Letter from Portugal: Down in the Valley, Up With the Wines
By Mary Alice Kellogg
It’s no secret that Port is Portugal’s most delish export, but a visit to the Douro Valley, from whence all port and wine blessings originate, is an eye-opener. Think Napa, but with centuries-old vineyards clinging to steep hills plunging down to the river, twisting narrow roads unclogged by traffic, and countryside to spare. A UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, it’s a 90-minute drive from Oporto and dotted with quintas, port wine estates where the latest generation of winegrowers produce port grapes and also a stunning array of red and white still wines. Past and future happily co-exist; for instance, older vineyards are planted horizontally, but newer ones are vertical, the better for precious water (watering vines is forbidden) to make it equally to all roots.
No need to pitch a tent, as the Douro boasts gracious world-class hotels. At the AquaPura resort, perched on a hilltop surrounded by vineyards, the main house may date from the 1700s, but inside all is contemporary Zen cool. A modern spa room wing connects to an expansive, impressive spa for those who want to spend all their time in bathrobes, but every room in wings old and new (treatment rooms, too) has a view of river and vine-lined hills. Even the swimming pool has spirit of place, with lounge chairs upholstered in aubergine and deep plum pool tiles. (Drink port. Pretend to swim in it. Repeat.)
Deeper into the countryside is Quinta da Pacheca, where the fourth generation of the Pimentel family produces some of the loveliest small-production still wines and private ports. A charming intimate gem, it has 15 stylish rooms tucked into the 18th-century main house, surrounded by gardens and vineyards. The tasting room is always open (showcasing local crafts: delicately woven straw hats, ceramics and handloomed fabrics), the sleek pale green and white dining room dishes up local specialties like roast leg of lamb with mint rice, just as your Portuguese granny would have prepared – if you had one – and with as much love.
Hugging the riverbank, the Vintage House Hotel is no longer a wine estate. But its 18th century antiques-filled main house and lodges, refurbished two years ago with all modern hotel bells and whistles subtly incorporated, preserve the spirit and tradition of the region. Gracious gardens and terraces ring a contemporary illusion swimming pool. In such a setting, I easily saw myself as a port wine mogul back in the day – and yes, there was at least one woman who fit that description. It felt like home.
I returned from the Douro Valley with precious bottles of small-production port impossible to find in the U.S. But more important, I came away with the realization that the region – and the country itself – does things right. Be proud of your patrimony, put your twist on the contemporary using your own creative resources, keep your traditions and sense of self. Have pride and resist being like everyone else who caves in the face of global sameness. And don’t let it go to your head. Portugal pulls this amazing feat off. I can’t wait to go back. Obrigado!
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com