Take your pick of Portugal

The stunning vineyards of the Douro Valley were first cultivated hundreds of years ago. Now they've been enhanced by state-of-the-art hotels and restaurants

I'm hanging on for dear life in the back of an open-topped 4x4. As we bump recklessly over slate and schist, climbing up the impossibly steep vineyards of Quinta do Vallado, I'm struck by one thought; the 17th-century Portuguese must have been desperate for a drink. What else could have driven them to stitch the Douro Valley's undulating contours with countless narrow walled terraces, enabling them to plant vines and irrigate with the rain that would otherwise have run straight off the hillsides?

Whatever their motivation, looking down the valley to the Corgo, a tributary of the Douro river that runs through Vallado's vineyards, I'm very glad they made what must have been a back-breaking effort, especially in a climate where temperatures can range from -10C in the winter to 40C in the summer. It's a glorious sight, one of the most distinctive landscapes of any wine-growing region in the world. It's worth any amount of hair-raising discomfort to see.

Vallado is quintessential 21st-century Douro, fusing centuries-long tradition with startling modernism. I'm staying in the luxurious new wing of the quinta's wine hotel (which also occupies the 18th-century manor house) that has been designed by Portuguese architects Menos é Mais, who also created the new winery and cellar. The low-rise, minimalist slate buildings are true to their designer's name (which means "less is more") and could easily be mistaken for one of the practice's urban contemporary arts centres.

Set 150km east of Porto in northern Portugal, the vineyards of the Douro Valley are planted along the banks of the Douro and its tributary rivers between Régua in the west of the region and Barca d'Alva in the east near the border with Spain. Although there's evidence of viticulture dating back to Roman times, the region flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of its special relationship with Britain, a historical ally against the Spanish. The nation had developed a thirst for sweet port wine, especially when war broke out between England and France in 1689 and French wine was strictly off limits.

Until 1986, it was mandatory for port wines to be matured and stored in the lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, the city that stands opposite Porto on the south bank of the Douro river, meaning that all wine produced would be blended and fortified with brandy and sold as branded port. But a change in the law meant that the producers could sell their own wines direct to market, thereby encouraging the production of table wines and kick-starting the process of modernisation.

One of the oldest quintas (estates) in the region, Vallado, grew grapes for nearly 200 years solely for the production of port, the fortified wine synonymous with the valley. But in 1993, they began making red and white table wines too. In 2002 they caused a stir in the wine world when they joined up with four other forward-thinking wineries (Quinta do Crasto, Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Quinta do Vale Meao), to launch the Douro Boys, an initiative to promote the quality still wines of the region.

A winery tour reveals old and new cheek by jowl. Some of the grapes are still trod by foot in granite vats or lagares, but the majority are now trampled by mechanical legs. "They don't get tired and they don't need feeding," says my guide Francisco Cabral, Vallado's marketing manager.

Following the Douro river east, I see a similar system at Sandeman's impressive visitor centre at Quinta do Seixo. Coachloads of tourists are greeted by guides dressed in capes and wide-brimmed hats to mimic the The Don, who appears in silhouette on the Port house's labels and who was portrayed by Orson Welles in a series of 1970s TV commercials. It's a kitsch touch and out of keeping with the otherwise coolly sleek surroundings.

I'm led through dramatically (ie dimly) lit corridors past glass-fronted cellars with barrels and bottles on display, then up an imposing stone stairwell to a screening room. There's a short film on the history of the company, then the screen lifts to reveal a dozen huge lagares with the mechanical treading apparatus suspended above them. Now that harvest time is getting underway, they'll be busily pumping and squashing grapes for bottling.

The tour ends with a port tasting in the smart lounge bar that wouldn't look out of place in a modern five-star hotel. I sip on port tonics made with white port (from white grapes), tonic water and a slice of locally grown, aromatic lemon and take in yet another stunning view of the river and the valley and its vineyards. I would have happily settled into my comfortable armchair for the afternoon, had there not been the prospect of a world-class lunch just a few kilometres back down the river.

I arrive at Restaurant DOC by minibus, but you could just as easily tether your luxury cruiser to the jetty. It's a little too windy to dine on the terrace, but there are nevertheless stunning river views from my table through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Chef Rui Paula isn't shy about his celebrity following, and I spot pictures of Bono and actress Andie MacDowell on the wall, but you can forgive a little hubris when the food is as good as this. Inexplicably, a certain tyre manufacturer's dining guide has overlooked dishes such as carpaccio of octopus and a refined take on the Portuguese speciality of suckling pig with orange for one of its starry accolades, but it can surely only be a matter of time.

Although it is the gastronomic highlight of the trip, there are many other memorable meals. Breakfast on the terrace of the Vale-Abraão restaurant in the ultra-sleek Aquapura hotel; dinner at Quinta Nova and the hotel's Conceitus restaurant where I can hardly believe that a bottle of the hotel-winery's entry-level Pomares white, made from local Viosinho, Gouveio and Rabigato grapes, is less than €6. Also, a lunch of braised kid on a sun-dappled patio at Quinta do Panascal, where I take an afternoon audio tour through the vineyards.

Before leaving the Douro, I get a different perspective of the valley, firstly from the river itself on a short water-taxi ride from Quinta do Panascal to Quinta Nova, where the water stretches out ahead of us and steep banks rear up on either side. And then from the window of a train on the brief journey from Regua to Pinhão, which hugs the river's edge and offers panoramic views of the vineyards.

The Douro has a lot to offer serious oenophiles, but it's also an ideal destination if you've never visited a wine region before. History and tradition vie for your attention with cutting-edge luxury, the wines are complex yet delicious and approachable and there are excellent and unintimidating winery tours on offer. And everywhere, those stunning views.

Getting there

Andy Lynes travelled as a guest of Discover the Origin (020-7395 7199; discoverthe origin.co.uk). He flew with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick to Porto. Porto is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com).

Staying there

Hotel Rural Quinta Nova, Covas do Douro (00 351 969 860 056; quintanova.com). B&B from €126.

Quinta do Vallado, Vilharinho dos Freires, Peso Da Regua (00 351 254 318 081; quintado vallado.com). B&B from €120.

Staying and visiting there

Quinta do Crasto, Gouvinhas, Sabrosa (00 351 254 920 020; quintadocrasto.pt).

Niepoort, Santo Adriao (00 351 254 855 436; niepoort-vinhos.com).

Quinta Do Vale Dona Maria, Pinhao (00 351 22 374 4320; valedonamaria.com).

Quinta Do Vale Meao, Vila Nova de Foz Coa (00 351 279 762 156; quintadovalemeao.pt).

Sandeman, Quinta do Seixo, Tabuaco (00 351 227 838 104; sandeman.eu).

Restaurant DOC, Armamar (00 351 254 858 123; ruipaula.com).

Quinta do Panascal, Pinhao (00 351 254 732321; bit.ly/QuintadoPanascal).

More information

visitportoandnorth.travel

visitportugal.com

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