Portugal is a country of strong wine tradition, and the excellent quality of its wines is recognised across the world, with numerous awards and distinctions won in international competitions. And to appreciate and know them, nothing like visiting the regions where they are produced, and wine is an excellent excuse to also discover the landscapes, heritage, culture and the people who live here.
The Douro and Alentejo regions are where you will find the largest number of places dedicated to wine tourism, but there are wine production units receiving visitors all over the country, including the Algarve. To fully get to know the vineyards, the wineries and taste the wines, why not stay overnight and explore the surrounding area too?
It is in the Alto Douro Wine Region, created in 1756, that Port wine that has always been intended for export is produced. No wonder that there is a centuries old tradition here of welcoming visitors and sharing with them the best that the region has to offer. To start with, there’s the superb scenery of the Douro valley, where man built terraces to plant vines on the region’s rugged slopes. A landscape was produced that was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, populated by farms traditionally linked to wine. It’s possible to get here from Porto, where the Port Wine Lodges are, and a good way to discover the region is on board a cruise ship, visiting some of the most iconic sites linked to the production of fine wines from the Douro and Porto.
The foundation of Portugal started in the north, the cradle of the oldest noble families who helped our kings in the conquest of the territory. This is why the north, which is the home of vinho verde, boasts so many palaces and manor houses displaying their coats of arms, in which the hospitality is in the best aristocratic tradition. You can stay in many of these houses and farms, where you can have wine tastings and other experiences, such as visits to other features of their heritage. This region also has several historical cities such as Braga, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, and many others on the coast and in the interior, some of them on the banks of rivers that add extra freshness and fascination.
The central region contains historic cities like Viseu, Coimbra - recently included on the World Heritage list – and Aveiro on the coast, and other charming places like Buçaco with its century old spa. You will also find excellent wine tourism units, some of which are owned by old Portuguese wineries, although they have all have kept up with current trends in wine production and use the most modern production methods. These establishments are well-equipped, and take advantage of their ancient historical legacy, sometimes even including small museums.
The Alentejo is a fertile region in wine tourism units, and it is here that one can find several leading national producers and its quality is appreciated worldwide and was considered the best wine region in the world to visit in 2014 by readers of the prestigious American newspaper USA Today. The wine producing quintas (farms) and herdades (estates) lay within this landscape of vast horizons, and they are also renowned for their hospitality and cuisine. At their centre is Évora, another World Heritage city, whose beautiful, serene historical centre will leave you enchanted. You can also participate in the grape harvest and observe the different stages in the making of a wine. Highlight also goes to Reguengos de Monsaraz, which in 2015 is the European city of the wine and proposes many initiatives which are not to be missed such as astronomical observations with wine tasting, harvesting of grapes to create a commemorative wine, themed events and food and wine dinners.
On the other side of the Atlantic highlight goes to the Madeira wine that has gained fame and prestige in all four corners of the world, a real "treasure" that already in the eighteenth century was appreciated by kings, princes, generals and explorers. Amongst the more than 30 different varieties, emphasize is placed on the finest - Sercial, Boal, Verdelho and Malvasia, the latter representing sweet wine, full-bodied with an intense perfume and red colour. The vines arranged in terraces supported by stone walls, resemble stairs, which in some parts of the island connect the sea to the mountain boasting breathtaking landscapes.
In short, Portugal offers excellent opportunities for wine tourism, often associated with rural tourism and boutique hotels in prime locations. Besides the wines, you can enjoy other farm-produced products, such as fruits and jams, cheeses, olive oils, traditional sweets and the local cuisine itself. Despite their often rustic appearance, don’t be mistaken, because these are modern hotels with wineries and cellars that have invested in advanced technology, some designed by internationally renowned architects.
Port and Douro Wine Route
In the grandiose amphitheatre of the Douro Valley, classified World Heritage, man gave birth to Port wine and table wines of great quality.
Port wine is the oldest ambassador for Portugal. Grown on the terraces of the Douro, it proudly belongs to one of the oldest demarcated regions of the world, since the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro (General Agricultural Company for the Vineyards of the Upper Douro) was created in 1756. Its mission was to set the boundaries of the region, register the vineyards and classify the wines according to their quality.
Douro table wines, which in recent decades have gained great renown and have been acclaimed across borders, thanks to the quality of both the reds and whites, and even the rosés, are also produced here.
Inseparable from the River Douro that runs through deep valleys from the border with Spain until near Porto, this region of schist mountains, with poor, harsh soils, was transformed by the actions of the men who planted the vineyards step by step. Green in summer, fiery red in autumn, the vineyards have created a unique landscape classified by UNESCO.
Let the Douro landscape enrapture you: the valleys, the blue ribbon of the river meandering down below, the terraced vineyards, the pure air... Although today the rabelo boats can no longer be seen transporting the wine down river, the wine still travels down the river to Porto, where it is aged in the neighbouring Lodges in Gaia, and so has inherited from its place of departure the name that has made it famous for the rest of the world.
The winegrowing region is divided into three areas. To the west, in the Lower Corgo, is the capital of Port wine, the city of Peso da Régua, where you must pay a visit to Museu do Douro and the Solar do Vinho do Porto, to taste and learn more about this nectar. Pinhão is in the sub-region of the Upper Corgo, where the most famous Port Wines are concentrated. Near Peso da Régua is the viewpoint of São Leonardo de Galafura. But the landscape you can admire from São Salvador do Mundo is no less exciting. This is on the south bank, in the sub-region of Upper Douro, close to São João da Pesqueira.
An interesting feature of the Port Wine Route is that you can also make it by car, train or boat, since the river is navigable from Porto to Barca de Alva, on the border with Spain. A good suggestion to make the trip is to embark at the Gaia pier and follow the river to Régua, the most important railway station on the route, where you can catch the old steam train and depart on a historic journey. You must take a look at the tiles in Pinhão station, depicting wine-related activities, then cross the bridge and go along the undulating roads that border the river on the south side.
And do take the opportunity to visit some of the many estates that produce Douro wine and Port, some of which are prepared for wine tourism. After all, what better place to sample a glass of port or enjoy a good Douro wine with your meal? Indeed, almost three hundred years since the Marquis of Pombal decreed that this winemaking region should be demarcated, in addition to Port wine, the wines of the Douro have also gone on to win first place in international competitions. And they taste even better in the land that produces them.
The Wines of Centro de Portugal
With its great diversity of landscapes and climatic conditions, Centro de Portugal produces excellent wines that go well with the regional cuisine.
Situated in the coastal strip between the ocean and the Serra do Buçaco, the Bairrada region is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, with abundant rainfall and mild temperatures. This cool and moist climate produces grapes with high acidity and low alcohol content, ideal for making sparkling wines. It was in this region, in 1890, that this type of wine was produced for the first time in Portugal, especially the “Dry” variety, which is the perfect accompaniment for suckling pig, the speciality of the region’s cuisine.
Bairrada also produces white wines with a citrine colour and fruity aroma; reds, whose garnet to ruby colours adopt brownish tones with aging; and also marc brandies. You can get to know the history of these nectars at the Bairrada Wine Museum in Anadia, or by visiting the farms and wineries where they are produced, some in traditional cellars, others in contemporary facilities designed by renowned architects.
Inland, the River Dão gives its name to a wine region that was the second to be demarcated in Portugal, in 1908. These wines were recognised for their excellence as long ago as the foundation of the Kingdom in the 12th century, when the clergy, particularly the Cistercian monks, promoted agriculture. Grown in granite and schist soils, the vineyards of the Dão are scattered across this mountainous area, which is protected from the Atlantic winds by the Buçaco, Caramulo, Montemuro and Estrela mountains.
The wines have an alcohol content of 12º and age well, even in the bottle. The whites have a citrine colour and fruity aroma and the ruby reds are full-bodied with a velvety consistency, and over time they acquire an accented bouquet. To better appreciate these features, there’s nothing like a visit to the Solar do Vinho do Dão in Viseu, housed in the former Bishop’s Palace of Fontelo, or to the producers’ wineries, which are spread around the municipalities of Viseu, Mangualde, Nelas, Tondela, Sátão, Penalva do Castelo, Santa Comba Dão and Carregal do Sal.
Beira Interior Wines
There’s yet another Denomination of Origin wine region: Beira Interior, which includes the Castelo Rodrigo, Cova da Beira and Pinhel sub-regions. Here, the vines are grown in the mountains between 400 and 700 metres, in a harsh climate where temperatures go below freezing in winter in contrast to the hot, dry summers. The combination of these factors gives rise to very fresh wines, in which a wide range of grape varieties is used, allowing the constant discovery of new aromas and flavours.
This discovery, as we have seen, can provide an excellent excuse to get to know the region better while tasting, relishing and toasting!
Alentejo Wine Route
A wine producing region with a long tradition, the Alentejo boasts wines that will surprise you for their excellence, aromas and colours as unique as the landscape and the cuisine.
This region, where the skyline extends as far as the eye can see, on which the cork oaks bestow a sense of strength and durability, was once an expanse of wheat fields. Today, the wheat fields have been replaced by vast vineyards, whose wines take in the power of the landscape and the heat, and can be counted amongst the most celebrated in Portugal.
Besides the Alentejo Regional Wine, which is found all over the region, wine producers are spread across 8 areas bearing a designation of origin - Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, Vidigueira, Évora, Granja/Amareleja and Moura, which allows for a diversity of choice anywhere in Alentejo.
The distinct characteristics of the soils according to area (granite, limestone, Mediterranean or schist), the long hours of exposure to the sun and a group of selected grape varieties enable high quality production, combined with the ability to preserve the tradition of flavour, while innovating in the art of winemaking.
There is a distinction between the white wines, which are aromatic, fresh and balanced, and the red wines, ruby- or garnet-coloured, which are more intense, full-bodied and at the same time smooth and slightly astringent.
To make the right choice and know what is the best pairing for a meal, there’s nothing better than visiting a wine cellar where you will be welcome by the most knowledgeable wine makers who are willing to enlighten you. You can also start at the Tasting Room (Sala de Provas) of the Alentejo Wine Route, in Évora, where several routes around the region will be suggested to you. It also gives you an opportunity to visit the city of Évora, which has World Heritage status.
Other alternative suggestions to get to know the secrets of the wine are to visit the Enoteca (Wine Shop) and the Wine Museum of Redondo or participate in the grape harvesting festivals in late summer, of which Borba is a good example with its Festa da Vinha e do Vinho (Vine and Wine Festival).
And if you add the delicious Alentejo cheeses and the fragrant flavours of the Alentejo cuisine to the wines, your visit will surely be richer and more complete.
Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture, World Heritage (UNESCO)
What about tasting a wine that grows on basaltic rock? It seems strange that such conditions produce such a delicious nectar, but the truth is that in days gone by, this wine went directly to the table of the Russian Tsars.
The cultivation of vines on Pico began in the late 15th century, when the island was first settled. Thanks to the volcanic soil, rich in nutrients, the dry, warm microclimate of slopes protected from the wind by walls of rough, dark stone, heated by the sun, the Verdelho variety vines have exceptional ripening conditions here. The wine was later exported to many countries in Europe and America, and even arrived at the table of the Russian Court. The vineyards that dot the landscape of the island, still produce a crisp, fruity, dry and mild wine that is an ideal companion for a plate of seafood or fish, as well as the vinho de cheiro (fragrant wine) that is so popular at the tables on feast days.
These lands, the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture, combining their volcanic nature and ancestral cultivation practices, were classified by UNESCO in 2004 as World Heritage. Lajido da Criação Velha and Lajido de Santa Luzia are the best examples of this art of dividing the land that this title recognises. The vines planted in the lava rock are tightly enclosed by dry stone walls in plots called "currais", that are protected from the sea wind but let in the sunshine necessary for their maturation.
There are numerous species of flora and fauna that are part of this natural habitat, which feature a rich presence of the endemic Laurel forests characteristic of the Macaronesian region.
Other testimonies to winegrowing activities are the "Rilheiras", ruts left by the wheels of ox carts carrying the grapes and barrels, and in the harbours and coves along the coast the "rola-pipas", ramps excavated by the sea, along which the barrels of wine were rolled before being transported in boats to Faial. There is also a built heritage associated with vine cultivation, which includes manor houses, wine cellars, warehouses, tidal wells, convents and chapels, all worth a visit during your stay on Pico.
Once you’ve appreciated the design of this gigantic stone labyrinth by the seaside, it’s time to taste the wine. Dry or sweet and comforting, it tastes even better in a picturesque winery. In the Pico Wineries, sometimes adapted to rural tourism, the volcanic stone walls are intertwined with the sea and the vegetation. The living memory of the Verdelho cycle has found a new chapter in the Wine Museum. This is in Madalena, in a former Carmelite convent, and has a collection of tools, stills and vats. Its leafy forest of dragon trees gives an extra scenic attraction to the wine press that has stood the test of time.
Though it has continuously produced wines of exceptional quality over time, the Pico Wine Cooperative has recently released some new wines, in particular the "Lajido", the rightful heir to the old "Verdelho", and distinct white and red table wines.
Pico wines have a tradition. VLQPRD (fortified wines), aperitifs, table wines, whites, reds, Vinho de Cheiro, Angélica and Pico spirits can be found in any restaurant or grocery store, making it easy to taste them and take them with you.
A Wine bearing the name of an Island and an Island bearing the name of a Wine
Acknowledged all over the world as a tourist destination par excellence, the Island of Madeira also owes its celebrity to the wine bearing its name, which has earned fame and prestige in the most varied parts of the globe.
Appreciated across the world, this “nectar” is one of the Island of Madeira’s key features. Chosen to celebrate the Independence of the U.S.A. in 1776, praised by Shakespeare, cherished by kings, princes, generals and explorers, Madeira Wine is undoubtedly a genuine treasure.
Although there are more than 30 different grape varieties, the best ones are: Sercial, Boal, Verdelho and Malvasia. Sercial is particularly good for dry wine, being ideal as an aperitif for its lightness, intense perfume and light colour. Verdelho, delicate, very aromatic and golden-coloured, is the most suitable for accompanying meals. Semi-sweet, smooth, velvety and dark golden-coloured, Boal is mostly recommended between a dish of roast meat and dessert. Between meals or for dessert, few can resist Malvasia. It represents the sweet, full-bodied, intensely perfumed and red-coloured wine.
The vineyard landscape, deeply entrenched on the Island, sports a colour palette which shifts throughout the year, from different shades of green to russets. The construction of the terraces, supported by stone walls, evokes staircases which, in some parts of the Island, extend from the sea to the mountain, resembling small gardens built into the landscape.
Grape harvesting takes place in September, and is open to all. This is when the Madeira Wine Festival is held, a tribute to this century-old product of worldwide fame.
The Vinho Verde Route
The Vinho Verde Route (literally, “green wine”) in the far northwest of Portugal leads us through a landscape that is also green, divided into small plots which occupy the whole Minho region and extend south to the river Vouga.
Vinho Verde is unique worldwide, and is an excellent reason to explore the region. Its name is possibly related to the predominant colour of the region in which it is produced or the acidity that is peculiar to it, as if the grapes were harvested green. However, both the whites and the reds are light wines that are drunk chilled, and go well with fish and seafood, which abound on the coast. The white, the most well-known and best-loved, is a particularly aromatic and refreshing drink, enjoyed as an aperitif, with salads, snacks or as a simple break on a hot day.
The vineyards, which are mainly concentrated along the rivers, are influenced by the Atlantic ocean and, in search of the sun, the vines entwine along the trees, climb on trellises and border fields punctuated by typical granaries. They are divided into nine sub-regions (from north to south): Monção and Melgaço; Lima; Basto; Cávado; Ave; Amarante; Baião; Sousa and Paiva.
The sub-region of Monção and Melgaço, alongside the river Minho, is the birthplace of the reputed Alvarinho variety, which has a route of its own. In addition to these places, you can also visit the charming towns of Valença, Vila Nova de Cerveira and Caminha. As in almost all the towns along the Route, the cool riverside areas contrast with the granite of the many manor houses and monuments that are typical of northern Portugal. Like in Viana do Castelo (formerly Viana da Foz do Lima), Arcos de Valdevez, Ponte da Barca and Ponte de Lima owe their name to the rivers that run through them. Barcelos, on the banks of the Cávado, and Amarante, on the Tâmega, are also cities worth visiting, full of history and tradition. But don’t miss the most important historic cities of the region: Braga and Guimarães.
Braga, where the cathedral stands out amongst the many churches in the oldest diocese in the country, can be your gateway to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, where the villages of Castro Laboreiro and Soajo mark the boundary of the Vinho Verde region. In Soajo, don’t miss the old group of stone granaries, where cereal is still stored today; Guimarães, whose historic centre is a World Heritage Site, retains its castle and the mediaeval design of a town known as the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. Along the rivers Sousa, Douro and Tâmega you will also find the rustic, unadorned heritage of the Romanesque Route.
Finally, you mustn’t leave without a visit to the most iconic quintas in the region, as famous for their manor houses as the quality of their wines. This is a great region for tourism in Manor Houses, with a great concentration of grand residences where you can settle in and benefit from northern Portugal’s fine and genuine hospitality.
On the topic of vinhos verdes, you mustn’t forget an ally that gives it pride of place: the local cuisine. Start with caldo verde (cabbage soup), continue with river trout or some excellent fish from the coast, an arroz de cabidela (chicken rice cooked in blood), rojões (braised pork chunks), sarrabulho (pork rice cooked in pig blood) or one of many Minho-style cod dishes, and end with a sweet noodle or Abade de Priscos crème caramel for dessert. And before or after make a toast with sparkling vinho verde of great quality which, being relatively recent, has won many loyal devotees all over the world.