The Douro Valley is one of Portugal’s most iconic destinations - and for good reason. Its incredibly steep hills are lined with terraced vineyards as far as the eye can see, plunging down to the quiet Douro river. Combine Douro Valley views with Douro Valley wines - it is truly a wonder of the word.
Terraced olive and peach orchards are scattered among the vineyards. Quintas, which are Portuguese wine producing estates - are dotted across the steep terrain - and their sheer quantity makes it clear that port and wine production are king and queen in the region. Today's overview aims to breakdown the different wines and Ports of the Douro Valley along with a explanation of its incredulbe topographuy and viticulture.
The Port Barrels at Quinta do Tedo
Along Port’s history of conception, success, adulteration and crisis, century-old rules have been enforced to help this special product maintain its high-quality reputation. Port comes uniquely from Portugal's Douro Valley and is produced according to the beneficio quota which is announced each year and depends on the global demand for Port wine, amount of Port wine in stock and quality of the upcoming harvest.
This quota differs for each Quinta depending on their vineyard’s grade, i.e. grade A vineyards receive a higher quota to produce more quality Port each year.
Besides the traditional, red Port styles - young Ruby or old Tawny Ports which are cask-aged blends of various harvests, or Vintage Ports’ bottle-aged expression of exceptional, individual harvests -- there are delicious young and old white Ports and even fun and refreshing rosé Ports!(Check out our recent post on Port styles for more!)
DOURO VALLEY'S DRY WINES
The beneficio changes every year -- in fact, it has decreased over the past decades as consumers are looking more for special category Ports and less for cheap, lower-quality Ports which make up a bulk of the market.
However, the vineyards’ don’t stop producing grapes, so what do Douro Valley’s Quintas do with the surplus of fruit that does not fit into their quota to produce Port? Douro dry wines!
Historically, Port was revered as Douro’s more profitable wine for export and most Douro dry wines were produced in cooperatives for cheap national consumption. However, after the fall of Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 1960s, independent Quintas started producing and commercializing higher-quality Douro dry wines.
With Portugal joining the European Union in the 1980s, interest in Portugal’s dry wines grew with tourism and, as the beneficio continued to limit Quinta’s Port production allowances, it became easier AND necessary for both large and small Quintas to produce more quality Douro dry wines.
A wine cellar of purely still wines in the Douro Valley
THE DOURO'S LAND
In a sea of Portugal’s granite cobblestone streets, Douro Valley in Portugal is an island of schist - blue, red, yellow and brown schist, depending on the minerals in it.
This slate-like metamorphic rock often occurs in vertical outcroppings whose cracks vineyards’ roots pry deep into searching for water and picking up minerals and “character” along the way.
Douro’s approximate 110,000 acres of vineyards (that’s about two-and-a-half times Napa Valley or half the size of Bordeaux) are split into three sub-regions and each is distinct for its climate, soil type and subsequent style of wine.
The struggle Douro’s vineyards go through to thrive in this arid and infertile land (although pockets granite and clay cover Douro’s underlying schist bedrock in some areas) and locals’ know-how in growing and vinifying the region’s 150+ native grape varieties translate into the unique complexity and quality of the Douro’s Ports and dry wines.
THE DOURO' S 150+ NATIVE GRAPE VARIETIES
Douro Valley’s 150+ native grape varieties have adapted over centuries to Douro’s hot and arid climate, and are actually quite drought- and pest- resistant, hence, organic and low-intervention viticulture practices are tradition here, not trends.
In fact, Portugal’s most noble red grape variety, Touriga Nacional, which thrives in Douro, has moved into Bordeaux’s, California’s and Australia’s vineyards as a potential contender to survive the effects of climate change!
Today, wine critics and consumers all over the world are incredibly excited about Douro’s dry red, white and rosé wines not merely as Port’s byproduct, but as shining stars on their own, bringing novel recognition and promise to this classic wine region!
The Still Wines of Quinta Nova
THE DOURO VALLEY'S SUB REGIONS
Cool, humid and lush Baixo Corgo is Douro Valley’s first sub-region past the Mourão Mountain Range, which protects Douro from the Atlantic ocean influence that has you dressing with layers and having a windbreaker or rain jacket on hand at all times in Porto.
While not the ideal climate for grade A Port vineyards, Baixo Corgo does produce fine dry white wines. In fact, Baião, Vinho Verde’s most southern sub-region that produces notoriously white, light and quaff-worthy dry wines, borders Baixo Corgo and is worth a day trip if you want to hit two wine regions in one trip.
Régua and Vila Real - Douro’s largest and most “dynamic” cities, Lamego - full of culture, and steps up to the hilltop chapel, and Armamar - Portugal’s Mountain Apple Capital are all also worth a visit.
Cima Corgo, the heart of Douro, is home to a concentration of the highest grade A vineyards, exposed to intense sunny, hot and dry weather that produce the most mature grapes for the highest quality Port, as well as more concentrated dry wines.
70% of the land here is at a 30% slope which man modified centuries ago, building stone wall terraces to grow vineyards from the banks of Douro River up to the tallest 850 m mountain tops! Here, you can visit the picturesque riverfront town of Pinhão and the quaint hilltop towns of Alijó and Favaios.
Douro Superior is Douro’s most hot and arid subregion that stretches until the Spanish border with sparse (but growing!) vineyards on higher elevation plateaus that are easier to mechanize and are becoming trendier sites for producing fresher and dryer red and white wines.
If you made it this far into Douro Valley, don’t miss the Foz Coa Archeological Park - a major site for outdoor Paleolithic rock art near the beautiful Douro Internacional National Reserve!
We hope this blog series helped your grasp the unique history and layout of Douro Valley wine region. Check our following blog series with tips about how to travel to the Douro Valley, our top recommendations for Douro Valley wineries, and Douro Valley restaurants.