Updated October 2, 2017
The Douro River Valley has been designated as a wine-growing sanctuary for nearly four centuries, and wine grapes have been thriving here for thousands of years. So it's really no wonder that wine tourism is a focus in this region, and Portuguese vinho plays an integral part in any cruise along the Douro River.
Like only grapes grown in France's Champagne region can be given that name, only grapes grown in the Douro Valley region can be called port. In fact, Portugal has a few ties to fellow famous wine country France, from bridges that you will pass under designed by Gustave Eiffel to a history of British consumers. Portugal has France to thank for the spread of port to the rest of the world -- due to conflict in the 1600s and 1700s, Britain sought another source of wine for import. That opportunity fell to Portugal, and in order to make the journey back to England, the wine was fortified with brandy. Thus, port wine was born.
Fans of rich cheese and sweets (two things Portugal also excels at), will delight at the quality and availability of the region's indulgent dessert wine. What you might not expect is that the lush vineyards of Portugal produce much more than your average ruby port.
Table wines have become a renewed focus in the Douro region, with full-bodied reds, and more recently, crisp whites with bright apple profiles. The Douro even gives us a third "color" of wine: green. Vinho verde, or green wine, is a low-alcohol and slightly effervescent white wine that is grown primarily in the Minho region, just north of Porto. Green refers to the region, as well as the age of the grapes -- these wines are typically best enjoyed young, and we think they make the perfect poolside companion on a hot summer day.
Cruise Critic did some heavy lifting (of glasses) to give an overview of the ancient cities and small villages you will visit as part of a Douro River cruise, and what you can expect to find and imbibe there. Felicidades!
Porto & Vila Nova de Gaia
If the name doesn't give it away, Porto -- Portugal's second-largest city after Lisbon -- is more or less the birthplace of port wine. Most Douro River cruises begin and end here, so it's the perfect tipple to celebrate with on either end. Port wine packs a punch -- an average of 20 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) -- due to a colorless and tasteless wine spirit that is added to the wine to stop the fermentation process. In addition to the red port most commonly shipped around the world, there are tawny ports, white ports and even rose ports, a relatively new addition.
Tawny is a very sweet barrel-aged port, and white port is made with various indigenous white grapes. Rose is a new style of port, drawing from the popularity of rose wine and evoking flavors of strawberry, violet and caramel.
Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman (also known as Taylor's), is one of the region's largest port wine producers, located just over the bridge across from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia. Gaia plays an historic role in port production for its cellars, known as caves, where the wine is stored. A visit to Taylor's, included on some cruise lines' excursions through the city of Porto, will offer a thorough tour and explanation of port wine, as well as a tasting near the lovely garden, which comes with peacocks and stunning views of Porto. (The Yeatman, a luxury hotel where famous Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo stays when he is in town, is adjacent to the property.) Taylor's boasts an enormous collection of vintages, chosen only during the best harvesting years. But for just about $13 USD for a bottle, you can bring home your own dry white port, which is a variety not exported to the States and not widely available outside of Portugal. Impress guests by mixing your souvenir with some mint, tonic and lemon for a refreshing, local summer cocktail called a port tonic.
Pinhao is a sleepy town in the heart of port wine country, along the Douro Valley train line. You wouldn't guess it, but Pinhao was the first village in the Douro Valley to have electricity or a telegraph, and it's also the home of one of the area's first upscale wine hotels, a former 18th-century estate now called the Vintage House Hotel. Head here for some rich atmosphere at the Library Bar, where wine classes are held in addition to casual cocktail hours. It's all about the port in this town, and you will find brands from all around the Douro, including Casa Amarela, with a delightful ruby reserve port, or Borges, a tawny reserve with honey and marmalade aromas.
The adjacent restaurant, Rabelo, is named after the boats that used to transport Pinhao's precious port wine to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it would be sold. Now, those boats are used for day tours on the river. Most river cruise lines don't call on Pinhao for that long; there's not much to do here, but plenty of wine to pass the time. A small restaurant is attached to the town's iconic train station. Head here, under the shade of the umbrellas on the patio, to sip a regional glass of vinho for just about 3 euros while gazing at the striking painted tiles (known as azulejos) that cover the station.
About 65 miles east of Porto is Lamego, a charming town with a famous cathedral from the Middle Ages and an impressive little art museum featuring works from as early as the 12th century. Just about everywhere you turn in Portugal is dripping with history, and Lamego is no exception, with remnants of medieval fortress walls still intact. After descending the nearly 700 steps from religious and architectural marvel the Our Lady of Remedies church and sanctuary, you deserve some wine.
Quinta da Pacheca is a wine estate in Lamego, with a selection of white, rose and red wine as well as syrupy white and pink ports. A dinner and wine pairing here might be a special evening event on some river cruise lines; it's an example of the wine house hotels that dot the landscape as you sail the Douro. What's impressive is the dynamic nature of the scenic grounds, the wines offered and the atmospheric cellar where visitors can dine.
If you stick to the downtown area, order a raposeira, which is a local sparkling wine, with an order of presunto (air-dried ham). For an after-dinner treat, have a slice of cavacas, an iced spongecake, and wash it down with some world-class port.
Vega de Terron (Salamanca)
Many river ships on the Douro dock along the border of Portugal and Spain in Vega de Terron. From here, cruisers can venture on day trips about two hours east into Salamanca, Spain. While Portuguese libations are certainly the highlight of the sailing, why not sample what the Spanish have to offer? With your tapas or a plate of paella at lunch, order a tempranillo. This Spanish red wine is made from a black grape variety, and might have notes of cherry, fig, plum, cedar, vanilla or tobacco. After your afternoon siesta, treat yourself to an energizing sangria -- local red wine usually mixed with fruit, juice and brandy.
Peso da Regua
In 2001, UNESCO declared the section of the river linking Regua with Pinhao, called Cima Corgo, a World Heritage Site. A fabulous homage to that heritage is the award-winning Douro Museum, opened in Regua in 2003, which is an included excursion on some river cruises. This facility, a former wine warehouse, documents the region's wine culture and history with panache. Even the buildings showcase the mix of traditional and modern styles. A permanent exhibition called "Memory of the Wine Region" presents how vines are grown around the Douro, including the region's weather conditions and what goes into the construction of the terraced landscape and the manual harvesting process. Also on the grounds you'll find a restaurant, library, reading room and wine bar overlooking the Douro River. It's a perfect opportunity to sip a single varietal green wine like Alvarinho as you process everything you just learned with stellar views down to the Douro.
Twenty minutes from where you're docked in Regua is Mateus Palace, an 18th-century estate with gorgeous gardens that is typically offered as a shore excursion. The facade will look familiar -- Mateus is a well-known brand of rose, but the only involvement that the estate has with the wine is the use of its image. The wine is not produced onsite. If you're looking to buy a bottle as a souvenir, head across the street to the gift shop there. Back in Regua, be on the lookout for old port wine bottles with tin labels, which make a neat momento.
Many Douro River sailings offer a pre- or post-cruise extension to the capital city of Lisbon. While you're here, why not break up a week of wine with some of the country's other liquid assets? Sagres and Super Bock are two of Portugal's major brands of cerveja (beer), and the lagers are an easy-drinking companion to any meal. For just a taste of something sweet and traditional, find a place that slings ginjinha, a homemade cherry liqueur, for about a euro a shot. "A Ginjinha," in Rossio Square, is one of the best-known places to partake in a ginja. The City of Seven Hills is also a haven for craft cocktail bars. Cinco Lounge is the drinking den of Portugal's famous culinary wonder Jose Avillez. While the flavors are sophisticated, the drinks are playful -- you might see one named "Jingle Bells and Batman Smells" made with rum, cognac, black raspberry and flamed with slightly caramelized pineapple wedges, served in a brandy balloon.