Visiting the Douro

With its UNESCO World Heritage status, stunning scenery and friendly welcome, the Douro would be a great place for a long-weekend or longer, even for those not interested in wine!

Quite a few quintas have realised the potential for opening their doors to paying guests and are transforming their gracious manor houses into relaxed boutique hotels.

Visitor centres are also becoming more common and during our visit we were delighted to be shown around several.

Graham's 1890 Lodge

This would be a great place to start your voyage into the Douro. In the past, although the wines were made up in the Douro Valley at the quintas, the port wines were sent to Oporto, or more accurately to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the Douro river, to age.

Here the big port shippers like Graham's built enormous warehouses, or lodges, to mature the ports before selling them.

This is where we started our Douro trip with João Vasconcelos of Symington's our guide. He explained how the Symington family had recently renovated the lodge, restoring all the original features, and how it was also still a working cellar, complete with its own cooper.

João explained how the maritime climate and metre-thick stone walls helped to keep a constant temperature in the cellars, ideal for the long ageing of the wines.

The Graham and Symington families have a long history of making wines in the Douro and their new museum charts both families' histories and that of the wines that brought them here. It's well worth a visit.

Pictures from the past: foot treading c. 1930s Transporting  Graham's port by bullock cart in the 1920s

We also saw the new tasting room with its huge windows giving a great view out over the famous two-tier bridge that links Oporto to Vila Nova, before going into the private tasting room for a tasting of tawny ports going back to the 1970s and Graham's impressive range of Douro table wines.

Jo Locke MW about to put the Graham's portfolio through its paces!

What was incredible tasting through tawny ports at, 10, 20, 30, 40+ years old was the way the colours changed. The younger tawnies were reddish brown, the 20 and 30-year-olds had a lighter brown tawny colour while the 40-year-old and 1972 vintage tawny were darker in colour. João explained that this was due to evaporation in barrel and the concentrating of the wine inside

Old tawnies showing their colour

Browse our range of tawny ports >

Graham's have also opened a new restaurant, 'Vinum', giving visitors the opportunity to match food with wine (both table and fortified) - something that seems to be on the increase adding to the appeal for visitors.

Quinta do Bomfim

If you want to visit the vineyards and winery, Symington's have recently opened a visitor-centre at their historic Quinta do Bomfim in the Upper Douro.

Here too there's a small museum with more on the history of wine production in the Douro, and the Symington family's long heritage.

Just one of the items on display in the museum. A demonstration of the megaphone that was used to shout across the Douro river to those working the vineyards on the opposite bank

We watched a video showing how the barrels of wine used to be brought down from the Douro by the famous flat-bottomed barcos rabelos boats. It really was quite a feat not without considerable dangers - the river wasn't dammed until the 1970s for producing hydro-electric power, and the rapids, in places, were treacherous.

The advent of the railway at the end of the 19th century didn't just bring an end to this perilous journey for the wine, but it made life a lot easier for the inhabitants of the Douro too. The lack of transport had meant that people had had to be pretty self-sufficient in feeding themselves. Having said this, most of the quintas still produce home-grown food.

The railway also brought tourism. It still runs today and is considered one of the world's most beautiful railway journeys. Another good reason to visit!

Quinta do Bomfim's visitor centre opened in May 2015

Where to go next?

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