Long famous as the source of Port wine, the Douro in northeast Portugal now also is renowned for its fine, rich, non-fortified wines.
This is one of the wildest, most mountainous and rugged wine regions of Portugal, cut through in deep twists and turns by the Douro River. Seemingly defying gravity on the steep slopes along the banks of the river and its tributaries, the grapevines are planted in very poor soils.
Man has engraved his own contours here. In the center of the region, the historic, narrow, stone-walled vine terraces have collectively been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Elsewhere in the region, modern terraces are wider, buttressed by steep banks of earth.
The region follows the course of the river, down from the Spanish border to a point near the town of Mesao Frio, up-river from the city of Porto (Oporto). This is where the Serra do Marao rises, protecting the region from the influence of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rain falls mainly on the western side of the Marao range, and to a certain extent in the western end of the Douro wine region. Farther up-river, and by the Spanish border, conditions are almost desert-like.
The Douro region is divided into three sub-regions. From west to east, they are Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior.
The fertile, cooler, rainier Baixo Corgo—closest to the Serra do Marao—is the sub-region with the most vineyards.
The Cima Corgo—including the towns of Pinhao, Sao Joao da Pesqueira and Tua—is the heartland of fine Port production, and also the source of many of today’s fine non-fortified wines.
The Douro Superior, very cold in winter and extremely hot in summer, is the biggest of the sub-regions.
The Douro has a huge selection of local grape varieties, and many vineyards of impressive, gnarled old vines that give very small yields—resulting in rich, complex wines. Dozens of different grape varieties may be mixed together in these old vineyards.
In modern vineyards, the vines are planted separately, and five grapes have been declared the top choices for Port: Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao.
But as we’ve seen, there’s a lot more to the region today than Port wines.