Porto and Douro

Porto and Douro

Porto.jpgLong famous as the source of port wine, the Douro is now also renowned for its fine, rich unfortified wines, both red and white.

Steep slopes shelve deep into the River Douro. Hills stretch off into the horizon, and narrow roads wind around the hillsides. Vine terraces bask in the sun, their soil pure schist and granite. This wild and beautiful part of northern Portugal offers extraordinarily good conditions for wine grapes, though life is not easy for Douro winegrowers. Roots force down between layers of rock seeking out the limited water, while the schist absorbs and then radiates heat.

For centuries, Douro growers have been supplying an eager world with Port. Now wine experts the world over recognise that the Douro region also offers ideal conditions for making unfortified wines of the highest quality, both red and white. Producers here are crafting stunning and highly distinctive wines that rank amongst Portugal’s most intense and complex. There are separate DOCs for unfortified wine and for Port in the Douro, although geographically both lie within the same outer boundaries.

Grape Varieties

A plethora of different grape varieties are to be found in the Douro region. Some vineyards still have the traditional mix of varieties. There are winemakers who see this grape variety mix as the key to top quality. Others maintain that the best grapes for unfortified wines are three of the varieties grown nowadays in modern, single-variety vineyards for Port: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz; some also favour Sousão (or Vinhão) for the welcome acidity it brings. What is certain is that single variety plantings make the viticulturalist’s task easier, since pruning, vineyard treatments and picking can be done at the most appropriate moment for a complete block of vines.

Douro Scenery

The traditional vineyard scenery, dominated by the old, narrow, stone-walled terraces, has changed in many places, though preserved in the central section of 

the region by World Heritage Site status. Elsewhere, modern terraces are now sculpted by bulldozers and mechanical diggers, and separated by earth rather than stone-walled banks, the wider rows providing room for tractors.

On gentler slopes, modern vineyards are generally planted vertically, dispensing altogether with terracing. There are big changes in the wineries, too. The Douro Valley is probably the last of the world’s major wine regions still to be pressing significant quantities of its grapes by foot - in shallow, open wine-fermenters, called lagares.

But recent years have seen, with excellent results, the widespread introduction of ‘robotic lagares’ designed to simulate the gentle action of the human foot.


The Douro region is divided into three geographical sections, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The western-most area, the Baixo Corgo, is the coolest of the three, influenced by the sea, its wines are a little lighter. The Cima Corgo, centred on the little town of Pinhão, is the heartland of the Douro, cut off by mountains from the maritime influence; it accounts at the moment for two-thirds of the Douro’s vines. To the east, towards the Spanish border, the Douro Superior is wild and isolated, subject to extremes of climate, very cold winters and roasting summers. Vine-growing here has historically been limited and sparse. However, there has been considerable planting in recent years, as producers have begun to comprehend the potential of this slumbering region. A measure of how difficult it is to colonise the rocky terrain of the Douro with vines is that a mere 17 per cent of legally potential vineyard land is planted with vines. 

Port Wine

The base wine for Port is made and fortified in wineries in the Douro Valley, then transported to the Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto (or Oporto), at the mouth of the river, for ageing. Port comes in a variety of styles, from young, fruity white, tawny and ruby to the finest and most expensive, vintage Ports and aged tawnies. Vintage Port is made in the best years, and is bottled after only two years in barrel, keeping it rich and red. Vintage Port will benefit from ageing in bottle to add complexity. Single Quinta Vintage Ports come from individual estates. Colheita Ports also come from a single, stated year, but are aged for a minimum of seven years in barrel before bottling. Tawny Port that specifies a number of years on the label (10, 20, 30, 40) is paler in colour, more mellow, and subtle and complex from long ageing in barrel.

Main white grapes:

  • Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Rabigato, Côdega, Donzelinho Branco, Esgana Cão and Folgazão

Main red grapes:

  • Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Aragonez), Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Sousão, Bastardo, Mourisco Tinto, Castelão, Rufete, Tinta Amarela (Trincadeira) and Tinta Francisca