The Douro Valley - Portugal

Claimed to be the most beautiful wine region in the world, THE DOURO VALLEY is also the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Evidence dating from 4000 BC reveals grape cultivation in the region. The Douro Valley takes its name from the river the Douro, one of the 3 major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula. Beginning its journey near Leon and flowing across northern-central Spain (where it is known as the Duero) to meet the Atlantic Ocean at Porto some 897km later. Serving as a national boundary between Spain and Portugal for 112km of its length, the  Alto Douro Wine Region was UNESCO World Heritage Listed in 2001. Wine has been produced by traditional landholders for 2000 years. Since the 18th c, its main product port wine has been world famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty reflecting its technological, social and economic evolution. Traditionally ‘Rabelo’ (boats) were used to transport the wine down the fast flowing river to the western coast and markets of the world.

In the 19th c this perilous journey down river was replaced by railway. These days road tankers are used however the roads in the wine growing region with their overhanging houses were not designed for vehicles of this size. Arguably producing the best quality wine in Portugal and attaining the highest classification, producing both fortified and non-fortified wine, the latter known as Douro Wine. Styles range from light Bordeaux style claret to rich Burgundian style wines. Heavily terraced in places, you will have time to admire the breathtaking landscapes along the river, past old towns and villages, tall escarpments on Day 18 on the Ancient Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal tour featuring a river cruise along the Douro, sail down to Porto and admire its unique beauty up close, truly a day to remember.


A Short Background History of the Douro Valley

The roots of the Douro region are very deep. Inevitably connected to wine production, the history of the Douro region allows us to understand the origins of the tempting and pleasing wines and unique landscapes. Long before any president, king or emperor, the Douro was inhabited by primitive peoples, the first to leave their traces. The rock paintings of the Vale do Côa date back to the upper Palaeolithic Age, about 20 thousand years ago. It is known that grapes were already cultivated in the region around 4 thousand years BC where carbonized grape pips have been found in archaeological sites. Many of the castros (fortified villages) in the region, such as the Castro de Cidadelhe, in Mesão Frio are from this period. With the arrival of the Romans in the 1st c AD, agriculture became a major activity in the region, made possible by the new roads and bridges built by the Empire. The importance of grapes intensified and some villages dedicated exclusively to the production of wine, which can be confirmed in the archaeological site of the Alto da Fonte do Milho, in Peso da Régua. After the 5th century, the lands of the Douro were conquered by the Suevi and the Visigoths, which ended up uniting and adopting Christianity. The Moors followed after the 8th century. Portugal became an independent kingdom on 5 October 1143, with D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), the first King of Portugal. The Sé de Lamego (cathedral) commenced building in the same century. During the Early Middle Ages, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Order of Cister came to the region to build monasteries, such as the Monastery of São Pedro das Águias, in Tabuaço, boosting the region’s agriculture with the development of several quintas (large houses, estates) on the hills of the Douro. With the commercial and economic wealth that came after the 13th century, the production of wine in the region continued to prosper, with the wine  being taken to the city of Porto, transported by boat across the Douro river, which was now wider due to the demolition of the fishing channels ordered by D. Manuel I (1469-1521). Traffic on the river also increased as a result of the maritime discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially because sailors required large quantities of strong wine for their long sea journeys.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, England became the main consumer of the wines produced in the Douro region, which resulted in the signing of the Methuen Treaty in 1703, a commercial treaty stipulating that no tax could be charged for Portuguese wines exported to England or English textiles exported to Portugal, regardless of the geopolitical situation of each of the two nations. Because of England’s high demand for Douro wines due to the traders’ greediness, the quality of the wines decreased with good wines being mixed with cheaper wines. The troubled relationships between Portuguese producers and traders and the English merchants deteriorated with the crisis in the wine sector, in the mid-18th century, caused by a lower demand for the Douro wines. Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), better known as the “Marquês de Pombal” (Duke of Pombal), was responsible for changing the economic situation in the region by creating the first regulated wine region in the world. Between 1757 and 1761, several granite stones with the word “Feitoria” were spread around the Douro region in order to identify and demarcate the boundaries of that wine-producing region. The Secretary of State for the Kingdom thus established the Douro Wine Company (1756), which was granted a monopoly on the sale of Port wine in 1807. The Duke of Pombal also took part in the tragic story involving one of the most important families in the country, the Távoras. With a centennial legacy, this family owned properties near the Távora river, in Mogadouro, in São João da Pesqueira and in Mirandela. D. Francisco Assis de Távora (1703-1759), the head of the family, was the Count of Alvor, Duke of Távora and Viceroy of India, between 1750 and 1754.In 1758, the Távora family were accused of attempting to assassinate D. José I (1714-1777), who sustained a gunshot wound to the arm. D. Francisco and his two sons were sentenced to death by burning at the stake and his sister, D. Leonor, was beheaded. The rest of the family members were also imprisoned but later released during the reign of Queen D. Maria I (1734-1816), who believed the Távoras were innocent.

Between 1788 and 1793, the first queen of Portugal extended the Douro region. In 1907, the region was extended to the Spanish borders during the administration of João Franco (1855-1929).In the 19th century, the vineyards in the Douro suffered from several fungal diseases,  powdery mildew and the phylloxera, which saw wine production develop further, due to the biological and chemical innovations that came about in order to prevent these diseases. The railway connecting the city of Porto to the Spanish borders was begun in the same century.

The landscapes of the Douro region are easily identified by the slopes. Built in the 1970s using new techniques that made it possible to plant terraced vineyards, each terrace is surrounded by shale walls. This change in the landscape caused by human activity is one of the reasons why UNESCO classified the Douro Wine Region as a World Heritage site in 2001. The rich heritage of the Douro with thousands of years of history contributed to the proliferation of several museums in the area, including the Museum of the Douro (1997) and the Museum of Côa (2010). 

A region cannot only be judged on its location and its beauty. The people that inhabit and work the land also contribute to its charm. In order to truly get to know the region, spend time with the people and share in their wisdom. The people of the Douro are proud of their roots; they know their history and their origins well. Stories and local legends have been passed down through generation to generation ensuring the survival of their history. The people of the Douro still enjoy a simple way of life, preserving their traditions and do not feel pressured to modernise. Peaceful and hospitable, they will welcome anyone into their home. The elderly in the region often greet everyone they meet in the street to be polite. The people of the Douro are closely linked to the land they work, still using traditional farming methods to protect the environment and the combination of great culinary skills in the region and the natural produce result in tasty dishes and time distilled great wines.