“The N-222 road linking Regua and Pinhão is scientifically the world’s best drive.
It beat the likes of California’s Highway 1 and Australia’s Great Ocean Road in tests in 2015 by a quantum physicist, race-track designer and roller-coaster expert tasked by rental company Avis to evaluate the thrill factor of scenic routes around the world.” (Source: https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/portugal-douro/index.html)
Who knew? And even if it’s not actually the world’s best drive, the 28 kilometer stretch offers incredible views of the Douro River and surrounding mountainside vineyards, but it’s also more than a little nerve-wracking – a skinny and winding two-lane road with the river on one side and old stone walls on the other, bustling with passenger cars and an abundance of giant tour buses. Dozens of wineries along the way offer tours and tastings. Bill and I are careful with our alcohol intake, trade off driving responsibilities in our rental car, and escape unscathed except for periodic spikes in blood pressure.
But let’s back up a little. For a total cost of 14.65 euros, we ride the train from Porto to Peso de Regua, enjoying beautiful scenery alongside the river for the second half of the two-hour journey. In Regua, we rent a car and drive 11 kilometers, uphill all the way, to Lamego, home to about 27,000 people and our Airbnb apartment for the next three nights.
All is going well except that we can’t find the apartment, and after driving in circles for 45 minutes, we give up and message Cristina, our patient and gracious host, who rescues these two befuddled travelers. The apartment is lovely, and the central location is perfect.
Over the next few days, we learn about the history and production of true port wine, which is a fortified wine made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley since (at least) the 17th century. As the leading consumers and importers of port wine, the Brits have been partners in the business for hundreds of years. Even today, many leading port wine brands sound more English than Portuguese: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Offley, Sandeman, and Taylor to name a few.
During our brief time in the Douro Valley, we visit five wineries: Quinta do Tedo, D’Origem, Quinta do Seixo, Caves da Reposeira, and Quinta da Pacheca.
Quinta do Tedo
Quinta do Tedo is a family-owned and operated 37-acre vineyard/winery + bed and breakfast + restaurant located at the confluence of the Tedo and Douro Rivers. It was recommended by our concierge at the local tourist information office as a good example of a small, independent winery.
We join up with a tour group of four other Americans and two Canadians, followed by a tasting of three different styles of port. We’re off to a good start.
Also a small, family-owned winery, D’Origem is situated high on a hillside about seven kilometers outside of Pinhão. Specialties include table wines (red, white, and rosé), olive oil, and honey – no port wine. It’s on our list primarily due to the “view” reviews, and we are not disappointed.
The olive oil and honey are delicious, but the wines are just so-so. We enjoy our visit however, especially the owner’s guided tour of their small museum filled with vintage equipment used to make olive oil and wine.
On our way out of town, we take a wrong turn (again) but find this gorgeous view of the valley at the dead end point where we must figure out how to turn around.
Quinta do Seixo
In contrast to the two previous wineries, Quinta do Seixo is a vineyard associated with the Sandeman label, and Sandeman is a subsidiary of Sogrape, a Portuguese conglomerate that produces wines in five countries and distributes to 120. In other words, it’s a large commercial venture, and this vineyard is just one of their many corporate assets, but it offers gorgeous views and a tasting room that exudes a comfortable, inviting vibe. Bill samples a flight of port, while the designated driver (yours truly) does not.
Caves da Reposeira
Our first stop on the second day of our visit is Caves da Reposeira, but tastings are temporarily unavailable because they are “giving a tour to teenagers.” The receptionist doesn’t volunteer any more information, and we don’t ask, but she assures us the tasting room will reopen after lunch. And she was correct. This winery is a leading producer of Portuguese sparkling wines, and our tasting includes three delicious samples.
We are the only customers in the tasting room for the first half hour of our visit, after which another couple – Andrew and Norma – joins us. From Vero Beach, Florida, they are on a seven week driving tour of Portugal. We relish the conversation, as we (OK, mostly me) are feeling a little starved for social interaction at this point in our trip.
This winery is located in Lamego, the town where we are staying, so we decide to walk from the apartment – a pleasant, two kilometer trek with a moderate elevation gain. The view of Lamego and the surrounding countryside from the terrace of the tasting room is lovely.
Quinta da Pacheca
This one is my favorite. Not originally on the radar screen, we add Quinta da Pacheca on a whim, because it’s a relatively short drive from our Airbnb and has excellent reviews. It’s too late to book a tour, but we decide to drop in, hoping to experience a tasting. Luckily, we arrive between tour groups, so the host squeezes us in for an “abbreviated tasting.” Forty-five minutes later after sampling two wines and two ports, we depart with a souvenir for Bill.
This winery also features a chapel, high end restaurant, hotel, and wine barrel suites for overnight stays. Maybe next time!
Non-Wine Related Sightseeing
It’s a short list, but here are a few additional photos from our short stay in the Douro Valley:
Return Trip to Porto
At the end of our stay, we arrange to take a sightseeing boat back to Porto – a seven hour excursion that I’m sure is beautiful when the weather is nice.
Unfortunately, our travel morning dawns cool, cloudy, and windy, and goes downhill from there with fog and a steady downpour later on. Nonetheless, we enjoy the day that includes a couple of nice surprises along the way.
We’ve been on multiple sightseeing dinner cruises in which the food ranges from barely mediocre to simply awful, so our expectations are low for today’s lunch. After the traditional appetizer of bread and olives, we have soup and salad, followed by a full-on meal that includes pork, potatoes, rice, and vegetables, and everything is nicely prepared. Plus two bottles of wine – one red and one white. (We didn’t drink it all by a long shot.) Only the dessert seems a little odd – a canned peach half sitting atop a canned pineapple slice.
The second cool surprise is a first for us – going through two locks at dams on the Douro River.
Prior to the 1960s, the Douro River was a wild and natural waterway, with rocks, rapids, periodic floods, and other features expected of a river that tumbles downhill through a narrow canyon. For hundreds of years, young wine from the Douro Valley vineyards was transported downriver to be aged and stored in port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia (across the river from Porto) in barrels affixed to flat-bottom boats called rabelos. It was a treacherous journey that frequently didn’t end well for the boats, the humans, and/or the wine. So both Spain and Portugal built dams on the river – 15 total, five of which are in Portugal – to make the trip easier.
Today, the Douro River is wide and placid, and even though the wine now travels to Gaia in trucks, there is still plenty of boat traffic on the river – primarily transporting tourists. Some work has been done to develop a strategy for returning the river to its wild and natural state, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening any time soon. So for the foreseeable future, river traffic uses the locks to move from one section of the river to the next.
We arrive in Porto (technically it’s Vila Nova de Gaia, “Gaia” for short) exactly on schedule and conclude that our three day side trip up the Douro River valley was time well spent!