels, of the port and wine over the years. The entire building exuded a sharp, sour smell which Joe identified as washed rind cheese and I called vinegar – it slightly singed my nose hairs and left me wanting pickles. Outside, under the canopy, we tasted two soft ruby ports and two red wines produced by the estate – and by this point, two young ladies on our tour (sisters from San Diego, but currently studying in England) were ready to buy some (read: 12 bottles) of port. After 30 minutes in the wine shop, tasting and discussing more options with an indulgent, smiling and kind employee, they settled giddily on their loot. We tasted a vintage ruby while waiting, so we were in no mood to complain.

Fun Port Facts:

  • To make port, the fruit is pressed like wine grapes, traditionally by foot, but fermentation is stopped with a neutral alcohol like brandy (sometimes house-made, which can affect the taste) before bottling – hence the sweetness
  • Tawny ports are aged in small barrels (220-500 liters each) and identified by the designations “reserve,” 10 year, 20 year, 30 year or 40 year
  • Tawnies are blends of different years of port – if you have some 10 year and some 30 year, you combine them to get an average and call it a “20 year” port.
  • Rubies are aged in huge vats (up to 7000 liters!) then transferred to bottles after 4-6 years – unless you have a “vintage” year, which means those grapes were so fantastic they only age in vats for 1-2 years and are then bottled to age further – up to 100, or even 200 years!
  • Any “vintage” designation must be awarded by the IVDP (Institutos dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto) – if they deny a quinta’s application for a vintage year, that port just becomes a regular ruby…
  • …unless they apply again to make a LBV (late bottle vintage), which continues to age for 6-8 years in the vats, until it’s finally bottled and can be consumed right away but tastes much like a vintage port (and can age a further 10-20 years in the bottle if desired)
  • Single lines of olive trees demarcate and separate each quinta’s vines – like property lines
  • Sandeman plants red wild roses at the bases of olive trees lining their driveway to monitor the health of the olives, and thus the vines: if the roses die, there’s a problem (they’re more delicate and perish first if something is ailing the estate’s plants)
  • A fabulous port (or any port) is best enjoyed in a small, rather low and steep-walled port glass, and is often best paired with creamy cheeses, rich desserts, beef and fatty meats – or really anything you like 🙂

All in all, we learned more about port than we expected and came to love it even more than before. The Douro Valley is a somewhat magical place that helps each visitor create his or her own story…go see for yourself 🙂


Ex-archaeologist, business development and networking wiz, people person, aspiring author and travel writer. Loves horses, the sea, exploring, history, good food and wine, and Joe.

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