The Douro River Valley
Before we went to the Douro River Valley in Portugal with Viking River Cruises this is what we knew about the area; it’s pretty and there are a lot of wineries.
We were right.
But Viking has this insidious way of actually teaching you all kinds of stuff while you think all you’re doing is having fun. (Could someone please put them in charge of the educational system in the U.S.?)
Now that we have this knowledge we feel a need to share it because it’s actually interesting.
What are the 5 interesting things about the Douro River Valley?
#1 The Region has UNESCO World Heritage Status
The Alto Douro region is on UNESCO‘s World Heritage list as one of the oldest demarcated wine growing regions in the world.
Now UNESCO is not like some of those namby pamby teams where everyone who shows up wins an award. Most improved player, least annoying player, player who ran the right way when he hit the ball, player who didn’t hit the ball but really tried, player who didn’t bite anyone, etc.
No, UNESCO has 10 criteria to be considered and at least one must be met to get the World Heritage designation. The Douro Valley qualified on three. They are:
- The primary product, port wine, has long been world famous for its quality.
- The cultural landscape is of a traditional European wine-producing region and shows the evolution of this human activity over time.
- The components of the landscape represent the full range of activities associated with winemaking – terraces, quintas (wine-producing farm complexes), villages, chapels, and roads.
#2 There is virtually no real soil in the Douro River Valley
Where you see rows and rows of vineyards growing is not in fertile soil. It’s actually ‘anthroposoil’ which was made by breaking up rocks. The rocks were broken up manually by people and terraced and planted over centuries. Over time the techniques and planting patterns changed with each generation improving on the previous one.
In the late 19th century the vineyards suffered from a Phylloxera attack and had to be rebuilt. The new terraces altered the landscape again. They were wider, sloped to face the sun, had more rows of vines and were set more widely apart so advances, such as mule-drawn ploughs, could be used to make wine production less arduous.
#3 The vineyards were nearly all destroyed by Phylloxera
Phylloxera are almost microscopic, pale yellow sap-sucking insects that feed on the roots and leaves of grapevines. They were unknowingly (in the sense of understanding the effect they would have on European grapes) brought to Europe from North America.
Portugal, and much of the rest of Europe, lost most of their vineyards to Phylloxera and had to resort to ripping out the diseased plants. As much of 70% of France’s vineyards were destroyed.
The only “cure” developed so far is to graft resistant US root stock onto the European vines. Lots of snooty Europeans were horrified that the tastes of their wines would be destroyed by the crass American roots.(Think grafting Donald Trump onto Pope Francis.) But, in fact, the grapes provide the taste, the roots just sustain them.
Phylloxera is by no means eradicated and wine growers have to be constantly vigilant so you see roses planted here and there throughout vineyards in the Douro River Valley.
#4 Port isn’t made in Port (and never was)
Don’t worry, we aren’t going to tell you Mickey Mouse isn’t really a mouse who lives in Disneyland. But we do feel that you should be ready to handle the truth about port.
The port itself has always been made at the vineyards. The grapes are (still) harvested by hand and then different varieties are combined. After being harvested they are crushed (used to be by feet but not anymore), put in vats to ferment and at some point brandy is poured in. (Face it – this isn’t a class on how to make port.) Next the port is poured into oak barrels to age. This has been the process forever.
Long ago the oak barrels were transported from the Upper Douro region to the city of Port via wooden boats called Rabelos. The boats have since been replaced with other means of transportation but the product is still given the name of the city it is shipped from, not the place where it is grown and made. (Kind of like you doing all the work and your kid sister getting all of the credit. Not that we know anything about that.)
#5 You’ll get taken to the best places if you go with Viking River Cruises
Hey! We saw a few of you roll your eyes but this is true.
We didn’t just hear how port was made as we drove past vineyards in a bus. We were taken privately to tour (and sample) Sandeman’s Port. They are the iconic brand and have been in business for hundreds of years.
We went to the third generation family-owned, prestigious Quinta da Avessada Winery. After a tour we had lunch at the estate and were hilariously entertained by the current generation’s owner who is Mr. Bean but much funnier. No one else was there but our Viking Group.
No standing in lines, not being able to hear the guides (we had whisper-boxes to transmit the talk into our pampered ears) or getting somewhere to find that we needed reservations or it was closed. Just always whisked in welcomingly.
That is nothing to take for granted.
But we did.
FCC Disclosure: We were the guests of Viking River Cruises. They already knew us so knew we’d say whatever we wanted to say and we love them for that.