A Trip Through Time in Northern Portugal’s Wine Country

Landscape of the Douro river regionin Portugal Vineyard
The Douro Valley: Northern Portugal's timeless wine countrySimon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

Perhaps you haven’t yet heard—port is booming. Future Market Insights reports that the global port wine market is primed for a giant compound annual growth rate of 8.1 percent in the next decade. For travelers to Europe’s hottest new (but old) destination, that means the famous fortified wine’s eponymous region of Porto and the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal will be greeting even more international visitors heading to the terracotta stacked city for, among other things, a savory taste of the world’s finest ports straight from the source.

According to Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership—known for their port brands, including Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn—this shift picked up during the pandemic. “More entertaining at home meant more dinner parties and fortified wines at dessert,” explains Bridge. “As things came back, the at-home market continued.” Bridge credits port’s symbol as an aspirational drink and the lifestyle it represents to the increasing interest of the fine wine. This further opened doors to its native destination, luring those same curious customers to explore port in depth, from its terroir to its history, and complex culture. But as much as a trip to Porto includes indulging in port, there’s plenty more to see and do in between sips.

Start in Porto: About 175 miles north of Portugal’s capital of Lisbon, this port town is the second largest city in the country and one of the oldest cities in Europe. The Douro River that flows through it—winding down from the Upper Douro Valley, which used to transport port barrels to the urban warehouses—is the centerpiece dividing the populated right bank of Porto from the opposite Vila Nova De Gaia, which historically hosted the majority of port wine cellars. Today, the left bank is brimming with a contemporary flair to make it worth exploring, and even staying on.

Portugal's historic riverside town of Port
Porto on the Douro River ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Vila Nova De Gaia’s transformation—and arguably Porto’s mark on the map—was recognized by the opening of The Yeatman Hotel in 2011. The wine hotel emphasizes the destination by positioning all of its 82 rooms toward the river, outfitting them with balconies and terraces to overlook the UNESCO World Heritage city across the way (Porto). Every room is sponsored by a local winery, decorated with branded trinkets, antique bottles, and informative coffee table books to start absorbing the rich history here from the first moment you check in.

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The latest addition to the left bank is the World of Wine, or WOW, a 500,000-square-foot cultural district boasting seven interactive museums, 12 restaurants, plenty of shops, and even a wine education center. Although it opened during the midst of the pandemic, the phased opening has thus far proven a success to intrigue visitors to linger in town a little longer. Bridge explained this was a key driver in creating WOW.

“It’s always been about the destination—a catalyst for change and city-wide regeneration,” says Bridge, the brains behind both WOW and The Yeatman Hotel. “It’s about people learning to love wine, not just port, as well as tapping into the history of Porto and why humankind ever came to live in Porto.”

Table with view a wonderful view over the river in Porto, Portugal
Diana Rui / Shutterstock

You could spend an entire day at WOW, browsing the 2,000 artifacts in the Bridge Collection of drinking vessels, with the oldest receptacle dating back 9,000 years, or learning about cork at the dedicated exhibit. Fifty percent of the world’s cork is grown in Portugal and 70 percent is processed through the country—so build time into your itinerary accordingly. Another day, or multiple days, in Porto could be spent winding the medieval streets, visiting the Porto Cathedral from the 12th century, sipping vinho verde (a regional style effervescent white wine that literally translates to green wine) on the shores of the Douro, and indulging in freshly caught seafood (no end to octopus, cod, and sea bass).

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There’s also pintxos, Porto’s version of Basque small plates, including smoked ham and sausages, clams, cod cakes, gizzards, and octopus salad—and pintxos bars are the place to eat them. Try: Sagardi Porto or The Wine Box and keep an eye out for unassuming bars placing chalkboards advertising pintxos outside their doors before dinner. For larger meals, order up bacalhau (codfish) at T&C Restaurant (pro tip: ask to sit in a repurposed port cask), sizzling meats at Brasão (they also do an elevated version of Francesinha, a stack of meat and cheese that originated as a hangover cure) or splurge on a tasting menu at Tábua Rasa, specializing in 100 percent Portuguese cuisine from their cured meat boards to earth-and-sea tastings that feature canned fish boards.

Vineyards in Douro Valley, Portugal, Portuguese port wine
Vineyards in the Douro Valley silky / Shutterstock

Once you’ve established your bearings here, you’re ready to make your way to the countryside. Driving into the beloved Douro Valley is like entering a sweeping puzzle of branded hills of grape vines and olive trees. A landscape that’s truly hard to capture, it’s better to snap a video to remember it than put the technology away and surrender to the vastness of your natural environs.

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It’s here where tastings take over. Despite tour operators advertising afternoon trips, the oldest demarcated region in the world is worthy of a multi-day stay. Check into The Vintage House, a former 19th-century winery converted into a 47-room hugging the banks of Douro River, and strap on your sneakers to walk to (or cycle to) a handful of star wineries surrounding this part of the valley, Pinhão. There’s Croft’s Quinta da Roêda, where you can walk among 100-year old vines and partake in traditional foot treading of the grapes during harvest. Quinta de Bomfim is the Symington family-owned vineyard, which produces grapes for DOW’s, one of their four famed port brands. Quinta do Portal doubles as a lunch and dinner spot where you can also try their table wines with rotating seasonal dishes.

Outdoor table with selection of three different port wines in glasses.
barmalini / Shutterstock

Further afield, requiring a car or a scenic train ride are Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal, one of the first tasting rooms to open to the public (be a pro and ask for a siroco on the rocks, their white port with a twist of orange). Quinta das Carvalhas is a stunning stop to witness their vines located at various altitudes (in the morning, the misty clouds hover over the highest planted vines). And, Quinta Nova Nossa Senhora do Carmo is both a quick stop for a port and table wine tasting, as well as an overnight destination, with their onsite Relais & Châteaux hotel.

No matter where you stay in the Douro, one thing is for certain. Nothing is rushed here. You’ll need to take your time to experience all this region has to offer. Starting in Porto provides you with that platform to understand port at a deeper level. As you follow your journey into the valley, don’t forget to look up once night falls. Plopped into the center of Portugal’s Dark Sky route, the twinkling projection reminds you to slow down and reflect on your time here. If you’re lucky to catch a shooting star, wish upon it that one day you’ll be back.

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