A drive along the Douro River on the national road N222 is a great way to begin to understand the singularity of this region. The winding roads offer different perspectives of how man has created, throughout the past thousands of years, one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions. Its beauty is unique, but it is exactly the contrasts, contradictions, complexities and infinite variations within this Douro River Valley region that make it so.
The Douro River Valley
There are 40,000 hectares of vineyard planted on slopes along the Douro River, its many affluent rivers and breath-taking mountains. This makes the Douro River Valley the largest of its kind, greater than the Mosel in Germany or Bierzo in Spain, which are similar in landscape. It took a while to reach this dimension, as grapes have grown here since pre-historic times.
The Douro River Valley has been identified as one of the most important grounds for settlers for longer than we admit human beings roam the land, with famous art carvings being found in the Vale do Côa dating back to 25,000 BC. It was the Romans, however, who further developed viticulture, cereal production and fruit growth in the area. And it was not until 1756 that the Douro River Valley was officially demarcated and controlled by the Portuguese prime minister in order to assure the quantity and quality of the wines being produced here and shipped off to England, Brazil and other countries. This demarcation makes the Douro Valley the oldest of its kind.
This region of great biodiversity and visionary men has been this way for its geographical and climatic conditions. There is a variation of close to 80 metres in altitude to over 700; different forms of plantings along the gradient slopes (some dating back to the early 18th century, others from the more recent 2000’s) also affect how the vines will grow and grapes will develop.
All in the Balance
How the hot summer sun reflects off the schist stone soils, how shade offers refuge from the summer heat and what were the freezing temperatures throughout the winter define the quality of the growth that year. Each variety will mature differently, each one has its own character and there are nearly 100 permitted Portuguese grape varieties in the Douro River Valley.
It is a rare day when clouds are as thick down by Régua, as they are up in Alijó, as rain and humidity travel through the valley at very different concentrations. The Douro River Valley always paints itself differently in every sunrise and sundown for those who see it every day. The only constant is the determination in the hard work behind the manual labour workers in the field have undertaken throughout the year.
This river is the mirror of centuries of the work of man, in his determination to optimise natural resources and create the ideal cocoon for the growth and development of each foot of vine. It offers the perfect birthplace for one of the greatest wines in the world: Vintage Port. In more recent times, Red and White Douro DOC wines have been produced here with the same determination, effort and commitment as Port Wine in the past. The expression of the Douro’s singularity is exactly its diversity.
Next week, I’ll give you my picks for the best Portuguese wines in the Valley.