Douro Valley, Portugal: Harrowing drive pays off

Douro Valley, Portugal

Wow, I can see why the Douro Valley has received such great press lately.  It is probably the most dramatic and beautiful wine region in the world.  Views are spectacular.  Vineyards are planted on steep terraces that hug the Douro River.  But, this all comes at a price.  The drive on the other hand, is harrowing.  And, especially when your rental car company gives you a car with almost no brake pads.  (thank you Avis, this will be our last rental).  Also, we traveled in September when every second vehicle is a huge tanker that almost wipes a small car off the road.  It was all worth it though.

A couple of recommendations:

Tastings:  Should be pre-booked and I highly recommend both Quinta do Seixo and Quinta do Bomfim.  You might not have heard of these Quintas (wineries) but you probably are familiar with the brands they produce.

Quinta do Seixo (Sandeman)

Excellent tour by guide dressed as “the Don”, Sandeman’s marketing icon with black cape and wide brimmed hat.  The welcome center is very high end and definitely ready for visitors. The guide takes you through the production process, explains the branding and then finally into a tasting room of sorts overlooking the dramatic steep vineyards and river.  It was a real treat to be there in September to actually see the lagares at work.  These are the machines that simulate foot treading and this is how the grapes are carefully processed.  We had a tasting of the white port, a ruby and tawny.  With so many port houses, this was a great tour to really understand the depth and history of the Sandeman brand.  I will never look at “the Don” the same way again!   If you are just traveling to Porto, they also have a tasting room at Vila Nova de Gaia, but this by no means replaces what you’ll get by visiting the Quinta.

Mindy Joyce WineryCritic Sandeman Douro Valley

Sandeman WineryCritic 2

Sandeman WineryCritic 3

Harvesting at Quinta do Seixo WineryCritic

Harvesting at Quinta do Seixo

Lagares at Quinta do Seixo WineryCritic

Quinta do Seixo WineryCritic

Quinta to Seixo 2 WineryCritic

Sandeman tasting room WineryCritic

Sandeman WIneryCritic

Quinta do Seixo
Tabuaço
5120-495, Valença do Douro
Portugal
visitas.seixo@sandeman.com
Tel: +351-254 732 800

Quinta do Bomfim (Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s)

As it started to rain we ventured over to Quinta do Bomfin in Pinhao.  This is a working winery and also a brand new visitor’s center owned by the famous Symington Family.  They have a 14 generation history of being port shippers and producers in the Douro Valley.    We loved our tour guide here and she spent a lot of time with us walking us trhough the family history, the production area (lots going on that day as it was in the middle of harvest), the lagares and finally the tasting room overlooking the River Douro.  I felt this tour was a lot more personalized and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable.

Quinta do Bomfim tasting room WineryCritic

Quinta do Bomfim WineryCritic 3

Wines at Quinta do Bomfim WineryCritic

Lagares at Bomfim WineryCritic

Quinta do Bomfim
5085-060 Pinhão (Alijó)
Portugal
Tel: +351 254 730 350

Rental cars:

We booked through Auto Europe in the US and I cannot say enough about their level of service.  As a broker for car companies in Europe they fought on our behalf to get compensation from Avis due to the fault brakes.  We finally did get some money refunded.

Other things to note:

  • By EU law wines labeled as “Port” and sold in Europe can only come from the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal. What is shocking is that the word “Port” is not actually protected in the rest of the world. In my mind I don’t see why people would buy anything but Port from Portugal – and it is beyond me why wineries outside of Portugal continue to market “Port” and cannot come up with their own names for a red fortified wine.
  • Pinhão is just a small town, don’t expect too much
  • Be wary of bed and breakfasts that have amazing views. We experienced one of these during our stay and I would not want to go back. The roads to get up to them are a bit scary, there is little or no parking, and honestly you are just paying for the view.  It is a real pain to venture out at night to find a restaurant when you are staying far away from everything.  We booked one and cut our stay short as the rooms were sub-standard and food was poor.  In hindsight, I would book a place near the river that is easy to drive to and close to the Quintas.
  • What is Port anyway? It is a wine that is fortified to become about 20% alcohol and tastes on the sweeter side, or off-dry.  It can be red (or tawny) or white and is perfect with cheeses or by itself.  There are many variations of Port depending on the aging process, length and vintage.
  • The Douro Valley has far more than Port wines, and also produces some excellent dry wines as well

Have you been to the Douro?  What quintas did you visit and what would you recommend?