Discovering great landscapes can be one of the most thrilling experiences in a lifetime. Wrenched from our urban comfort zones, our emotions go into free fall.
The Douro Valley is one of these landscapes. The grandeur of the surroundings, the sense of peace, the amazing scented air, the gentle pace of existence, everything about the Douro will make you look for excuses to return as soon and often as you can.
Sculpting nature to make stellar wines
Imagine for a moment you are a lucky eagle – a few Royal Eagles do actually live in the Douro Valley. Beneath you a huge domain of green or brown hills extends as far as your eagle eye can see, the blue band of the River Douro winding through them.
Over the centuries these hills have been sculpted by men who have created terraced vineyards, an extraordinary feat of perseverance as the hills are often impressively steep, plunging from breathtaking viewpoints into valleys far below. When in 2001 the Douro was acknowledged as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cultural Landscape this did not come as a surprise, it is probably the most beautiful wine country in Europe.
The Portuguese wine revolution
Wine has been made in the Douro Valley since Roman times. Traditionally the best grapes were used for making Port, a wonderful fortified wine which is continuing to attract the new generations of followers it deserves. Sometime around the beginning of this century, a typically gentle Portuguese revolution began to get under way: talented Portuguese and foreign wine makers started to create remarkable table wines: Douro DOC. These bottles have been seizing the attention of wine specialists and consumers all over the world. Some of the very finest have won top Wine Spectator ratings, enough to give sleepness nights to producers at venerable Bordeaux or Burgundy wine estates.
I will be writing often about the tale of this astonishing wine producing region. In the Douro Valley, I will be meeting the talented men and women who are employing innovative viticultural and wine making methods and I will be tasting these new wines and reporting to you on my findings.
As temperatures rise across the globe, grape harvesting is taking place earlier in many wine producing regions.
The Douro Valley is not being spared by this trend. On 10th August I was at Quinta do Crasto in the Cima Corgo. Their winemaker, Manuel Lobo de Vasconcelos, told me they had begun picking grapes the same day in their higher altitude vineyards. Early grape harvesting maintains good acidity levels, particularly important for the making of crisp white wines.
The same day – 10th August, Paul Symington, the head of Symington Family Estates, explained to me that their firm would be holding back from harvesting until the end of the month, or even waiting until early September. Later harvesting concentrates the sugar in the grapes, providing more intense flavours.
Although the harvesting policy varies from producer to producer, it is today no longer unusual for harvesting in the Douro to begin in August, in conditions of extreme heat that make it essential to convey the grapes to the winery as fast as possible once they have been picked.
I moved to Portugal because in the end it seemed the obvious thing to do. The people had a reputation for being friendly, there were many more days of sun than in Paris where I had been living, the beaches stretched for hundreds of golden kilometres, the food was surprisingly good … and the wine rumoured to be stellar. I was ready for some fresh challenges and Portugal seemed the perfect place to look for them.
Discovering a Portuguese treasure
All the great things that I had heard about Portugal have turned out to be true. It wasn’t though until I had been living in Portugal for over a year and had found myself a home in Mouraria, one of Lisbon’s most romantic neighbourhoods, that I discovered a great Portuguese treasure.
I had been spending a few days in Porto and a friend said why didn’t I explore the Douro Valley? So I rented a car and made a hurried day trip as this was all the time I had to spare. I somehow just hadn’t realized that I would be driving into some of Europe’s most beautiful wine country. A day trip was almost an insult to it!
This is where I need to explain that a first visit to the Douro Valley is an emotional experience so powerful that it has to be compared to falling in love. Perhaps you’ve been to Venice and remember listening to people telling you how incredible it was going to be and thinking “oh that’s such hype!”, and then when you got there you realized that all their superlatives had been understatements. Well, the Douro gives you the full Venice effect, but without the crowds.
Everything about the Douro Valley is stunning: the endless landscape so beautiful you gasp with amazement, villages from another age nestling among vineyards, delightful people and … some of the best wines being made anywhere in the world.
Deciding to join the Douro wine revolution
As I returned to Lisbon after this first visit, I already knew my future was going to be in the Douro. This was the beautiful place I had been dreaming of all the years I had lived in cities. I decided I would find a way to participate in the Douro wine revolution!