Porto, Portugal is largely known for its wine — specifically port wine. Where do you think port wine got its name from? Maybe Porto? Absolutely. As someone that loves wine, and loves culture, I knew that I’d want to mix the two while in Porto. But how? By taking a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Douro Valley of course! I researched many tour operators, but ultimately decided that I would have the most enjoyable experience with Cooltour Oporto. Our tour guide Bárbara picked us up right on time (very unusual for the Portuguese!) at the bright hour of 8:15am for our 12-hour tour of the magnificent valley. The Douro is most known for it’s vibrant green, sloped vineyards; these terraced vineyards are over 2,000 years old! The Douro Valley’s microclimate is ideal for cultivating grapes, olives, and nuts.
Our first stop of the day was at D’Origem to visit an olive oil museum and to partake in our very first Douro wine tasting! Here, we were met by Paolo, a fourth generation wine and olive oil maker; the vineyard itself has been in the family for over 200 years! From his driveway, there were fantastic views of the valley, river, vines, fruit trees, and olive trees. In the Douro Valley, olive trees mark peoples’ properties. In the past, people that didn’t produce their own olive oil gathered their olives, gave them to the closest producer, and the producer kept 12% of the product as a trade. For most families, olive oil was liquid gold; it was the only thing they could sell and get money from, since everyone in the Douro Valley already had fruits and veggies.
We moved into the next room to view the granite mills. The granite mills crush the olives (the whole olive, without the leaves); the olives are worked and crushed for 45 minutes to an hour, forming a pate mixture, from which to extract the oil. From there, the process is as follows:
- From the mill, the pate is passed to a double container blender to mix it; the outer contains has hot water to turn the pate into a buttery consistency. This process takes about an hour.
- Then, the buttery paste is spread on a mat and put on a full press. They press from bottom to top, as it leaves less sediments in the olive oil.
- Next, it is flushed with hot water because oil floats. Due to that, as the water passes through the olive oil, it filters out the sediments.
- As a final step, the oil is spun at high speed to get rid of any water that may still be inside. What do you do at the end with the leftover olive mush? Well, it works as a fantastic organic fertilizer for your vines! Everything must be organic when making port wines, so each maker must be sure not to throw away anything they can’t use!
After learning about the process of making olive oil, we discovered what it’s like to produce Douro wine. We were first taken to the stomping tank where grapes are crushed by foot; 3 or 4 hours of stepping will transform the grapes into juice. The grape skins will emerge on the surface and will be blended with the juice to extract particular aromas, flavors, and colors. There are two types of wine produced in the Douro Valley: Douro Wine and Port Wine. Douro wine isn’t sweet, and fermentation lasts between 10 to 14 days. Once the natural sugar is gone, the Douro wine is complete. Port wine, on the other hand, is sweeter and has a much higher level of alcohol. Fermentation is not completed with Port wine, and the process is stopped between 2 and 4 days depending on the sugar measures. To compliment the fact that the fermentation process was stopped, the producers add 20% of a neutral brandy; this kills all of the yeast, stops fermentation, and adds alcohol percentage (compensating for the alcohol lost when fermentation was stopped).
Once finished learning about both the olive oil and wine making processes, we got to taste everything! We began by dipping bread in the home-produced olive oil; the olive oil was the freshest I have ever tasted, and I’m not sure I will ever taste anything better. Then, we moved to wines and tried a crispy white, a smooth rosé, and a full-bodied red, and Paolo was even kind enough to refill our glasses! For those nondrinkers, he also has a spectacular home-produced grape juice that I could drink by the jug!
Following an incredibly informative tour at D’Origem, it was time for our river cruise down the Douro River. Traditionally, wine barrels were taken down the Douro River on flat-bedded boats to be stored across the river from Porto.
Well, we got to experience what it was like to travel down the Douro on such a boat, all while taking in the stunning views of the vineyard terraces. Unfortunately, we had a chilly, cloudy day, but it didn’t take away from the grandeur of the valley. We found the boat ride to be extremely relaxing after a busy morning.
Post-cruising, it was time to eat at Sabores do Douro. It is typical for most tours to provide you with a small lunch; Cooltour Oporto, however, provided us with a large, multi-course meal with complimentary unlimited wine. Yes, you heard that right. Not only were we on a wine-tasting tour, but we were fed wine for lunch.
No need to twist my arm! Of course, there was not only wine, but bread and olive oil, a flavourful salad, fried fish with rice, and chicken with potatoes. If we weren't full enough, they then gave us the option of chocolate mousse or a port-soaked sponge cake, which was absolutely delicious.
A bit buzzed from lunch, we hopped in the car to head to Quinta de Santa Eufêmia. We were greeted by Teresa, a fourth generation port wine producer, and she explained that every step of the port wine producing process is completed on her property. She explained that during harvesting season, both men and women have to fill a plastic box with grapes weighing approximately 25 kilos (55 lbs). After the grapes are de-stemmed, they are then smashed by feet to extract more color and intensity.
For the fermentation process to begin, the port wine is put in oak caskets.
Interestingly, before any port wine could be sold, each batch must be submitted to the Port Wine Institute for review. The producers must say what kind of wine they’re selling and how many bottles they’d like to sell. The port wine is then entered into a blind tasting because it must have very specific characteristics before it is allowed to be bottled.
Port winemaking is so regulated that even the brandy that is added to the wine must be approved by the Port Wine Institute, and the producers are told where they could purchase such brandy. If approved, the port wine is bottled and labeled by hand with a specific number. Talk about a grueling process!
After walking through the port wine cellar and watching the staff members label each bottle, it was time for us to try some of the famous port wine in Portugal! We tried three different types: a white, a ruby, and a tawny. The white port is obviously made with white grapes, while the ruby and tawny are made with red grapes. The difference between a ruby and a tawny is that a ruby uses only intense red grapes, while a tawny uses a variety of red grapes. We also learned that for a port wine to be considered “vintage,” it must be at least two years after the harvest. Personally, port wine is a bit too strong for me (sorry Portugal!), but it was quite a hit with the rest of the group!
When leaving Quinta de Santa Eufêmia, our whole group was exhausted. Who knew that eight hours of tasting wine could tire a girl out?! This winery signified the end of our incredible tour with Cooltour Oporto. Bárbara’s knowledge of wine blew me away, and she was as funny and personable as could be. I truly hope to return to the Douro Valley sometime in the spring when the vineyards are lusciously green, but I wouldn’t consider going with anyone other than Cooltour Oporto, and specifically Bárbara! They really know how to do something special in the Douro Valley, and for that, I applaud them.
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**A very special thank you to Bárbara and CoolTour Oporto for offering us a complimentary tour. As always, all opinions are my own.