The Douro Valley has a vision – a land of tourists enjoying their UNESCO World Heritage Site scenery, enriching the local economy, and adding to the revenue streams of local wineries.
The question in Douro – as it is in many less-established wine destinations – is how to make it happen. That’s one of the reasons that organizers from Douro contacted me to speak at their first wine tourism conference.
My presentation, “The Wow Factor in Winery Visits,” was a photo-driven slide show that highlighted wonderful winery visits I have had in France, Spain, Austria, U.S., and the Republic of Georgia. I hoped to inspire Douro winery owners to go beyond generic wine tours to offer a memorable visit.
Other presenters included my friend, Melba Allen, who gave a lively demonstration of her online Wine Profilers site. I truly enjoyed her online wine tasting game, which Melba told winery owners could be used in group tastings and to help develop their brand.
Portuguese wine journalist Rui Falcao had practical advice, including, perhaps most importantly, the necessity of proper road signage. During my weekend in the Douro, it did strike me that -- unlike in other wine regions --there was a lack of a demarcated wine route and even signs pointing which way to turn from the main road to access wineries.
I think that Douro offers wonderful wines. We had the opportunity to taste many at the weekend event, Taste Douro, in Lamego. The wines of Quinta do Crasto, were particularly outstanding at a value price. I found that their red wines had exceptionally ripe fruit, and smooth tannins, high acid, mouth-filling richness, and a long finish. And that was at the low end of the range at about 10 euros. I also enjoyed the Nieport reds and the Quinta do Vallado red and whites.
When I had visited the Douro Valley in 2009 as a participant in the European Wine Bloggers Conference, it was still a relatively new venture to ferment still red wines for an international market. I feel like the wines I tasted this weekend were uniformly better – some of the stalky bitterness had left and the fruit had a more plush, sweet cherry character.
Yet this weekend in Douro, I was most surprised by the high quality white wines I tried, especially those of Dona Berta. I tasted both unoaked whites, as well as whites that had oak that was beautifully integrated. The Centenary Vine 2009 White Wine Reserve, made from grapes grown on 100 year old vines – had lime zest nose and limes and white peaches on the palate – offering both refreshment and complexity.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Douro tasting without Port – and I ended each evening by indulging in my favorite, tawny ports. There were a number of producers offering ten year old tawnies, which to me are always redolent of caramel. Yet one of the best sweet wines I tried was a Fragulho 2008 Moscatel made in the same way as Port, i.e., with neutral spirit added to stop the fermentation. This wine had a lighter mouthfeel, while still offering hard-candy sweetness.
During my time in the Douro, I stayed at the Hotel Rural Casa dos Viscondes da Varzea . My room was a comfortable space, with sitting area and bathroom on the first floor, and two double beds with elegant linens in a loft area above. But the main house was the star – with three spectacular livingrooms that all looked like they had been conjured from the pages of decorator magazines. Yet even the chateau-like house played second fiddle to the rolling hills of vineyards and sweeping views of the grounds.
It is easy to imagine a wine trip to Douro that would use this hotel – which had a very good kitchen as well – as a base for area visits. The only problem is the driving – as road to the wineries are often full of potholes and only wide enough for one car. Imagining a foreign tourist--unfamiliar with the terrain, with a couple of glasses of wine in his or her system-- negotiating these poor roads is not a happy thought.
I wish the Douro luck in its efforts to increase wine visitors. The wineries themselves include both historic properties and modern wonders, such as the sleek and beautiful Quinta do Pessegueiro. With an investment in better roadways and a bit of promotion, this region could just be the next great destination for wine travelers.