There are several properties on the World Heritage list that celebrate historic and famous wine-producing regions. My fairly well-known affinity for wine notwithstanding, I have never managed a visit to one of those sites that would actually revolve around wine. Which made our day-trip to Alto Douro the first of a kind: a wine-tasting trip that allowed me to chalk up one more entry to the visited list.
Alto Douro is the part of the river valley where natural conditions conspired to create a unique environment for wine production that dates back over 2,000 years. Fortified wine – the port – may be the signature product, but various kinds of table wine have been becoming more prominent since about the middle of the last century.
The stretch of the river between the towns of Peso da Régua and Pinhão is the heart of the region, possessing both the most dramatic landscapes and the highest concentration of wineries (called quintas in Portuguese). We planned our time around driving along that stretch (less than 30 kilometers in length), with several targeted stops for exploring and taking in the scenery.
Régua is veritably the gateway to the area, as illustrated by the river cruise ships in the shot below.
The main attraction in town is the Museum of Douro, a very thorough – without being overwhelming – overview of the history as well as the modern process of winemaking in the region. A rabelo boat, native to the area, greets visitors at the entrance.
Historically, the grapes were grown on the mountain terraces along the river and transported after harvest to the caves in Porto on these boats for fermentation and aging. Nowadays, the boats are solely used as river cruising tourist attractions.
This wall illustrates the range of the wines and spirits produced in Douro.
Leaving Régua, on the way to our first winery stop, we came across the river locks and lingered while a cruise ship navigated through.
After that, it was a leisurely string of quintas to visit and wines to sample.
At Quinta do Tedo, in addition to a tasting flight of table wines, we had a lunch on the terrace with a pretty incredible view.
At Quinta do Panascal, we took advantage of the self-guided audio tour around the vineyard.
The narration of the guide emphasized the space constraints of growing grapes on the steep slopes of the valley mountains. There are three distinct landscaping methods to plant grapes: walled terraces, platforms, and vertical planting. The terraces are the most traditional and most eye-catching, each bearing just one or two rows of vines.
Here is an inside view of one.
On the opposite slope, we could see examples of all three methods together: small platforms below larger vertical plots, with terraces higher above.
The next visually unexceptional shot has value on account of a cinematic icon of my youth. These are the stone vats used for crushing and pressing grapes. Now tell me the first image that pops into your head upon hearing the words “pressing grapes”. For anyone with the cultural background similar to mine, it has to be Celentano in Il Bisbetico Domato.
At Quinta do Seixo, sitting high above the river, we sipped our wine while gazing at the sweeping views of the valley.
Finally, at Quinta das Carvalhas, we enjoyed another superb tasting flight in an old-world-accented lounge.
Peso da Régua is reachable in a little over an hour and a half by car from Porto. Four or five wineries will probably be a one-day limit for practically everyone, so for those who want to try more, an overnight stay in Pinhão might be an option. Most wineries offer walk-in tastings; if you want to take a guided tour, you may need to reserve in advance and plan to arrive at a specific time (Quinta do Panascal mentioned above is the exception).