If there’s one thing the Portuguese know, it’s how to make good wine.
The country is famed for its plonk. With its warm days and mediterranean climate, the coastal landscape is blessed with the prime conditions for growing grapes that are equal parts plump and delicious, and has long drawn wine-lovers from around the world. Their Mecca? The Douro Valley.
Never one to shy away from a tipple, I decided to spend a day exploring the region and learning more about the country’s most-famous product. What I hadn’t accounted for was just how beautiful this area was going to be.
With a lack of time on my hands, I was only able to venture halfway into the valley, to the sleepy village of Pinhão. The town lies just over a 2 hour train journey from Porto; for all we knew, we could have been a world away. Gone was the bustle of the city streets and the background chimes of the trams; in their place, vineyards lay carved into the sloping sides of the canyon, stretching as far as the eye could see. The sun danced off the water, like fireflies putting on a display. The smell of olive groves lingered, and the distant chatter of farmers tending to their fields gave rise to the fact that this was an area steeped in history, unchanged by time, and staggeringly beautiful.
Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or just want to know a little more about the history of the industry, I can’t recommend a day trip to the Douro Valley enough. There are numerous ways you can visit the valley, from small bus tours to private guides and even a boat trip which can take you right from the heart of Porto! In this post, however, I’m going to talk you through how you can visit the region independently, in just one day, by taking the train to Pinhão.
First up, an introduction to the area:
What exactly is the Douro Valley?
The Douro Valley was named after the very same river that carved it. The waters of the Douro stretch right from the Spanish border, heading west until they meet the sea in the harbour-front city of Porto.
The river itself plays an important role in the wine production; not only does it nourish the lands, but it also provides a source of transportation. Traditionally, barrels of port wine would have been transported along the Douro by rabelo boats to Vila Nova de Gaia, where they’d be left to age before being distributed.
The Douro Valley refers to the area of farmland surrounding this river, and has been connected to wine production for over 2000 years. Little has changed in that time. Rows of vines and olive trees pattern the hills. Small villages of white-washed houses with terracotta roofs are peppered throughout. Roads are few and far between, meaning that modern machinery has seldom found its way into the wineries, and traditional pressing methods like foot-treading are still common.
All of the major companies producing port wine have a base, or quinta, here, so it’s not uncommon to spot signs for the leading names like Taylor, Croft or Quinta Nova poking through the green. Thankfully, most of these companies also offers tours and tasting sessions, making the Douro Valley the perfect place for an upscale pub crawl! It’s not often you can say that about a UNESCO World Heritage Site…
What makes port wine unique?
There are three things which make port wine the gorgeous thing that it is; first, without question, it needs to be produced in the Douro, or Porto, region. Second, port is a sweet, red wine. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, its recipe is unique, in that it contains added spirits for long term aging. This is strong stuff we’re talking about!
Although port wine has been produced since the biblical days, it was only formally demarcated in 1756. What does that mean, you ask? Essentially, it means that the quality of the wine is protected….i.e. you can’t just add a bit of brandy to your Aldi Shiraz and call it a port. It has to be farmed, aged, bottled and distributed in the traditional manner, in the home turf.
What if you don’t like the taste of port?
Panic not; I had the exact same thought when visiting Portugal, however I have to say that the taste grew on me over my time in the country. If you’re still not a fan, keep in mind that although the area is famous for its port production, many of the quintas produce their own whites, reds and rosés too and will happily arrange a tasting for these if you prefer.
Is it easy to explore the area by train?
Absolutely! In an ideal world, I would have allowed 2-3 days to explore the valley properly, perhaps by hiring a car. But with just one day, I would absolutely recommend taking the train from Porto to Pinhão. You could carry on all the way to Pocinho, but at around 4 hours journey time, this is would eat considerably into your day.
Pinhão takes between 2 hours 10-40 minutes to reach from Porto’s São Bento station, and the journey along the Linha do Douro Railway, which snakes right the way along the river, must be amongst one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe. Plus, the stations at either end are pretty spectacular!
Taking the train is certainly the most relaxed way to travel to the Douro Valley. It has the added bonus of not having to worry about designated drivers/car sickness if you’ve found the tasting sessions perhaps a little too tempting! Start your day early by topping up on picnic supplies (i.e. pasteis de natas and coffee!) and just enjoy taking in the scenery as you journey into the gorgeous landscapes.
This gorgeous little village sits right on one of the Douro’s most scenic bends, encircled by terraced hillsides and historic wine cellars. The town is so dedicated to wine production that even the train station’s iconic azulejos (painted tiles) tell the story of the local grape harvest!
It’s a super-handy place to stop, not only because it’s home to some of the loveliest port houses, but because you can easily jump on a river cruise from the jetty. There are also a cluster of lovely family-run restaurants if you’re in need of some nourishment, and a smattering of shops if you’re looking to pick up an authentic souvenir.
How can I make the most out of an afternoon in Pinhão?
- Start as you mean to go on with a visit to one of the town’s cellars. My favourite was Quinta da Foz, which is a very small, family-run winery, perched atop a pretty hill and just a few minutes walk over the bridge from the train station. Pre-booking is handy but not required, and the staff will happily arrange an impromptu tasting session for you in a room which overlooks the stunning valley below.
- Bag yourself a scenic spot for lunch at one of the riverside restaurants. Veladouro specialise in wood-grilled fish and meats, and has a gorgeous vine-shaded terrace if you’re needing a cooler spot to whittle away the afternoon, watching the local fishermen come and go.
- Step back in time with a cruise upon a traditional wooden rabelo boat, which would once have been used to transport barrels of wine all the way back to Porto. This is truly one of the best ways to get a sense of the scale of the industry, and the handy commentary will keep you informed as you drift lazily along the winding river. There are several cruise companies lined up along the river, but we found Magnifico Douro Events to be very well run, and happy to take a booking in person on the day.
- Pick yourself up some snacks for the train journey home. There are only a few shops in Pinhão, but the bakery is exceptional, and well worth a trip if you’re in need of some post-wine supplies for the train back.
Taking the train to Pinhao is the perfect way to visit Portugal’s Douro Valley, particularly if you only have a day to spare. 2.5 hours travel time might sound like a lot, but I promise you that once those rolling hills tumble into view and the sun begins to cast its light over the fields of vines, the time will quickly dissolve, and you’ll feel a million miles from the buzzing city left behind. It’s the perfect day activity, which can easily be slotted into a weekend trip to Porto, and will give you a wonderful insight into the country’s heritage whilst promising some of the most unspoiled views you could ever dream of. And did I mention the wine…?
Have you been to Portugal’s wine-making region before? What was your favourite quinta?