One of my Porto visit goals, beyond the port wine cellars, was to head out into the Douro River Valley to visit a winery or two, taste some wine and take in the sights. The Douro is famous for its stunning landscapes and terraced vineyards that rise from the side of the river high into the hills. We were shown photos of the region during the Algonquin College Sommelier Program and this area has always been on my list of places to visit.
I had done a bit of research online and noticed that a lot of the trips were on massive coach buses. I was hoping to find something similar to Italy on a Budget which had small passenger vans, a youth-oriented focus and fun guides. The front desk at my hostel had no useful information for me and said that they usually just suggested that people head to a tourist information desk for more information. Seeing as how this seemed to be a regular request one would have thought that the hostel would have some information or brochures available.
The guy working at the tourist information desk was charming, personable, informative and provided a huge number of options for me, but strongly suggested that I go with a company called The Other Side Tourism Co. They were a relatively new company, based in Porto, that used 9 passenger vans and local guides. The price was competitive – regular price was €79 but there was a promotional price of €75 – which included hotel or hostel pick-up, visits to two wineries (one in the Vinho Verde region and one in the Douro River Valley), lunch and free time in a small town called Amarante. The van leaving the next day was already full but I scheduled a trip for the day after – when I determined my itinerary I had added an extra day or so in wine regions so that I could spend a full day touring the area, outside of the city… and have the flexibility to go when the price and routing was available.
I was picked up bright and early by the guide – whose name I almost immediately forgot, and still haven’t remembered, and an empty van. I claimed the front seat and the guide gave me the good news that we would be having a small group – we had only two more people to pick up. They ended up being a Canadian couple, from Laval, who were on vacation in Portugal for a couple of weeks and who liked to drink wine.
The first stop was Quinta de Aveleda, one of the oldest and largest wineries in the Vinho Verde region. Our tour was supposed to start just before 10 a.m., however they only had one guide and we were waiting for more people to arrive. “More people” ended up being a busload of old Portuguese people so the guide had to do the tour in two languages. This was the first winery that I’ve ever visited that had security and we had to wear a security badge while we were on the premises.It wasn’t a big deal – the tour was actually quite weak on wine related content – but the grounds were stunning. The winery is privately held and is still owned by the descendants of the founders and if the property is anything to go by, they have a lot of money. Instead of walking through wine cellars or vineyards, we walked through the gardens, stopping to peek over at the cows that they used to make their own cheese and the goats that had their own little house. The guide also pointed out a few places where the family had acquired some portions of history – including a piece of the home where Henry the Navigator was born.
Once we finished with the gardens we quickly walked through a dark storehouse where the aguardente was being aged in oak barrels. This was a winery in the Vinho Verde appellation, not in the Douro River Valley, but they still produced their own brandy. This was really the only bit of winery that we saw and we didn’t really receive any information as the guide rushed to the tasting room in order to prepare a few dozen servings.
The tasting room had a beautiful view of the hills and some vines, but the tasting wasn’t really anything special. We were given a small cheese tray and two bottles of wine – one white and one rose. Aveleda makes a slightly higher end wine and we tried their white Quinta de Aveleda 2013, before finishing it off with the Casal Gracia rosé. The rosé, like other bottles labeled under the Casal Gracia name, was a cheap wine and had little discernible character or taste.
From Aveleda we headed into Amarante for lunch. We parked beside a picturesque river and a public field that, for some reason, had a few horses grazing. Our guide told us that this was not a regular occurrence and as we climbed up to the main street we were surprised to see random bales of hay on the sidewalk and on a closed street. There was a temporary patio erected outside of the restaurant we were going to, so we took advantage of the outdoor seating while our guide tried to figure out exactly what was going on. The answer, of course, was super logical – a Portuguese Medieval Fair! Our waitress encouraged us to return during the weekend for all of the festivities.
For lunch we ordered from the menu of the day, given a choice between sardines, fatty pork or cod. I followed the guide’s lead and went for the cod, figuring that it had to be a safe bet since she ate at the restaurant on a regular basis… and cod seems to be the national protein of Portugal. We started off with hearty, delicious homemade bread and olives and the waitress brought us heaping bowls of vegetable soup. Staring down at the bowls it quickly became obvious that portion control was going to be an issue. Our main dishes were massive as the proteins were paired with potatoes, vegetables… and bowls of rice, that the waitress almost forgot. Her forgetting the rice would not have been a bad thing.
To finish it off? Dessert seemed to be mandatory. We all ordered something different so that we could have a taste, similar to what we did at lunch. Up next was the espresso course, to give us a spurt of energy and help us to digest the enormous amounts of food we had just consumed.
There were a couple of hilarious French-Portuguese guys at the table beside us, telling us how important it was to drink wine and that they went there every day. We had ordered a white Vinho Verde, but they disapproved, generously sharing their red Vinho Verde and insisting that the red was best with food. The red Vinho Verde bottles didn’t have any labels on them and the men told us that it was from their private stash. After our espresso arrived, they handed over a small water tower-like container so that we could try a bit of local aguardente in our now empty espresso cups. The two men were drinking this stuff like it was water, but we struggled to finish our teeny tiny cups of the painfully strong liquid.
Feeling the need to digest the hugest lunch of all time, we wandered through the village for a bit, visiting the cathedral and checking out a few of the shops. There were a few people wandering around in traditional dress, obviously preparing for the Medieval Festival that was due to kick off in a few hours. I didn’t quite understand what was being said, but apparently the cathedral was famous for a statue of some saint that people would touch. I have no idea what it was about and I found the statue, but a woman walked in as I was trying to read the plaque and started stroking it and murmuring things in Portuguese. Let’s just say that things got uncomfortable so I beat a hasty retreat.
The second winery, Quinta Sta. Eufêmia, was in the Douro River Valley and it would take about an hour to drive there along the narrow, twisty roads that followed the hills. I was excited to see the topography once the river came into view, complete with terraces. We had all been falling asleep in the car but once the scenery changed from trees to the terraced vineyards the three of us passengers woke right up, energized and excited, taking photos. Our guide stopped the van at an overlook and let us out to take some photos, which was perfect.
We made our way over a massive bridge, crossing the Douro River, before climbing the hills to the second winery. We stopped on a tiny little street lined with a few houses, buildings and a small chapel, before entering the winery. The staff cheerfully greeted our guide and brought us out to a small viewing platform they had built where we could take in the beautiful view and she could talk to us a bit about their viticultural practices. This winery wasn’t as steep as the others, therefore they had fewer terraces and could actually usually machinery in the vineyard.
There were a number of historical photos on the wall and the guide explained to us exactly what was happening in each one. Just as the harvest was starting, the workers would walk around the chapel with their baskets in order to receive a blessing. She also told us that, traditionally, only men pressed the grapes (with their feet) in the Douro Valley. Women were more than welcome – and were needed – to press the grapes in the less prestigious Vinho Verde region. Personally, I think I’m too prissy to press grapes with my feet – it’s kind of gross.
After a quick perusal of the bottling line, we headed back up to the tasting room where the guide told us to sit tight while she prepared for the tasting. They didn’t have enough glasses, so she asked the French couple to share and she would pour them a bit extra to make up for it. We didn’t have to worry about driving and once again there was no spit bucket provided, so it seemed as though we would actually be drinking the wines – future visitors should keep this in mind, or ask for the bucket!
There was a full lineup of Port wines and table wines, plus we were provided with some small nibbles of cheese, meat, dried fruits and bread. She carefully poured the wines, talked a bit about each one and passed the glasses to us. I eagerly inhaled and my very first impression was… soap. Each of the glasses I had contained soap residue which completely compromised the tasting for me. I tried to swirl the wine, tried to focus on the other components, but it was impossible. I had the best experience towards the end of the tasting when she, fortunately, reused the same glasses that I had been careful to coat in as much wine as possible to try and mask the soap smell. I’m not sure if the French couple had better glasses or not, but they responded positively to the tasting (as did I, of course, even if I had to pretend that I tasted whatever she was talking about over the soap) and ended up buying a few bottles to take home. Or drink at the hotel.
The drive back to Porto was basically along the same route we took to get there and the driver/guide carefully handled the large van around hairpin turns, narrow roads and random pedestrians. The French couple and I were all pretty tired – still full from lunch, lots of port and the snacks we had enjoyed at our last stop – and fought to keep from dozing off, not wanting to miss any of the beautiful scenery. Traffic heading into Porto was nice and light and I was dropped off right at my hostel… I could get used to this style of travel!