From Porto we headed west in to the wine region famous for being the home of Port Wine, and the oldest demarcated wine region. Just as wines from areas outside of Champange, France just sparkle, Port must come from the Douro Valley. But, there is more wine in the region than just the fortified varieties. There is also a lot of olive oil produced here too.
The region is beautiful with a wide, meandering river and terraced hillsides rising up both sides. Early November was well past the harvest this year, but many vines still wore leaves resplendent in their fall colors. We had mild and sunny days for most of our visit.
The wine region not only has all of the production and process rules in place for centuries, it is also a UNESCO site which means tradition is very important. So, grapes are harvested by hand by the women and carried out of the vineyards in baskets by the men. This method is also necessary because of the tight rows and steep inclines in many vineyards-known as Quintas. Many of the vineyards still have the stone walled terraces built by the Romans when they first came to the region in the 2nd century BC. The stone walled terraces are not only historic, they reduce erosion, which is a problem in newer vineyards that are not installing them.
Another tradition is the stomping of the grapes. Not every vineyard or vintage is done this way, but at Quinta da Foz the charming woman helping us select wine proudly declared their wine was made this way. They had some photos of men stomping the grapes and Dan asked where the photo of her stomping grapes was. She said it was a job for men and their big feet!
We learned some other stuff about wine too. They use American root stock because it is resistant to a pest that damages European root stock. There is a fungus that will affect the vines that also hits roses, and shows up earlier on the roses. So, some vineyards have rosebushes planted around the grapes so they know if they need to treat for the fungus. Our guide called them the sacrificial lambs for the wine.
It takes about 3 years for a vine to get rooted and start producing, then the vine will supply a lot of grapes. As the vine matures the quality increases, but the quantity goes down. Old vines, we have learned on previous winery visits, are highly valued and by old they mean over 30 years. Here in the Douro they have vines which are producing at over 100 years.
The vineyards, especially those which grow grapes primarily for Port wine have the varieties intermingled. The winery tour guide may have explained why, but he was also telling jokes and neither of us can remember the reason. Several of the wines we tasted are blends with 20 or more grape varieties in them.
Olive oil is another major product of the region. The olive trees are often planted at the boundaries of vineyards and, increasingly, in place of vineyards as they require less work and money to maintain and harvest. On a tour of the area we visited an olive oil collective and learned about the old process for pressing the fruit. During that tour we learned the difference between “regular” processed and cold processed oil. Cold process is newer, and a much easier and shorter process, which also results in better oil. Apologies to anyone who runs in to us in real life over the next bit, because the factoids I learned are sure to be brought up in conversation.
Our home base for exploring the region was Pinhão, but one day we took the train to Pocinho which is the end of the train line. The tracks hug the river and it was well worth the 2 hour round trip. We got off in Tua, the stop just past Pinhão and hiked a trail laid out as a school project during COVID, which was both a feat and perfect assignment given the lock downs and social distancing in 2020.
On the surprisingly full train from Pocinho, someone broke out an accordion in the car behind us and played some lively music as we rolled along beside the Douro River. They were in the car behind us, but opening the connecting door we could hear the music and even see a bit of the aisle dancing that was going on. This might be Dan’s favorite story of the trip!
When we were planning our trip to Pinhão one of the lodging choices was a houseboat. I was intrigued but would not have booked it left to my own devices. After I mentioned the choice to Dan he was all in! “Of course we should stay on the houseboat! Think of the experience.” So, we spent the week on a really nice, tiny, but nice houseboat. After we adjusted to the realities of a marine toilet and figured out how to get in and out of the bunk beds we settled in and enjoyed the gentle sway of our space.
Another view of our houseboat!