Douro Valley & Porto (I): A Day Exploring Quintas

A day at Douro Valley, visiting quintas and tasting port wine.

The Douro Valley is the birth place of port wine, a rich and complex ‘sweet juice’ that goes great after dinner on its own or with dessert. Who doesn’t love port wine? Visiting the valley and tasting port have been on our list for years, we finally made it in February.

Quinta do Seixo, Sandeman

Our plan was one day at the Douro Valley and two days in Porto. Three days were not long barely enough for us to visit the places we had wanted to go. We decided to stay at the heart of the Douro, a little town called Pinhão, which was about two-hour drive from Porto.

To maximize our experience, we splurged on the fancy classic hotel at Pinhão, the Vintage House Hotel. Our balcony was open to the Douro river.

From the hill top of Pinhão, Douro Valley looking down on our hotel the Vintage House Hotel

A river cruise was just a step away from the hotel. In February, there is only short cruise–one hour navigating around Pinhão, the most scenic part of the Douro River. The long version lasts for seven hours, operates daily from March to November between Porto and Pinhão. In my opinion, this short ride gave a taste of the cruise, enough for us because it all looked the same after a while.

It was orange season, all kinds of citrus fruits were there await, begging to be tasted and free for hotel guests. The orange and grapefruit were ones of the sweetest and freshest I’d tasted. My favorite among the five kinds of citrus there was kumquat. We are having a tough time to adjust our taste buds to supermarket fruits now.

Do you know the Douro river is 550 mile long, starting from Spain? It is called Duero in Spain. We happen to love red wine from the Douro, both of Spain and Portugal. The longer part of the river, about 350 miles, is in Portugal. The river runs west, pours to the Atlantic ocean at Porto. The grapes are harvested in the fall, the wine spends the first winter in the valley, then the barrels are floated downstream to Porto in the spring to be aged in the cellars because the valley is too hot for storage in the summer months.

350 miles of the Douro River is within the border of Portugal

The deep in the Douro setting gave us advantage to visit quintas out of the way from the main road. A quinta is a farm that produces port and table wine. Our best tasting experience in the valley was at the Quinta do Panascal.

The Picturesque Quinta da Panascal

Different from the other quintas we visited, the tour at the Quinta da Panascal was self guided. We were given a recorded audio guide, then wondered off freely to explore the winery. This Quinta produces Fonseca wine, which is owned by Taylor.

We chatted with the manager, and he pointed to the olive trees scattering all over the winery. Actually the olive oil industry goes much longer the wine industry in Douro. I did pick up hint of olive on the wine tasting that followed. The power of suggestion? 🙂

Wine tasting was followed after the tour. There are basically three types of port wines: the ruby port, the downy port and the vintage port. There are six grape varieties making up the majority of the port, they are Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (also called Tempranillo in Spain), Touriga Francesa (the most widely planted) and Touriga Nacional (the most famous Portugal grape). Check out this article for further reading.

  • Fonseca Siroco White Port N.V. 3***
  • Fonseca Bin 27 Finest Reserve Port NV 4****
  • Fonseca 10 year Old Tawny Port 4.5****

Ten euros for the tour and wine tasting. The above three wines were included in the tasting. Actually most of the quintas offer a similar program, an hour long tour following by a tasting of 3-4 wines for 10 euros.

Of all the port wine, I can’t say which is better since they were all tasty to me. If I have to list my preference, then first is tawny port, the ruby, finally white port. Can’t say much about the expensive vintage port since we didn’t taste much. However we did taste a 1977-vintage port at Porto which I’ll write about at the next blog!

The best Quinta for photograph got to be the fabulous Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo. Unfortunately we were there during their lunch break, the tasting room was closed for two hours. However, we made it up tasting Sandeman at Porto later.

The ride from Douro Valley to Porto was really beautiful especially the segment from Pinhão to Peso da Régua. In the 70s a series of dams were built along the Douro to tame the water. Because of the dams, the water was so calm, the mirror-like reflection was enchanting.

Three shots of city of Peso da Régua:

After thoughts:

It was preferable to rent a car to the Douro Valley, if possible. Otherwise a convenient train can take you to the valley from Porto. With a car we were not limited to the quintas of walking distance around the station, we could explore deep into the valley.

A Quinta near Pinhão
A small memorial at the top hill of Pinhão

Most of the quintas at the valley were informal, economic and down to the earth, in comparison with our tasting experiences at the Napa Valley which were much pricier and more upscale in most wineries. It was perfect okay to just pull into any quinta. However coming in the light season, we missed a couple of tasting because of lunch break and close. So make sure to call ahead to get their tasting hours if you have one on the must-have list.

It turned out good for us to visit the valley first, then to Porto. Because we could make up the tasting we missed at the valley. Actually you can find tasting of almost every port wine at Porto where port wine ages up to decades at the cellars here after transported out of the valley.

Thank you for reading this far, please check out our visit to Porto, too!

Napa Valley Sunrise to Sunset (II)

I asked our hotel Concierge at Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa for locations to see sunrise in Napa Valley, they recommended the Alston Park nearby.

The park was small, the trail about 1 mile or so. People were already there walking their dogs before sunrise. What a perfect location, thank you Marriott. The sunrise that morning was spectacular! 🙂

Unlike the first day, We didn’t take any tours. Instead we picked wineries of our like and tasted on our own.

Domaine Chandon in Yountville.

It was very early in the growing season in February. Only bright yellow wild mustard blooms were abundant in the valley.

Among all the wineries we tasted, Opus One was the most expensive tasting we have ever experienced. And there was only ONE glass of red wine to taste!

2013 Opus One ***** (This one they sell for $399/bottle! No kidding!!)

  • Cabernet Sauvignon 79%
  • Cabernet Franc 7%
  • Merlot 6%
  • Petit Verdot ^%
  • Malbec 2%

I had to say it was DELICIOUS! And the tasting area upstairs had a great view, it was like a giant panoramic painting!

In comparison, other tastings all of sudden seemed “reasonably” priced! 🙂 However for a more reasonable price tag, go to Sonoma county, which we did the next day. The wineries there were much cheaper and very lay back.

Domaine Carneros in Napa Valley was very romantic tasting room, and they had the best sparkling wines.

These were the wines in Domaine Carneros we tasted:

  • Blanc de Blancs ****
  • Brut Rose (Cuvee de la Pompadour) *****
  • Brut Rose Late Disgorged *****
  • Avant-Garde Pinot Noir ****
  • Estate Pinot Noir *****

Just outside of Domaine Carneros, we had beautiful sunsets to end the day!

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Napa Valley Valentine’s Weekend (I)

Napa Valley should be on the list of any wine lovers. Summer and fall are the best seasons to visit for an obvious reason: there are grapes hanging on the vines and wine harvest should be fun to witness! With that said, I think any season is a good season for Napa. 🙂

Since we only had three days, we started from the northern tip of the valley: Calistoga–Sterling Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa on our first day.

Wine tasting was only part of the reason to visit Sterling Vineyards; the white building complex sit on top of the hill, the view of the valley from the winery is extraordinary! And the ride up to the tasting rooms itself was a great experience, too.

The following were the wines in our tasting:

  • 2016 Winemaker’s White Blend ***
  • 2015 Oak Knoll Chardonnay ***
  • 2015 Sangiovese ***
  • 2014 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ****
  • 2015 Petite Sirah ****
  • and California Malvasia Bianca *****

The entire Sterling Vineyards is best viewed from the Castello di Amorosa, and vice versa.

The Castello di Amorosa, the Castle of Love, is my #1 priority among Napa Valley wineries. The first time I heard about this castle was on Culture Trip, it was listed as one of the 12 most beautiful castles in America.

This Castle of Love has the best tour and tasting experience during our weekend in Napa. A fourth generation winemaker, Dario Sattui, spent more than 14 years to build this 13th century Tuscan-style castle to honor his Italian heritage and to share his deep love for medieval architecture.

Don’t let the look fool you, the castle was newly opened in 2007. There are 107 rooms, and no two rooms alike, wine caves, even a medieval armory and torture chamber, Castello has it all.

All the building materials were 700-800 year-old and hand-made, shipped from Italy! Talking about authenticity! Walking inside the castle we felt like traveling through time to Tuscany, Italy…

These were the wines we tasted at the castle:

  • 2017 Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer ***
  • 2017 Simpatica Riesling/Moscato Blend ****
  • 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard chardonnay ***
  • 2016 Pinot Noir Terra de Promissio *****
  • 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ****
  • 2013 Napa Valley Il Brigante Red Blend ***
  • 2017 Anderson Valley Late Harvest Gewurztraminer *****