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The oldest wine region in Portugal, the Douro Valley is a fabulous region to explore, with unique vistas and awe-inspiring architecture. Unlike many vineyards across Europe, the vines in the Douro Valley are instantly recognisable; lying on terraces, they cascade towards down valley walls which follow the bending of the river. No other wine region has such an iconic landscape.
Of course, it’s not just the scenery that makes the Douro Valley so special, the wines created here are expertly flavoured and just burst with delicious notes. The most famous of which is Port. This wine is so delicious, that it is usually reserved for the end of the meal, when you can enjoy it without any other flavours interrupting the experience. For more info on the Douro Valley wine region, read on.
The Douro Valley lies in the north of Portugal, where temperatures are more temperate, and some might say perfect for viticulture. However, the more east you head, the less rainfall typically falls. The valley is named so due to the Douro River which snakes its way inland, creating a lush environment that its waters nourish. At the mouth of the river sits the famous city of Porto which Port is named after. The wine region is characterised by rolling hills which hide lush valleys, and a gentle climate created by the sheltering mountain ranges and the coastal influence.
The geography of the region also influences the kind of wines produced here. When creating Port, grapes are usually grown on areas with schist whilst table wines are grown with granite-based soils. Schist is prevalent across the region, offering many vital nutrients for the vines to grow. Another interesting trait of the soil is that this high schist density actually helps retain heat and water, which is vital in the more arid areas of the region.
Grapes have been grown in the Douro Valley for around 2,000 years with enough history for UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site. Wines were steadily made up until the 17th century when the industry took off and became one of the most important economic assets to Portugal. In fact, the English are actually a huge reason for this; with the long-standing alliance between the countries, England established trading hubs in Porto and began to buy the wine sold there in vast quantities to ship back home. Over time, the wine purchased here began to be known as ‘Port’ and it’s been popular ever since.
For most of the wine region’s history, growers didn’t really know what variety of grapes they were growing. Of course, some varieties naturally grew better than others, but this meant that over time the region became dominated by a few key grape types which were finally officially recorded in the 1970s. As rainfall decreases from west to east, there is a gradual change in grape varieties in the Douro Valley. Usually, in more arid areas, grapes have thicker skins to prevent drying out.
The three most common varieties you’ll hear winemakers talk about are the Touriga Nacional, the Touriga Francesca, and the Tinta Barroca. The Touriga Nacional tends to grow well on stony soils which are shallow and bathed in sunlight. Thought of as difficult to manage, the grape was actually almost extinct before revival attempts began in the 1970s. However, it’s known for producing the darkest and richest wines.
Touriga Francesca grows better in more fertile areas and sheltered from strong winds. As such, it’s one of the most widely cultivated grapes in the Douro. Known for producing lighter ports than the Nacional, many believe it has a certain ‘finessing’ effect to its wines that other grapes can’t add. Recently, there has been a trend of growing these grapes for unfortified wines, showcasing the changing and dynamic atmosphere of the Portugal wine scene.
Tinta Barroca actually thrives on cooler slopes with less sunlight. As the Douro Valley has countless sub-climates, there’s a grape variety that’s perfect for any condition. Although more susceptible to the heat, this grape produces fantastic wines with a distinctive earthy flavour. This is also one of the first grape varieties in the season to ripen.
Although the Douro Valley produces many varieties of wine, most flock to the region to experience the delicious Port. A fortified wine it’s often sweet and red, but drier, white varieties are also made. Many fortified wines are made around the world with similar techniques to the Douro Valley, but they cannot be called Port unless they have been made in Portugal.
Almost all bottles of Port have been grown from grapes in the Douro wine region, and the characteristic sweet flavour is due to a unique process. To stop any more fermentation in the wine, which uses up sugar, a spirit is added. This leaves the wine with more sugar than table-wine and subsequently has lead to Port being served as dessert. The best way to enjoy Port, in our opinion, is with some nuts, cheese, or local chocolate.
If you want to experience this fascinating wine region, our Historic Douro Valley cycle tour is a great fit for you. Leisurely pedal past the cascading vineyards, visiting Port Houses and charming towns, before finally arriving in the shining city of Porto. With the help of your trusty e-bike, you’ll only see the hills of this region as fantastic viewpoints as opposed to hard work.
For more information on the Douro Valley wine region, call our cycle experts today. Alternatively, you can view our Douro Valley cycling holidays here.
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