A River Cruise In The Douro Valley – The Perfect Day Trip From Porto

Rabelo boat on the Douro River near Pinhao

If you’re spending more than a couple days in Porto, one of the absolute must-dos is to take a day trip 1.5hrs east to the Douro Valley. The region is teeming with beauty as you pass by terraced hills looking over the winding Douro River. If you have a car, you can stop as you see fit, with plenty of options. We wanted to delve into the winemaking history of this UNESCO-protected region, so we opted for a guided tour that picked us up in downtown Porto one morning.

We met our guide, Nuno, in front of a theater at 8:20am and boarded a passenger van with two other couples. The van seemed newer and had a comfortable ride, even over the cobblestone streets of downtown Porto.

Nuno has great energy from when we first meet him and can talk about any subject. At the beginning of the ride, he gave a solid overview of what to expect for the day and invited any questions about the experience, Porto, or the drive. I was in the back, back seat (apparently everyone else in the tour had some form of motion sickness except me…) so I nodded off to the rumble of the engine and having no coffee in my system yet.

The Douro River from Pinhão
Pinhão was our first stop.

When I woke up, I realized I had been transported to a beautiful land of rolling hills of green and tan, marbled by the emerging autumn tones of the changing grape vines. The hills weren’t tall, but they were grand. Terraced and purposeful, the land seemed to be used very efficiently.

Our first stop was Pinhão, a parish of 600 people that is really the jumping point to the Douro Valley. While the town is small, we stopped for a bathroom break and grabbed some espresso to get the wheels turning. This was also our first chance to experience a breathtaking view while not in motion.

We were led around the corner and to the docks where we boarded a revamped boat decorated with wood from old port barrels. We started our cruise down the Douro River as our boat guide, Antonio, walked us through the quintas that we passed and the history of making wine in the region. It was super fascinating how this area really shouldn’t produce grapes, but through a collection of two really important rocks and the ingenuity of the local people in terms of grafting and plant sectioning turned it into one of the most famous regions in the world.

Back in the van and across an incredibly narrow two-way bridge (seriously, we were brushing cheeks with the oncoming truck drivers,) our next stop was Quinta de S. Luiz, the oldest wine estate in the region, and home of the Kopke brand, established in 1638. Since the Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, everything must remain the same year after year. You can’t change names; you can’t even grow different plants in a section without permission. Our host here walked us around the property and talked about when and how the grapes were harvested. Despite being a big name company with a lot of brands under them, they only had 25 people (8 of whom were permanent employees) to harvest their grapes in a year. Because of the way the hills are terraced, most of the labor is still done by hand with minimal tractor help.

We were led back inside the building to see these enormous vats of wine that were being aged for upwards of three decades and then into a room above the bottle shop where we got our first tasting of the day (second if you include the drink on the boat.) Our host led us through four different ports and how they were different and how vintage years were especially important (these are years when everything turned out just right from humidity to rainfall to sunlight to seasonal changes.)

I am incredibly surprised how affordable port is with how much goes into making it.

We loaded into the van and drove towards our next stop, a small family run wine estate, Quinta dos Mattos, to show the difference between a big company like Kopke and a smaller localized operation. We were treated to a nice lunch – Rachel and I both had Chilean seabass, but most others in the group had wild boar and risotto. Our table was given a couple bottles of wine and once I realized we were fully expected to finish the bottles, my glass magically emptied itself over and over just to be refilled again.

The final course was a chocolate cake paired with a 10-year old tawny port. The combination was amazing!

After our indulging was finished, we were led to the wine cellar where we were given a demonstration on how to properly taste port (from the bottom of your mouth, to the top, then to the back) and how to spot a port that’s been mixed with another bottle.

During our drive back to Porto, everyone was warm and happy and Nuno continued to give us advice about his city, which we would use later in deciding on a place for dinner. The daytrip was incredible and probably our favorite single thing we did in Portugal. I can’t recommend it enough and really hope you get the chance to experience it yourself in the future.

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