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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Guru Careers: Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager is req...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage