Drive an hour and a half due-east from Porto and you’ll come upon the Douro Valley, Portugal’s world-famous wine region and answer to California’s Napa Valley, home to some of the world’s most pretentious farmers.
As you arrive, the beautifully twisting valley unfolds before you, unveiling more lush green, vineyard-covered vistas around every bend. Unlike the Napa Valley, which is a wide, flat plain between two separate mountain ranges, the Douro Valley is a lot narrower, a lot steeper, and a helluva lot cheaper when you want to get really soused.
If you’re like most first-time visitors to this viticultural valley, you’ll likely feel a strong compulsion to immediately move here, buy a vineyard, start making wine and immediately go bankrupt because you don’t know the first thing about running a winery—dammit, why didn’t I listen to Rodolfo…why?!?
But instead of ruining your entire life on an impulsive whim, maybe just pull over at one of Douro’s numerous family-run wineries, turn off that Pavarotti libretto, dry your failure tears, and get an early start day-drinking among the Douro Valley’s green and glorious, bucolic beauty.
Portugal’s Douro Valley makes Napa look flatter than Kansas.
The Douro Valley wasn’t always the picturesque, wine-making juggernaut it is today. Eons ago, it was a relatively flat plain overrun by hadrosaurs, “duck-billed” dinosaurs that were both herbivores and, more tragically, teetotalers.
That unremarkable, underachieving plain was transformed by a spring that originates somewhere deep in the mountains of Spain. What started out as nothing more than a tiny trickle, slowly eroded a deep, meandering path through that unambitious Iberian terrain. A path that would grow until one day it became known as the Douro Valley, finally making its parents proud.
The result of this eons-long effort was the creation of a large region of steeply angled valley walls which guide the languid Douro River towards the sea. Over time, its immutable rockiness had been transformed into spectacular vistas, reminiscent of areas more like Peru’s Urubamba Valley rather than the boring old Napa Valley.
Portugal’s Douro Valley puts the “old” in old-ass vines.
The Alto Douro (or Upper Douro) area of the valley is Portugal’s sweet-spot for wine. Encompassing 8,700 hectares (21,000 acres) of the total valley, this unique section is still hot, yet sheltered from the coastal influence of Atlantic winds. It’s a combination that creates an ideal climate for making Douro’s high-quality wines.
The Ancient Romans noticed this climatic quirk as far back as the 3rd Century, taking full advantage of it to produce a lot of horrible-tasting 3rd Century wines. The Roman’s gross ignorance of biodynamic viticulture, micro-oxygenation, and Christianity led to Gods-awful wine and, predictably, the downfall of their empire.
During the Middle Ages, wine was one of the safest beverages early Europeans could consume, because the wine’s alcohol content killed most types of bacteria by making the bacteria very drunk and then stabbing them in their phospholipid bilayer. At least I assume—I didn’t exactly ace Biology 101.
Wine was also one of the cheapest beverages Europeans could drink as most Catholic churches were literally giving the stuff away every Sunday—with free soda crackers, too! Sure, the portions weren’t huge, but you could always go back for seconds and thirds if you wore a fake mustache.
Catholics and wine go way back.
Jesus “Chug this in memory of me” Christ was famously known to throw down a glass or two of wine with dinner. Heck, he even reportedly turned water into the stuff once. So it wasn’t surprising that His fan-club down here on earth—specifically priests, monks, friars, and nuns—took to making and drinking wine with almost as much gusto as sexually abusing underage altar-boys.
At first, the wine that these pious perps produced was—much like non-consensual sex with a minor—repulsive and abhorrent. But the God-Squad quickly learned that offering their parishioners unappealing wine every Sunday proved counterproductive to their recruitment efforts. So they started taking the art of wine-making more seriously, and soon made wine that didn’t remind people so viscerally of human blood.
In the pursuit of more drinkable wines, the Cistercian monks (you know, the quiet ones) played a major role in the development of European viticulture. They established 120 convents throughout Portugal, and not only became the keepers of agricultural academia, but also provided wine-making training to their congregations with classes such as “Grape-Stomping: Those Sinful Bastards Deserve It!” and “Belching: The Vow Of Silence Loophole.”
By the 1200s, the monks in the Douro Valley were producing vast quantities of wine for ruddy-nosed British alcoholics with whom the Portuguese had signed a treaty to guarantee regular wine shipments. Not surprisingly, the distribution of their wine soon became an issue. The monks needed a more reliable way to transport their heavy wine casks than the slow and temperamental local donkeys, who kept threatening to unionize.
Back then, the Douro River was too narrow and shallow to allow larger cargo boats—called barcos rabelos—to pass through, so a series of locks were installed along the river to bolster its size.
Today, the mighty Douro River measures 100 meters wide and up to 30 meters deep in places, making it ideal for transporting goods like wine, port, and donkey jerky.
Unlike Napa, the Douro Valley makes wine the hard, stupid way.
Most grape vines in Napa Valley are planted on the plains between two mountain ridges, where it’s easy for grape machines and seasonal immigrant labor to harvest the year’s crop in a timely manner. By comparison, the Portuguese plant their grape vines up the side of the Douro’s steep valley walls, where nothing is easy.
Douro’s angled terrain presents several harvesting challenges. For one, the vineyards are angled too steeply for machines to harvest the grapes so the work must be done by human hand. For another, those hands often belong to family members who—while working to the point of exhaustion on the side of a steep mountain—risk falling to their deaths on a regular basis.
Yet, the most challenging challenge is probably convincing younger family members to reproduce faster, so the winery can keep up with increasing demand.
Portugal’s Douro Valley is the birthplace of port wine. Coincidence? No.
In addition to regular wine, the Douro Valley is known for inventing “port.” Port wine—or Porto, as it’s known around here—is typically a sweet, red wine that’s served after a meal and/or with dessert. Like Sherry or Madeira, Porto is a fortified wine that’s made much like table wine, except that distilled grape spirits are added to preserve the beverage and lend it different flavors.
Authentic “Porto” is exclusively produced in the northern provinces of Portugal, predominantly in the Douro Valley. Much like the illegal act of intentionally mislabeling sparkling wine as “Champagne,” it’s similarly uncool under EU law to label any wine from other countries as Port or Porto.
Of course, you’ll find plenty of fake Port and Porto in just about any US liquor store because we didn’t stop trying to trick consumers until 2006. Knock-off wines that are produced in other countries are called “port-style” wines, which, even thinking about, makes me vomit a little in my mouth. Blergh.
Visiting Lisbon without going to Douro is like visiting ’Frisco without going to Napa.
You could do it, of course, but then why don’t you skip seeing the Golden Gate Bridge while you’re at it? Oh, and skip Fisherman’s Wharf, too. Coit Tower? Who cares! Hey, why not skip San Francisco altogether?! And if you’re not going to go to San Francisco, why bother going anywhere at all?! Hell, why not just stay home, watching American football, and drinking fake-ass American port-style wine?!
Sorry, that was entirely uncalled-for. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Also, I’ve been drinking a lot of Porto—it’s very good. What I’m trying to say is, if you visit the Douro Valley—and you totally should—be sure to pack an extra liver for the trip because you’ll need it.
Oh, and try to wear pants.