My husband Mark and I booked four wonderful days in Porto during our Portugal excursion. We earmarked one of those days for finding a day trip through the Douro Valley. This is the heart of Portugal’s grape growing region. We really wanted to learn first-hand how these beautiful little orbs of flavour become wine. And of course, we also wanted to sip a few wine samples along the way. 🙂
We went to the Tourist Information center in Porto and inquired about the different day trip options. There were a few to choose from, but in the end the one that caught our attention included stops at a few wineries, an olive oil tasting and lunch.
The next morning we arrived bright and early at the Tourist Information center to wait for our ride. A black SUV pulled up, and our guide for the day stepped out to open the car door for us. Somehow we were expecting a tour bus, but it was November after all, and low season. We climbed in and met the other people on the tour – one other couple. That was it: the two of us, this other couple, our driver and our guide. Pretty nice!
We weren’t on the road for long before our driver pulled over at a little coffee shop. “I can’t function without my morning coffee,” our guide announced. It turns out, we were all in the same boat. So we all ordered coffee and sweets and got to know each other a bit before getting back on the road.
Along the route we stopped to take a few photos of the rolling hills and valleys. It’s really such pretty landscape. The November morning was quite brisk though. Even the sun felt cold on our skin.
Something that we weren’t warned about beforehand, were the hairpin twists and turns the road followed. Our guide suggested that we stare straight ahead so as not to get carsick. That was a bit more difficult for us as we were sitting in the back of the car and couldn’t really see the road for the couple sitting in front of us. I don’t typically get carsick so initially I brushed off her warning, but this was a rough ride. Just when we would get our equilibrium back from turning in one direction, we would get pulled aside in the opposite direction through a new hairpin turn, then back again.
I did my best to hang on and not let my churning stomach decide my fate, but I was secretly relieved when the lady in front of me suddenly turned green and asked to stop the car. By the time we reached the first winery, my stomach ached and I was forcing back the bile threatening to rise in my throat. Wine was the last thing I wanted. I mean, look at those rolling, rolling hills, how roll-y they are, just, you know, rolling along…..
The Douro Valley is superb for grape growing, because it exists in its own micro-climate. Because of the way the valley sits, it’s protected from the cold, humid winds coming in from the Atlantic. But it also has colder winters and drier, hotter summers than along the coast. In fact, the long-running joke we heard often was that the region experiences nine months of freezing cold and three months of burning hell. The Douro Valley is also the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, going back as far as 1756 when it was established as a wine region for port wines.
The first winery we visited was Quinta Seara d’Ordens. (“Quinta” is Portuguese for winery or vineyard.)
This winery got it’s start way back in the 18th Century! They make both standard wines as well as port wines. We got a quick tour of their cellar and learned a bit about port wine production, which, after visiting the port wine caves in Vila Nova de Gaia was now old hat to us.
We then moved inside for the actual tasting. My stomach was still rolling, and even the cold November air wasn’t helping me much. Still, I tried all the wines on offer, but in between I nibbled on the dry crackers they had placed on the table in front of us, hoping they would help settle my insides a bit. Otherwise it was going to be a very long and unpleasant day. Luckily, I quickly started feeling a bit better and managed to enjoy the samplings.
I did like the festive touches they had around the tasting room, namely their little cork Christmas tree centerpiece (above) and their larger Christmas tree, decorated with paper wine caps.
We didn’t linger for long, and were soon back on the road. By this point it was time for lunch, and the tour price included the cost of lunch. We stopped at a little family-run restaurant at the top of a hill and our guide ordered several dishes for us to all share. And yes, this included more wine. Food was traditional Portuguese fare, my favourite being the codfish balls. Although the port wine-soaked cake at the end was pretty amazing too.
Our next stop was the olive oil tasting. What I didn’t realize, was that we would also be getting a tour of an olive oil museum! Now, you know a museum is either brand new, unofficial or personally-owned when they write their sign in chalk!
The name of this winery/grape juice/honey/olive oil producer is D’Origem, founded in 2001. It’s home to the quaintest little museum you will probably ever see. We learned the traditional way of making olive oil, which was not only time consuming, but not very practical.
After the workers crushed the olive fruit through the stone mill, they laid out the mashed fruit between hemp mats. This screw press would then squeeze out the oils. Needless to say, they stopped using the traditional method of olive oil extraction some time ago.
After the museum walkthrough, it was time for olive oil and wine tastings! This olive oil tasted much different from the stuff we buy at home. But then there’s that whole olive oil conspiracy where they claim much of the olive oil on store shelves isn’t authentic. Some unethical companies substitute other, cheaper oils by adding dyes to mimic the appearance of olive oil. This olive oil was definitely the real deal though.
The tasting room was pretty cool, both in temperature and in decor. There were more artifacts from wine and olive oil production in this room all laid out. The owner was in the process of having a new, bright, sunny tasting room built overlooking the Douro Valley. But I don’t know, I kind of liked the character of this room.
Our last stop on the tour was at Quinta do Tedo, located in an 18th Century estate. I think by this point we were all a bit wined and ported out!
Though we did still manage to thoroughly enjoy the 2011 Vintage Port that we got to try here. It tasted so much of Creme de Cassis (a liqueur made of black currants), that in a blind taste test one might have trouble distinguishing the two!
As the sun began to set, we piled back into the car for the long drive back to Porto.
Thankfully, driving back was much easier on our delicate stomachs. Or maybe our driver went a bit slower because of the quickly-approaching darkness and dangerous corners. Either way, no one felt sick on the return journey (maybe a little sleepy). Most importantly, we all thoroughly enjoyed this educational excursion through the Douro Valley.