Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Douro River Region: Beauty & Thriving Amidst Adversity

"Few plants can live, much less thrive, in the physical conditions of the Douro valley, where chunks of rock are found instead of soil, where rainfall is relatively low and evaporation diminishes the amount available for plants, and where slopes are steep."
--Landscapes Of Bacchus: The Vine in Portugal by Dan Stanislawski

Such stunning scenery. The beauty and allure of the the Douro River region was astounding, especially in October when the leaves had turned, providing such gorgeous colors to the landscape. My several days spent in the Douro region were memorable, and my pictures don't do adequate justice to everything I witnessed, from the steep vineyards to the majestic mountains, from the the myriad colors to the fine architecture. What I witnessed was a testament to the tenacity and passion of the Douro farmers, growing grapes in some of the toughest vineyards in the world. It also is a testament to the marvels of Port Wine, which sees its origin in this fascinating region.


The Douro River ("River of Gold"), which originates in Spain (where it is known as the Duero River), extends for about 557 miles, passing through Portugal and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.  Only about 124 miles of the Douro winds through Portugal, now broken up by a series of hydroelectric dams.


The Douro River region was first demarcated in 1756 when the Marques de Pombal, the Prime Minister of Portugal, commissioned a geographical study of the region’s vineyards. The demarcation covered about 100,000 acres and included a detailed classification of the Baixa Corgo and Cima Corgo subzones. Many people claim that this was the first demarcated wine region, though there are others who claim that the Tokaj region in Hungary was the first, with a Royal Charter in 1737. Whatever the truth, the Douro River is certainly one of the oldest demarcated regions, indicative of its importance.


Over the subsequent years, the demarcated region of the Douro has been modified and expanded, and it now ranges from the parish of Barqueiros to the village of Barca d’Alva. It currently comprises about 250,000 hectares, though only about 18% (45,000 hectares) of that land is covered with vineyards. Olive trees are also common in this region and we enjoyed some fine olive oils at various spots.


The Douro River was once much wilder and nearly impassable at points due to its raging rapids, but engineering endeavors worked to transform the river into a more navigable waterway. It was also beneficial that by the end of the 19th century, a railway had been constructed that extended to the Spanish border, making travel much easier and quicker. Now, with a series of hydroelectric dams, the river is more like a series of placid lakes, making river transport relatively easy.

"When the demerits of this area are balanced against its advantages, it is difficult to understand how men ever came to consider it suitable for cultivation."
--Landscapes Of Bacchus: The Vine in Portugal by Dan Stanislawski

On one day of our trip, we took a 5km walk, led by Portugal Green Walks, through the vineyards of Quinta da Roêda, which are owned by Croft Port. Portugal Green Walks conducts numerous walking tours of northern Portugal and this is an excellent way to get to know the Douro region. I gained a deeper understanding of the issues involving the steep, terraced vineyards and the schist soils. It is clearly arduous work, and you need to be sure footed with good footwear while wandering through the vineyards. Surrounded by incredible beauty, it was such a pleasure to leisurely walk past the vines, on a fine autumn day


The Douro region is surrounded on three sides by high mountains and the upper reaches of the region are largely protected from the Atlantic, earning it the provincial name of Trás-os-Montes ("behind the mountains"). Because of the mountainous terrain of the Douro, the vineyards are generally planted on slopes, commonly steep, and about 90% have a gradient in excess of 30%, which can even range up to a 70% gradient.


The soil in the Douro region tends to be comprised of rocky schist, which is high in acid, rich in nutrients and possesses excellent water retention. The term "schist" derives from the Greek term "schistos" which means "divided," as the schist has a foliated structure and will split in thin irregular plates. At times in the past, schist had to be dynamited to plant vineyards although bulldozers are now used more commonly. However, dynamite is still occasionally used even today.

This is a cork tree in one of the vineyards and the number on it indicates the year it was last harvested. The number "3" refers to the year 2013, and it won't be harvested again for nine years, so not until 2022.


The Douro region has three primary subzones, including: Baixo Corgo, in the west & centered on the town of Regua; Cima Corgo, centered on Pinhao; and the Douro Superior, in the east. The Baixo Corgo sub zone, which produces about 45% of all the Douro wines, tends to have cooler and wetter weather and the wines are lighter. The Cima Corgo sub zone, which produces about 40% of all Douro wines, is a warmer region and is the location of some of the best vineyards in the Douro. The Douro Superior sub zone, which produces about 15% of all the Douro wines, has the hottest and driest weather,


Since 1933, every vineyard in the Douro has been graded, from A to F, based on a point system, with a maximum of 1680 points, that considers twelve different factors, including altitude, soil type, grape variety, slope, angle toward the sun, age of the vines, upkeep & maintenance, and more.


In general, the Douro region has harsh winters and hot summers with temperatures in the winter sometimes below freezing and summer temperatures that can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is because of those hot summer temperatures that Port wines were sent down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the wine could mature in cooler temperatures. The region also usually receives about twenty inches of rain annually.

At one point during our Portugal trip, while we were in Pinhão, we took a boat tour of the Douro with Magnifico Douro

We traveled aboard a barcos rabelo-style boat, the type of flat-bottomed vessels that once traveled up and down the Douro River, transporting passengers and cargo.

Here are a number of my traveling companions, all also from the Boston+ area.


It was a sunny day so the views were amazing, providing a more unique view of the landscape.


It was also quite tranquil and we saw only a few other vessels on the water.



If you visit the Douro, you should take one of the boat cruises to get a different view of the land.


At another point, we also rode on a train on the Linha do Douro, to Peso da Régua. The train line follows the course of the Douro River so you have plenty of great scenery visible from the train windows.

You can explore the Douro River region by so many different methods, including car, boat, train or by foot. No matter what method you use, you'll be stunned by the beauty of the region and awed by the steep-terraced vineyards wondering why any sane farmer who choose to plant in such a difficult area. I enjoyed such an amazing trip to the Douro and am sure that any wine lover would be equally as impressed.

“Port Wine is a great wine because it is the product of long experimentation, meticulous attention to details, and strict controls; and no Portuguese vineyardist would doubt that the environment of the Douro valley, its place of origin, has played an important part in its ultimate character.”
--Landscapes Of Bacchus: The Vine in Portugal by Dan Stanislawski

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