I am just returning from a seven-day trip to Porto and the Douro valley in Northern Portugal, but my head is filled with so many images and memories—it feels like I spent a full month there. I took a short trip to Porto back in 2009, but this time, I went out of town to tour the Douro region, which is the wine-producing valley that borders the Douro River east of Porto.
To be honest, I knew little about the Douro region or Portuguese wines before I arrived, but if you’ve been following me on Instagram, you know how smitten I am with the region now. Few places have touched me as deeply in such a short amount of time as Northern Portugal has. What makes it so special? Well, the right question is: Where do I begin?
Here are three obvious but compelling reasons you should consider adding Northern Portugal to your travel radar.
The view from the terrace at Quinta do Pessegueiro.
No choice but to mention the scenery when talking about the Douro. It’s the first thing that takes your breath away and the one vivid image that follows you back home. Sun-kissed rolling hills as far as the eye can see! Thousands of man-made wine terraces unfurling like ribbons! Red-roofed houses perched on seemingly unsuitable terrain! Spectacular sunsets! Jade-colored river undulating through it all! Everything’s worthy of superlatives in the Douro—it’s no surprise the entire region is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The region’s roads wind through those beautiful hills, forcing everyone to adjust to the local rhythm. If you come here with the city’s stress flowing through your veins, I guarantee you’ll leave with a healthier heart rate. Because of the region’s geography, a place that looks like it’s in spitting distance can take an hour to reach. But what’s the rush anyway? Slow down and enjoy the view because it’s a huge part of what makes the Douro so magical.
The view from the terrace at Ramos Pinto’s Quinta do Bom Retiro.
Most people who think of Portuguese wines think port wines, and most people who think of port wines think Porto. Although those associations are not completely wrong, they’re not exactly entirely correct either.
First, port houses are not located in Porto per se; they’re actually across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Then, the port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia are not in fact wine-producing establishments but rather storage facilities. Finally, port wines are, yes, a big part of the wine production in Northern Portugal, but the region also creates amazing red and white wines.
Considering how renowned port wines are, it can be surprising to discover how the process of making them is still largely artisanal. Many Douro wineries are family run, grapes are often harvested by hand—the steep terrain and narrow grape-growing terraces simply won’t allow machines to run through—and grapes destined to vintage ports are crushed by foot. It’s a painstaking process, but it’s the care that goes into producing port wine that makes it the exceptional product it is.
Hand-picking grapes for quality at Wine & Soul.
Barrels of aging wine at Quinta do Noval.
But you should come to the Douro even if you don’t fancy fortified wines much. I’ve tasted wines of surprising width and depth in the Douro—from crisp, sophisticated whites to bold, tannic reds. This is all explained when you see the Douro landscape with your own eyes: how the sun hits each peak and crease differently along with how wine makers have cleverly shaped the land while still respecting its singularity. I did not expect such diversity, but my taste buds were spoiled.
A tasting lineup of port wines aged from 1941 to 2000, at Cálem, Porto.
Useful links to learn more about wines made in the Douro:
- History of Port, from its birth to today (Taylor Fladgate)
- An Introduction to Port Wines (IVDP)
- History of Douro Wines (Douro Valley Tourism Website)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Portuguese Wine (Serious Eats)
- Portuguese Crush: The Country’s Wines Are Food-Friendly, Affordable, and Fantastic (Saveur Magazine)
Lunch at Quinta do Carrenho.
Tasting wine (and drinking more of it than I am willing to admit) is not all there was to my week in the Douro. There was food, too—and a lot of it. Portuguese cuisine is unashamedly rich and flavorful: breads, cheeses, sausages, cured meats, soups, stews, fresh fish and seafood, and rich desserts all make for memorable meals. In the Douro, olive, almond, and fruit trees border wine terraces, so these ingredients are unsurprisingly heavily featured, too.
A typical lunch during my week in the Douro went like this:
- Assortment of snacks: cured meats, grilled sausage, nuts, olives, fritters
- Olive oil and bread for dipping
- Appetizer: soup or vegetable-based dish
- Main course: stew, baked casserole, or roasted meat, served with potatoes, rice, and salads
- Cheeses (and more bread)
- Dessert: cake, custard, pudding, or flan, served with fruits
- Coffee or tea, sometimes offered with more sweets
Pre-lunch snacks at Quinta do Pessegueiro.
Quinta do Pesseguiero’s winemaker, João Nicolau de Almeida, serving a bacalhau casserole for lunch.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I tell you our average lunches lasted over three hours. We would leave the table at 4:30 p.m. only to drive over to happy hour with more delicious bites (and wines), soon to be followed by another multicourse dinner (and more wines)!
Of course, my trip was food and wine focused, so you don’t have to indulge to such an extent—even I have to admit that it’s hard to keep such a pace for a whole week!—but you can rest assured that good food is easy to come by in Northern Portugal. The region feeds on a Mediterranean-style diet with flavors and dishes that are entirely its own.
Stuffed bread and cured meats served as pre-lunch snacks at Wine & Soul’s Quinta do Manoella.
I will write more specifically about must-try dishes in Northern Portugal. In the meantime, here are a few articles that are bound to make you hungry:
- Exploring Portugal, from Pork to Port (Epicurious.com)
- A Quick Guide to Portuguese Cuisine (The Guardian)
I’m still dizzy from all those new discoveries, and I’ll definitely need some time to assimilate and distill everything I need and want to say about my trip. I also can’t wait to dig into making Portuguese dishes at home! Stay tuned… there’s more to come.
Heartfelt thanks to the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP) and to Catavino, and more specifically to Paulo Russell-Pinto and Ryan Opaz, for guiding me through such an enchanting, unforgettable trip.Yum