Though wine has been made in Portugal since Roman times, the country’s spirits industry is experiencing a rapid rebirth as the world discovers its distinctive and increasingly acclaimed wines, especially from the renowned region of the Douro Valley, where the country’s eponymous Ports are made.
Thanks to more and more direct flights from the U.S. to Europe, and Portugal’s location in the far west of the continent, getting to this fascinating and delightful destination is easier and faster than ever, making a week-long wine discovery vacation is the perfect getaway.
Start your journey in the place where Portugal’s most renowned wines come from (and where it gets its name!), Oporto, or Porto as English speakers call it. This picturesque seaside city sits on the dramatic hillsides at the mouth of the Douro River, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 thanks to its stunning baroque architecture, scenic riverside geography and distinctive cultural heritage.
Though InterContinental recently opened a property in the heart of the old city, plan your stay on the opposite side of the river in the Vila Nova di Gaia neighborhood where some of the most famous Port houses are, at the new, luxury, wine-focused Yeatman Hotel.
The Yeatman features 82 lavish guest rooms with plush amenities like enormous marble bathrooms, Caudalie bath products, flat-screen TVs, high-speed WiFi, and each also comes with an expansive patio or balcony boasting gorgeous views of the city. Dick’s Bar offers an extended list of local benchmark wines and Ports, and the hotel’s restaurant serves a seasonal menu of gourmet regional delicacies.
Spend your days here tasting the Ports at the big-name Port lodges (many are here since until the 1970s, all Port wines had to be aged and sold from Vila Nova di Gaia) like Sandeman’s, Graham’s and Taylor’s; each has several tours a day through their ancient cellars and spectacular guest tasting and tourism facilities.
Also consider a stop at the Instituto dos Vinhos do Porto, the local wine governing council, to visit the small but informative museum, and to learn about the region’s history and its wines. You might go there thinking Port is just for old British ladies, but you’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation (and likely a taste for) these intriguing fortified wines.
While in Porto, make time to walk across the river on the graceful Dom Luis I Bridge, designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples in the 19th century. Also visit the major sites like the soaring Cleric’s Tower, the beautiful woodwork and ornate golden altar at the Church of Sao Francisco, and the neo-Gothic Lello bookstore, which is said to have inspired Ollivander’s Wand Shop from Harry Potter. Consider a jaunt to the tony beachside suburb of Foz for a meal of nouvel Portuguese cuisine at Cafeina.
Take the train or drive about two hours due east of Oporto to get to the heart of the Douro Valley and the town of Regua. Settle in for a long, leisurely lunch at the upscale Castas e Pratos restaurant situated in an old railway warehouse where you can dine on local specialties like house-made sausage made from pigs raised in the nearby Tras-o-Montes mountain range; or slow-cooked kid with fresh fava beans.
Spend a night at the boutique 14-room wine lodge of Quinta da Pacheca just across the river from town and surrounded by verdant vineyards. The family that owns this small winery were some of the pioneers in making modern, non-fortified wines the area, and these days winemaker and co-owner Maria Serpa is one of the most respected figures in the industry. You can try several of her vintages including a full-bodied but agile Tawny 10-Year at the tasting room, or over dinner in the hotel’s swanky private dining room.
Time to head even further into the Douro Valley to try the wines at several boutique wineries including Quinta do Tedo along a gorgeous little tributary river on the Douro’s south bank for its robust vintage Ports; and the full roster of award-winning still and fortified wines at Quinta de la Rosa, which also has a small bed and breakfast on the property right outside the hamlet of Pinhao, which is known as the cradle of the Douro.
While out in this part of the Douro, you have your choice of accommodations. Spend the night at the lovely Casa das Pipas bed and breakfast that is on the property of Quinta do Portal in the hills above Pinhao, with an aquamarine pool surrounded by vines, and a winery that was designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Alvaro Siza, as well as a full-service gourmet restaurant.
Or travel back west along the north bank of the Douro and wind your way into the hills to stay at the historical property of Quinta Nova, some of whose restored buildings were erected in the mid-18th century. Here you can enjoy local foodstuffs like honey fig jam or house-made olive oil and corn bread on a bougainvillea-shaded terrace overlooking the river; or go on a self-guided hike through the dramatically terraced vineyards.
Wherever you decide to stay, though, be sure to make a reservation for lunch right on the river at DOC, one of local celebrity Chef Rui Paula’s restaurants. He has perfected his own style of modern Portuguese cuisine with dishes like octopus carpaccio with a parmesan tuile, and juicy pork with celery pure and sautéed green asparagus...along with Douro DOC and Port pairings, of course.