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December 23, 2012

Portugal: Alto Douro

Heading to the Douro River

Heading to the Douro River

Where do the grapes come from?

There are no vineyards near the port lodges in Porto Portugal.  Indeed, the production of Porto’s namesake wines is a curious arrangement, a result of the history of the region’s wine trade.  Trade influenced both the production logistics and port wine’s style.

Winding roads

Winding roads

Grapes that end up in bottles of port wine are grown in the Douro River valley’s vineyards 60 road miles to the east of Porto.  Not far from the vines, the grapes are vinified.  The start of the process is similar to other wines but in order to make a port wine fermentation is stopped early by the addition of brandy.  Increasing the alcohol concentration poisons the yeast terminating the metabolism of sugar into alcohol.  The result is a fortified wine that is high in ethanol, in part from the brandy, and retains sweetness from the sugar in the grapes.

Wine fortification was developed in the 18th Century to preserve wine so it could be shipped long distances.  Port wine’s shelf life and shipping stability make it a good choice for export.  Indeed, it is the export market that has shaped port wine’s story.  Even today approximately one-fifth of Portugal’s export revenues are directly derived from selling Port wine internationally.

Bottles of vintage port from the time when the wine was floated down the Douro River

Bottles of vintage port from the time when the wine was floated down the Douro River

Until the 1950’s the barrels of wine produced in the Douro Valley were placed on small boats and floated down river to Porto.  Boat transport stopped with the construction of modern hydroelectric dams; today the wine is shipped to Villa Nova de Gaia’s port lodges in stainless steel tanker trucks.  In Gaia the young wine is transferred to barrels.  And, as it has been for centuries, the barrels are stored and aged.  Ultimately the wine is blended, packed, and shipped abroad.

The dominance of the export market can be seen in the brand names of port wines.  Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre were historically British shipping companies.  Shippers of Dutch and German origin include Niepoort and Burmester.  Today these names are on the labels of port wine bottles on the shelves of wine merchants around the world.

When we sampled the intense dark purple vintage port at Graham’s port lodge we were far from the vineyard sources.  To see the origin of the wine that was swirling in our tasting glasses we’d travel an hour and a half by car to the UNESCO-designated Alto Douro.  The journey started on Portugal’s freeways.  Soon we were in the hills working our way on the busy winding secondary roads.  Before long we were switchbacking down through the steeply sloped vineyards heading to the banks of the Douro River.

Bridges cross the Douro River

Bridges cross the Douro River


The geography of this niche of Portuguese wine country reminds us of the Rhine and Mosel appellations in Germany.  In both Germany and Portugal vineyards line the sides of deep river valleys.  For visitors there is a significant difference; in the Douro Valley the local wines aren’t available for tasting at every turn.  Of course we knew that as we just came from the port lodges in Porto.  But what we hadn’t fully appreciated is that for us the allure of wine country is something more than the pleasant climate and attractive scenery of the vineyard coated hillsides.  Wine country is best when tasting the wines close to the vines.

Nonetheless, our drive through the Portuguese countryside was pleasant.  And now we know where port’s grapes come from.  Soon we left the valley and climbed in the car away from the Douro River back to the international highway.   As we rolled past the oak forest grazing grounds for the Black Iberian pigs that produce the coveted jamón ibérico de bellota we left Portugal behind.

Soon we’d reach our next stop, Salamanca Spain, with just one souvenir of Porto and the Douro Valley.  Travelling well amongst our bags was a bottle of the 1994 Quinta do Vesuvio port, a liquid reminder of Portugal that we purchased at Graham’s port lodge.  Some years down the road we will open this prized bottle.  When we do, we will taste the memories of Porto and the Douro Valley.




  1. […] Portugal we headed off to Spain via the modern freeway system.  Breezing by at the side of the motorway […]

    Pingback by Spain: Salamanca « Another Header — December 30, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

  2. […] Alto Douro Wine Region (Portugal, 2012) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — January 1, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

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