In May 2016 my Portugal Wine Tour, based in Oporto, took us up the Douro Valley, south to the Dāo region and north to the Minho.
Up the Douro Valley by train
Following a welcome dinner at the Aurora restaurant in Porto on the previous night, on Thursday we took the train east and inland. I first took this rail journey in 2007 and it is a truly wonderful way of seeing the incredible steep landscape of the Douro Valley. The train weaves its way along the riverside – at some points it almost feels like you are floating on the water.
At Pinhao station the bus was on hand for the short transfer to Quinta do Panascal – the historic Fonseca property. After a walk around the vineyards we settled in for the tasting.
Kicking off with the Sciroco white port, we then contrasted ruby ports, tasted the difference between 10 and 20 year old tawny and finished off with the 2012 Guimarens vintage. Over lunch we sampled more white Port as an aperitif, and drank Quinta do Crasto white and red with a fresh prawn salad followed by a traditional pork dish and a chocolate mousse to finish. And of course it was back onto the tawny with coffee.
From the impressive surroundings of the Quinta do Panascal, we headed over to the tiny hamlet of Barro. Here we met the delightful Maria da Assuncao Foy who owns the tiny two hectare Terrus estate. Here, they only make one wine, a red made from Touriga Nacional. We had the amazing opportunity to taste consecutive vintages from 2005 (their first) through to 2009 and witness the evolution of the wine both from an ageing perspective as well as the effect of specific weather conditions within each vintage. It was a wonderful tasting in another beautiful setting.
Another contrasting day in the Dāo
The historic Dāo region was our destination on Friday as we headed south of Porto. Dāo has a very different feel to the Douro Valley with lots of forest interspersed with vineyards. Various hill ranges give a natural protection from the elements and the region is very much on the up in terms of wine quality.
We stopped first at Casa de Mouraz, a small, 12 hectare, organic and biodynamic estate run by husband and wife team – Sara Dionisio and Antonio Ribeiro. We took a lovely walk around a selection of their vineyards getting a deep insight into their philosophy and approach. Sara’s passion for her vines was totally engaging, it transmits into their wines, and we enjoyed a fabulous tasting accompanied by some delicious local meats and cheese.
We tasted white and red blends of different local grapes, contrasting ages of the top white variety ‘Encruzado’ and finished off with their amazing Elfa, a blend of over 20 local red varieties from an 80 year old vineyard.
From here the coach took us to Mortagua. Here we met Nuno Cancela de Abreu of Boas Quintas. I first came here in 2007 and it is a fascinating story of a family company that has grown rapidly over the past few years culminating in a spanking new winery that opened last September. After a quick tour we headed over to the historic family home for a tasting and lunch.
The Boas Quintas wines are brilliantly made and celebrate local grape varieties – particularly the excellent Touriga Nacional and Tinto Roriz (Tempranillo) and whites Arinto and Encruzado. Lunch was amazing. Nuno’s wife Maria laid on a fabulous traditional lunch of pea soup, braised pork cheeks and a rich crème brulee, which we ate in their beautiful family dining room.
Deep into the countryside in the Minho, and back to Porto for dinner
Quinta da Aveleda was our first stop on Saturday morning. Aveleda produce over 15 million bottles but are still family owned and possess beautiful historic grounds, gardens and buildings near Peñafiel on the edge of the Minho region.
We walked through the gardens, with stunning water features, follies, lawns and flower beds – full of colour and vitality. We then tasted a range of well-made wines from Vinho Verde, the Douro and Bairrada, and finished with a first on tour – brandy before midday!
In Estrada do Lourido, just to the north of Amarante Fernando Fernandes has created an idyllic spot. Quinta das Escomoeiras is simply beautiful. Miles from anywhere, with nine rooms for bed and breakfast, a two hectare organic wine estate, walking paths down to the Tamego river, stunning vegetable gardens, encounters with wild pigs and a chance to meet the horse and donkey. It was the perfect place to relax and unwind after a hectic few days with a few glasses of red, white and rose Vinho Verde wines and a delicious light lunch.
Suitably refreshed and relaxed, it was back to the hotel for a quick change and off to the famous Taylors Port Lodge, on the hill in Vila Nova de Gaia, looking over Porto. Dinner was a broccoli and mushroom ravioli soup followed by a rich pork loin. Of course we managed some cheesecake and tawny port…….
A final port tasting on the final day
Occasionally our return logistics allow us to add to our experiences on our final day. So on Sunday it was back to Taylors for the full tour. We explored the historic Port Lodge picking up some really useful information and for many the complexities of Port were becoming a lot simpler.
A fabulous tasting ensued: 10 year Old Tawny, LBV 2011, Quinta da Vargellas 2002 and then the luxurious 1965 – a single vintage tawny that had been wood for 50 years – a snip at 250 euros and utterly delicious!
Portugal is a wonderful wine producing nation, and it is impossible to do it justice on a relatively short trip, but I think we did pretty well.
Despite hot weather and some fairly arduous terrain in most places we visited (including Porto itself!), we had a fantastic opportunity to get out among the vines and to enjoy some truly wonderful countryside, and we managed to generate a good appetite that was well sated by the generosity of the spreads of wine and food our hosts provided.
Most striking to me since our last visit nearly 10 years ago, is the increase in wine quality without any compromise of local character. Many of us were tasting varieties for the first time, and I know that everyone came away with a transformed view of the diversity and quality of Porgugese wines. I look forward to returning again and again to explore this wonderful country further.
“We would like to say how much we enjoyed the whole experience. We had a fantastic time.” – Mandy and Chris Hipkins, Dorchester on Thames