Yes, include a Douro River wine tour during your visit to Porto

Wine, port, lunch, terraced vineyard hills, and a short boat cruise on the Douro River await

From our vantage point at the top of the hill, low November clouds fringed the rounded hills. On the slopes and terraces, orange and yellow grape leaves gave their last colors to autumn. The rough comfort of wood smoke tinged the air. And behind us, in a tasting room on our Douro River wine tour in Portugal, our glasses were waiting.

“If you want to deepen your knowledge, experience, and appreciation not only of port but of Portugal’s overall wines, a Douro day tour will be a highlight of your time in Portugal.”

Snapshot of our Douro wine tour experience

We happened to visit Porto in autumn, and day tours were still running, from small groups like ours, to large buses. Our own tour took the entire day. Our guide picked us up in a comfortable touring van at around 8:30 in the morning, and dropped us off at our rental apartment at about 6:30 that evening.

Along the way, our guide told us about the history of the Douro region, how winemaking became established, and the terracing that has transformed the narrow, steep valley into country ideal for world-class Portuguese wines. We wound through small towns and passed vineyard after vineyard. While we were there more in an off season, we could still imagine the vibrant green the area would have come spring—not to mention the hubbub as summer heat gave way to the fervor of harvest and crush.

Given the slower time of year, our small group tour was us and one other couple, and we spent the day chatting and comparing notes about the wines and food we tried. The children, as well, got to get up close with the world of wine, whether large rectangular stone vats once used for crush, massive barrels aging and imparting character to new wines, or the combination of family, quality, and business that can come into play for any winery, including one we visited that’s been owned by the same family for over four hundred years.

Book the Douro wine tour we enjoyed

Douro wine tours can be kid-friendly day trips

Naturally, it’s a wine tour, so it’s easy to wonder how family friendly this can be. For starters, our two kids are nine and twelve years old. They’re curious, engaged, and eager to check things out. Plus, we’d be walking grounds and checking out various traditional and modern facilities. Those chances for movement helped the kids get energy out, and guides asked them questions or found other ways to involve the kids.

We also made sure to pack snacks and water bottles. Each kid brought their e-reader, so if they needed an activity of their own or were ready to veer their attention away from adults gabbing about wine, they could get lost in a book.

The pace of the tour helped with the family friendliness. Plus, the point of a trip is to learn about the wine making, chat with the people behind the wines, and taste and enjoy responsibly.

“The Douro is where nature’s circumstance meets the vision of people. And the result is joy in every glass.”

Wine tours galore in Portugal

Porto is the epicenter of Portugal’s Douro River wine country. While incredible ports, or fortified wines, come from this region, the Douro also produces red wines, white wines, and the distinct vinho verde, or fresh wines, complete with their slight fuzzy fizzy quality that makes for a most refreshing sipper. The area’s port wine market alone was valued at nearly a billion US dollars in 2021.

It’s no wonder that when people—especially tour guides—explain why the river is named “Douro,” talk turns to a word that means “golden.” From its origins in north-central  Spain, the Douro River forms part of the Portugal-Spain border. As it flows west toward its meeting with the Atlantic at Porto, the river winds past over 80 wine estates, known in Portuguese as “quintas” (pronounced “keen-thus”).

Dozens of operators run various kinds of wine tours to the Douro. Some are day tours, like what we enjoyed. Others offer overnight or multi-day excursions, complete with a range of dining and accommodation options.

We especially appreciated that these wine tours are a chance to savor wines that you cannot get outside of Portugal. While many people—including me before this trip—think primarily of port when we think of Portuguese wine, only a fraction of Portugal’s wines ever leave the country. Most Portuguese wines are truly a domestic product, beloved by a people who enjoy the most wine per person in all of Europe.

Look for other Douro wine tours in Portugal

Wines you might try in the Douro

Portugal is home to over 250 varieties of wine-making grapes. When visiting the Douro, your tour might introduce you to wines made with:

Black grapes

  • Bastardo
  • Mourisco tinto
  • Tinta Amarela
  • Tinta Barroca
  • Tinta Cão
  • Tinta Roriz (the Portuguese equivalent of Spain’s Tempranillo)
  • Touriga Francesa
  • Touriga Nacional

White grapes

  • Donzelinho branco
  • Gouveio
  • Malvasia Fina
  • Rabigato
  • Viosinho

As for Portugal’s Douro wine styles, among the most distinctive is not even the port, but the Vinho Verde, a fresh-tasting style that is starting to grow in popularity outside of Portugal. We found these textured, slightly spritzy bright wines to be so much fun to drink. After our tour, Vinho Verde was our favorite to continue sampling throughout our time in Porto.

Red wines and ports were the stars of the show on our Douro wine tour, however. We sampled dry, snappy reds, and luscious ports that gave us more insight on the style’s complexity.

Above all, the Douro is port country, though non-port wines are growing in production there. If you want to deepen your knowledge, experience, and appreciation not only of port but of Portugal’s overall wines, a Douro day tour will be a highlight of your time in Portugal.

A snapshot of our Douro Valley wine tour

From the slopes of the city to the terraced quinta hills

A little after 8 a.m., our guide was welcoming us into the tour van. We sat back in comfy chairs, with expansive views from broad windows. After picking up the other members of our tour, a couple visiting from California, we braved Porto’s morning rush hour, meandered along the riverside roads, and soon found ourselves on a highway, heading east. As we rose toward the mountains separating Porto from the quintas of the Douro Valley itself, thick, low fog settled on the ground, the road, and in the conifers lining the hills.

If we hadn’t known any better, we could have been in our own Willamette Valley in Oregon, driving to a vineyard on a foggy yet promising fall day.

This part of Europe, our guide explained, is more Atlantic than Mediterranean—especially weather. West of the mountains, the region is considered Coastal Douro. East is known as “Through the Mountains” or “Beyond the Hills”. The valley’s summers turn blazing, but they make up for it with severe winters, full of rain and snow. 

The roads here used to be more winding and narrow. Investment in part from EU funding has helped Portugal create a smooth, wide national highway system, reminding us of many of the pleasant drives we’ve taken on various highways around the USA. To our right, along the top of a line of hills, the old highway still ran. We soon lost sight of it, as our route turned to darkness. For the next quiet, slightly haunting minutes, we traveled along a four-mile highway tunnel through the mountains.

From low fog to a hilltop estate

Almost as soon as we passed through the tunnel, we left the fog. While the cloud lifted, it did not depart. Gray clouds hung in the November sky, with a threat and a promise of rain and mist, though maybe not just yet. But, the clouds seemed to say, you just never know when we’ll let loose.

With around a millennium of wine cultivation and production, the Douro is one of the world’s oldest wine regions. They, along with Italy’s Chianti and Hungary’s Tokaji regions, claim not just to be one of the oldest, but the oldest. The matter has risen to litigation, court dates, and, I hope, bottles being presented into the evidence, then opened, decanted, and passed around the court for thorough evidentiary examination.

Now, under the misty sky, we passed not only row after row of grape vines, still covered in yellow and orange waning leaves, but also rows of olives trees, the traditional borderline between properties. Our van passed through tight village lanes, switchbacked up a steep hill, bopped along narrow tracks, and made its way to a quinta that has been making wine for over 400 years.

Over 400 years of winemaking under the same family

Quinta de Santa Julia has been an independent winery and vineyard, owned by the same family, since 1596. The estate’s 127 hectares cover the hilltop and stair-step along the sides of the hills. Douro quintas grow about 100 grape varieties, and Santa Julia alone grows over 20, specializing in still white wines, reds, and rosés, all self-distributed. 

Under EU and Portuguese rules, no irrigation is allowed here. The slate hills bring a minerality to the wines. Low down, closer to the river, red grapes soak in more sunlight and blush under the intense heat. The white grapes grow higher up the slopes, and will be harvested first. The olives will be the last thing harvested, typically in November.

We wandered the courtyard, where the kids got to swing on a tree swing enjoyed by the owners’ great-grandchildren. Our guide showed us the shallow stone chambers where grapes were crushed. Inside a long stone room, where trestle tables sat next to a row of centuries-old barrels, we sampled wines, then were shown into the estate restaurant for a hearty lunch.

River views and a cruise

Our second stop brought us to one of the largest quintas in the Douro. With ports dating back to 1934, Quinta de São Luiz lays on a hilltop looking out over the Douro River. In nicer weather, a large wooden deck can be set with tables, where the view can be the perfect accompaniment to an array of red wines, white wines, and ports.

While the drive throughout the valley, its villages, and the many quintas is a lovely way to pass a day, the best way to see the Douro Valley is while on the river itself. After departing Quinta de São Luiz, a few minutes drive took us past a bridge, then we turned off for an access road to a nearby boat dock. For the next hour, we rode along the watery lane of the river. Traditionally, the Douro’s wines made their way down the river to Porto, there to receive final preparations or packaging before being sent on, whether that was to Porto’s Boavista neighborhood, or to the glasses of ever more discerning wine lovers throughout the wider world.

Quintas dot the hillside. From riverbank to hilltop, rows of drowsy grapevines prepared to take off their last hints of leaves, to lie bare in the cold winter air until it was time to wake in spring. The low gray clouds kept their manners, too, and we sat on the open deck, breathing in the river’s autumnal scent.

Back to Porto, with a curiosity keepsake

A couple of hours later, we were back at our apartment, from the Douro to our own door. Our day in the valley taught us about the dedication, passion, science, and business sense that go into every bottle of every wine in the Douro. We sampled hearty reds, sumptuous whites, and luscious ports. The quintas we visited, even in November, still gleamed with the intense yet quiet passion that the Douro’s winemakers bring to their craft.

And we brought that love and joy back with us, along with a deep curiosity. The wines of the Douro could keep a wine lover sampling and busy for a lifetime. Our Douro Valley wine tour also inspired us to be more curious. We sought out different ports as we shopped for groceries, or took in a glass of Vinho Verde whenever we were out (not to mention picked up a bottle or two to savor in the apartment, during chilly evenings while we and the kids watched episodes of the anime One Piece together).

Over a millennium of the influence of humans has shaped this land, from the terracing of the hills to the construction of vineyards and quintas. The Douro is where nature’s circumstance meets the vision of people. And the result is joy in every glass.

Tour the Douro Valley during your stay in Porto, Portugal

Douro Valley wine tours are about as varied as the wines of Douro. Day trips, overnight stays, luxury tours, cycling trips, and more are available from guides and companies throughout Porto and the Douro. Below we’ll link to the tour we took, along with a few others that might interest you, and to give you a sense of the range of Douro tours available.

When you go to the Douro, just remember: “obrigado” is thank you. Cheers is “saúde.” Above all, enjoy this land, learn from its people, and savor its wines.

Book the Douro wine tour we enjoyed

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

Leave a Comment