Not really. But if that’s all the time you have to explore the Douro Valley, a one day tour will give you a taste of its beauty, culture and gastronomy that will linger in your memory and make you yearn to return. The easiest way to do this is on a day trip from Porto but see below for options if you have more time.
Douro Valley wine tours vary so consider what you’re most interested in experiencing before booking. Most Douro day trips will include a visit to at least one winery, with tastings, and a boat trip on the river. Some may take you to one of the towns or villages in the Douro and they may or may not include lunch.
I gladly accepted an invitation to join a luxury small group tour which involved two traditional wineries, a river trip and a wonderful restaurant.
Even though I’ve been to the Alto Douro wine region several times, I learned local secrets and more about the influence of port wine on the landscape and culture, had special tasting experiences and discovered some terrific places to visit.
Tailored history of the Douro Valley
Instead of launching into a set script about the Douro Valley and its wines, Ana, our guide for the day, found out how much we already knew, which port wines we had tasted and what we would be most interested in trying. Since we all had some knowledge of port wine, she skipped some of the basics and tailored her stories to suit our group.
During the 2-hour drive from Porto to Pinhão, I learned how the age-old animosity between Britain and France led to the creation of port wine and how the valley’s vineyards spread up the hillsides on man-made terraces as demand grew, transforming the topography.
‘Generous’ wines – a local secret
Douro Valley families had been producing wine for their own consumption for centuries and had no need to preserve it. However, Douro wine destined for the Brits had to be fortified so that it would still be palatable after the journey overseas. Hence the creation of port wine, so-called because it came from the port of Porto.
At some point, the practice of adding aguardente (brandy) to wine caught on and people in the Douro began keeping their own barrel of vinho generoso (fortified wine). They top up the barrel with fresh wine each year so, unlike official port wine which is heavily regulated to meet strict quality control standards, each household’s vinho generoso is always unique.
While other passengers on the 1-hour boat trip we took up and down the Douro River were sipping an LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) port, Ana poured us her own family’s vinho generoso to try. Tawny in colour and cloudy from centuries-old sediment, it tastes sublime. The sediment itself is worth a fortune and is highly sought after by those who want to start their own vat of vinho generoso.
We rounded off the one day Douro tour with another version of this unique wine at Quinta de Tourais. Watching owner and wine-maker, Fernando Coelho, siphon it from his barrel and present it to us was almost as much fun as drinking it. Not as old as the Ana’s, Fernando’s vinho generoso wasn’t cloudy, although still amber in colour, but very easy to drink.
Quinta de Tourais
Ana selects wineries for her Douro Valley tours with care. Quinta de Tourais is small, quirky and, like Fernando, full of character. His T-shirt sported an intriguing image of a bull with a fist for a face. “It’s to give a face to a bull that never existed,” he explained. It’s a pun on the name of the estate; Tourais sounds rather like touro, the Portuguese word for bull.
Being a small producer, Fernando is able to use traditional methods and equipment for wine-making, supplemented by modern techniques for temperature control that enable him to produce quality, reliable wines. When we visited, the granite grape crushing tanks were full of stacked bottles of his 2014 vintage, which also bears the image of the bull. “I’ll have to sell all of these before the next harvest,” he told us, laughing but serious.
The mysterious bull is not the only piece of artwork. Each time Fernando produces a new variety of wine, one of his friends designs a new bottle. He’s developing quite a collection. One that’s a hit with our group, both for its design and the actual wine, is the 2013 Miura, a smooth blend of Tinta Barroca, Alicane Bouschet and Touriga Nacional.
Almost as popular as the wine were the fat almonds, grown on the estate and sauteed in turmeric, that accompanied the tasting session. I can still taste them.
Note: Quinta de Tourais have two rooms available for paying guests and a small terrace pool. Click to check availability.
Quinta do Panascal
We were treated to other divine local products with our wine tasting at Quinta do Panascal, an estate which produces grapes and wines for Fonseca port wine and houses their tasting room and shop.
The soft, sour goats cheese we enjoyed so much is only sold locally in a butcher’s shop in Pinhão. The Siroco extra dry white port served with the cheese was surprisingly creamy and I’m not the only one who bought a bottle to bring home.
The highlight of our tasting session was opening a 1987 vintage port wine using flame. I’d seen this process from a distance somewhere in Lisbon but never been close enough to understand what was going on, let alone taste the contents of the bottle. Tom was awarded the privilege of heating the tongs in the flame then applying them to the neck of the bottle while the woman from the wine shop poured cold water over it to cause the glass to shatter.
She swiftly and carefully decanted and strained the precious liquid and Ana showed us how quickly the vintage port changes colour once it’s exposed to the air. It went from a tawny to almost a ruby colour within minutes, which is why you need to drink a vintage port wine within 2 days of opening as it quickly deteriorates. As for the taste, it certainly lived up to the hype and ceremony.
As well as being one of the few places you can taste Fonseca’s port wines (they don’t have a shop or cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia like most of the other port wine lodges), Quinta do Panascal is special for its scenic setting and insistence on using traditional methods of wine production. All their grapes are stomped by foot in granite tanks, which involves almost continuous hard work over the several days of fermentation.
The quinta’s main buildings overlook the contoured hills that slip into the River Tâvora and the view from the terrace is adorable. Better still, you can follow a short self-guided walking route, with or without an audio guide, through the grape vines.
DOC Douro Restaurant
As if all these experiences weren’t enough to create lasting memories, the place where we had lunch was sublime. Top Portuguese chef, Rui Palha picked the perfect spot for his elegant riverside restaurant. As we walked along the boardwalk towards the white tables on the terrace, every one of us was oohing and aahing over the views and setting.
Our tasting menu included such oddities as a soup pie. That’s my rather crude description of an ingenious pastry parcel wrapped around caldo verde, Portugal’s beloved kale soup. Topped, as the soup usually is, with a slice of chouriço and a sliver of green, it combined all the flavours of a traditional dish in an innovative package.
The other unexpected taste sensation was the fruit and Space Dust (aka Pop Rocks) palate cleanser that had us all giggling in childlike wonder as the crystals began exploding in our mouths.
Do you need a tour to visit the Douro Valley?
You can visit these Douro wineries and others on your own, although you’ll need to book ahead for small independent wineries and arrange your itinerary accordingly.
The beauty of visiting the Douro Valley with a tour, whether it’s private or small group, is that you can simply relax and enjoy the experience, knowing you’re in capable hands. You’ll learn more than you would if you explore alone and, especially if you go for the more exclusive Douro tours, get to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise do, like vinho generoso.
For me, it’s a treat not to have to worry about driving along narrow winding roads, getting lost or dealing with the logistics of opening times etc. There’s also no need to restrict your wine intake if you’re the designated driver. After all, tasting Douro wine and port wines is one of the highlights a visit.
Looking for a private Douro tour?
If you’re interested in a private tour in the Douro Valley, please fill in this form and I’ll connect you with a suitable tour operator by forwarding your request and contact details:
More economical Douro tour options
If your budget is more modest, there are several full day small group Douro Valley tours from Porto that include the opportunity to take a 1-hour boat trip from Pinhão as well as great views, winery tours with standard tastings and lunch at a traditional local restaurant (not DOC!) for around €100. Check this one out.
Click to see more details and check availability:
If you’re on a tighter budget and would prefer a do-it-yourself tour from Porto to the Douro Valley using public transport, find out how you can experience the highlights for under €45 using my guide. Note that the train service between Porto and the Douro is under repair until the end of March 2019. If you want to visit the Douro before then, it would be better to use an organised tour.
Staying longer in the Douro Valley
Ideally you should stay at least one night in the Douro Valley to make the journey time worthwhile. If at all possible, stay on a quinta (wine estate) to fully appreciate the unique charms of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region.
You’ll find my suggestions for the best places to stay in the Douro Valley in this article.
If you have a car, take a look at these traditional Douro wine villages.
There’s more to the region than wine and food, of course, so if you’re interested in nature, history and architecture, you could easily fill a week in these parts.
Walking in the Douro is possible, although marked trails are thin on the ground and there are lots of hills. Some local tour operators offer experiences that include anything from a 2-hour vineyard walk to a full day’s hike that can be done from a base in the Douro. I’ve also had the pleasure of doing a week’s self-guided walking holiday in the Douro.
Let me know if you need help organising a guided or self-guided walk in the Douro wine region.
BEFORE YOU GO...
If you're interested in visiting or moving to Portugal, why not get my free insider tips and resources by email? These newsletters also include blog updates and information about relevant products, services and special offers.