I’ve visited the Douro Valley countless times and every time I go, I learn, see and experience something new. On this occasion, instead of the small group Douro Valley tours I’d previously tried, I decided to go for the private wine tour experience to see how it differs from small group or independent trips.
Mike and I were already staying in the heart of the Douro wine region but most people on Douro Valley private tours would travel from Porto to the Douro Valley, especially if it’s just a one day trip.
Because of the location of our accommodation and logistics, plus the fact that I’ve been to several amazing viewpoints in the Douro wine region already, we skipped what would normally be one of the first stops if you’re coming from Porto: São Leonardo de Galafura viewpoint.
As you can see, it’s a pretty spectacular start to a tour!
The luxury Douro tour experience
Despite having used weather forecasts in attempt to time this Douro Valley day trip for optimal weather, it was not the best day for photos, as you’ll see later, but at least the rain held off. By lunchtime, the sun was peeping through the clouds and by late afternoon, it was quite lovely.
Our guide for the day, Francisco, arrived in plenty of time for our hotel pickup in a comfortable, spacious, air conditioned car, although his tour company normally uses luxury minivans. One thing that took me a while to get used to during the day was having the car door opened for me. Once I’d learned to accept this courtesy, it made me feel quite special.
As we drove towards our first wine estate of the day, eager to explore some Douro vineyards, Francisco talked easily and knowledgeably about the history of wine making in the Douro. He took us from the Roman times, when all wine was white, through to the knowledge gained from the resident Moors that enable red wine to be produced long before they were driven out of the territory.
He pointed out the influence of the Cistercian monks in cultivating the challenging Douro landscapes, particularly once the international demand for Douro wines began to outstrip the capacity of easily farmed plots.
This is what led to the endless manmade terraces which make the Douro a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape, along with the fact that even now, most of the work still has to be done by hand as the slopes are too steep and the terraces to narrow for machines to carry out tasks, especially the grape harvest.
The resulting patchwork of patterns and colours, which changes throughout the seasons, and as the sunlight shifts throughout the day, is part of what draws me back, time and time again, to this region. And the wine, of course!
Visiting the best Douro Valley quintas (wineries) on a private tour
Most of my experiences of touring and wine tasting at Douro quintas have been as part of a small group tour so it was a treat to have exclusive access to the wine producer at our first stop, Quinta das Murças.
In fact, Francisco explained that whenever possible, his tour company chooses to only visit wine estates that offer his guests private tours, precisely for that intimate experience.
They work with several of the best wineries in the Douro Valley but of course, on a one day tour it’s not feasible to visit more than two wineries.
Note: If your heart is set on a specific winery, they will do their best to organise it but otherwise, I would let them use their local knowledge and connections to pick the most suitable ones for you.
Organic wine production at Quinta das Murças
As we drove down the cobbled driveway to the quinta, which also has 4 rooms for rent, Manuel was there to welcome us warmly. We swapped vehicles at this point so that we could go off-road through the estate’s vineyards.
The pick up truck was a slightly more rough and ready ride, with muddy floors and a whiff of dog or horses but we weren’t going to be in it for long and it certainly adds to the authenticity.
Mike and I learned that Quinta das Murças is now owned by Herdade de Esporão, one of the most prestigious wineries in the Alentejo region and one which I had visited on a trip to Evora. We were also surprised to learn that Esporão now owns Sovina, which earned a special place in our hearts as the first of many Portuguese craft beer producers.
For this Douro venture, Esporão have fully committed to getting certification as organic wine producers. In such awkward terrain, which is completely different from the flat Alentejo plains and full of its own curious microclimates, even within a 150 hectare estate like Quinta das Murças, organic wine production presents many challenges.
More so when the policy is to only cultivate 1/3 of the land – the rest is left to grow wild, allowing the native vegetation to lend its unique influences to the terroir.
Manuel explained all of this at our first stop, which overlooks the valley which gave one of their wines, Assobio, its name. Assobio means whistle and when the wind blows through the valley, that’s the sound it makes. This is an entry-level wine for which grapes are bought in to produce, provided they match the characteristics of those produced on the estate.
He went on to point out the fava beans growing between rows of vines as a natural way of introducing nitrogen into the soil, how they are using hormones to confuse insects and prevent disease, and how the grass in between vertically planted rows must be manually mown. There are no short cuts with these organic wines!
As we made our way around various plots, Manuel highlighted how the different sun exposure or access to underground water supply affects the grapes and the resulting flavours and depth of the wines.
Quinta das Murças’ production techniques are adpated to make the most of the unique attributes of each of these variations in terroir, e.g. Minas wine is matured in concrete to preserve the fresh, fruitiness of grapes grown of a plot with plenty of water.
They still use some of the traditional machinery and, as in Esporão, they also experiment with vinha da talha, i.e. clay amphorae.
Surprisingly, for a Douro quinta, only 10% of Quinta das Murças’ grape production is used for port wine, namely that from the south-facing riverside plots. The rest is turned into some rather lovely red wines.
The tasting room overlooks the Douro River and has an absolutely gorgeous wooden table that Mike and I still covet.
Of the wines we tasted, the white Assobio was light with a hint of apple, wheras the Minas was indeed fresh, as promised. We had a 2015 Reserva and a VV47 vinhas velhas field blend that were rather special as well as one 10-year tawny port, aged in the Douro rather than Vila Nova de Gaia, which makes it a little lighter than many aged tawnies.
Quinta do Crasto
This hilltop estate is one of the most distinguished quintas in the Douro wine region, having been producing wine since 1615. It has been in the family of Leonor and Jorge Roquette since 1918, a fact which is proudly represented by the impressive family crest in the wine cellars.
The house, and the infinity pool with breathtaking views over the Douro River and Valley, are still used by the family so the pool is not for winery visitors to use but you can take pictures and dream when the family are not using it.
Because of timings, we started our visit at Quinta do Crasto with the wine tasting, sharing a table in a living room in the family house with a Portuguese couple who had just finished touring the estate and were happy to have company and a chat. In mild weather, the tastings can also be done on the terrace to fully appreciate the views as well as the wine.
Like us, the Portuguese couple were not overly fond of the rosé but I’ve always preferred reds. A big hit with everyone was the Reserva Vinhas 2017, another vinhas velhas field blend with around 30 grape varieties. The Crasto Superior Red 2016, which is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Sousão, was also worthy of the name ‘superior’.
We also tasted an aged tawny port but my favourite was the smooth, delicate violet velvetiness of the LBV 2015.
I forget the name of our guide but she was incredibly knowledgeable, not only of the estate but wines in general, pitching her stories well without overloading us and able to answer any technical questions with ease.
Like Quinta das Murças, Quinta do Crasto has shifted production away from port wine. Nowadays, 80% of their grapes from this estate and their 156 hectares upstream in Foz Côa are used for red wines, while 10% are for port and the remaining 10% for white wine.
Aside from the family crest, one of the striking things about their wine cellar is the way the barrels are stacked; not piled on top of each other as in most wineries I’ve visited but supported in individual metal racks. This means they can be turned from time to time to maximise the contact between the wine and the oak. And they’re easier to swap out as needed.
Paired lunch at a Douro restaurant
In between visiting those two wineries, we had a wonderful lunch at Cozinha da Clara, which is part of Quinta de la Rosa, a wine este near Pinhão with enviable views of the Douro River.
Note: If you take a private tour of the Douro Valley, you can opt to go to a restaurant of your choice or to have a leisurely lunch with paired wines at a contemporary restaurant or a farm-to-table meal, again with paired wines.
Although I was aware of Cozinha da Clara’s excellent reputation, I hadn’t eaten there so I was very excited about the lunch experience.
After being graciously welcomed and settled at our table, we were given a sharing plate of moist meat cake – a local delicacy – and olive oil.
I am very fussy about fatty meat so I was wary of the crispy belly pork starter with pumpkin but it actually turned out to be delicious. The accompanying Passagem white wine was perfect.
We then had cod and mash followed by Iberian pork with barley and mushroom risotto, which was memorably tasty, as was the Passagem Reserva red wine.
I wasn’t sure I’d have room for dessert but how could I resist the pumpkin flan, especially when served with a 10-year tawny port.
Tip: If you choose the lunch experience, don’t have a big breakfast or make plans for a large evening meal. It’s delicious and filling!
What about a Douro boat trip or other customisations?
Given that we’d visited two wineries and had the long lunch, plus the fact that I’ve already been on a few boat trips on the Douro, we chose to end the day by being dropped off at our wine hotel after visiting Quinta do Crasto.
It is, of course, possible to include a boat trip, whether it’s in a traditional wooden rabelo boat that’s shared with other passengers or a private boat just for you but be aware that you may not have time to fit in all of the above espiecally if you’re on a one day Douro Valley day trip from Porto.
Likewise, if you are keen to do a short hike, or perhaps a longer one if you are spending a few days in the Douro Valley, the tour operator can customise a tour to incorporate this. They can even take care of the accommodation arrangements if you prefer, or you can use my guide to where to stay in the Douro to book your own lodgings.
The benefit of leaving the scheduling and driving to the experts is that you can just relax and enjoy the experience – they will handle the logistics as well as any adjustments to timings that may become necessary as the day flows.
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