The Douro Valley, a world-renounced wine region in Portugal, is roughly a 2.5 hour-drive from the city of Porto.  To describe the journey as painful is not entirely untrue.  Our destination, Quinta Vale Doña Maria, is located in the heart of Cima Corgo.  Uphill roads leading to the Douro are long and narrow, filled with sharp edges and turns.  An hour into the ride, I was starting to feel nauseous.  Thankfully we scheduled a boat cruise along the picturesque Douro River before heading further uphill.  Apart from marveling at the surrounding scenery, it also gave me a chance to recover from my motion sickness.

Situated along the Douro River, summer in Douro Valley can be extremely hot, with some days over 40˚C.  The continental climate aids to fully ripen the grapes, thus the resulting wines can be relatively high in alcohol.  In order for the roots not to dry out, the granite and schist that vines grow on has water retention ability.  Looking up at the steep hills, one eye-catching feature is the rows of terraces, consisting of both socalcos (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and patamares.  Protected by stone walls, socalcos are the older and original terraces hand carved by men, so narrow that only a few rows of vines can be planted.  Only in the last 40 years or so did patamares gained popularity.  Due to their wider earth banks, they are more conducive to vineyards mechanization.

Although famous for its fortified wine, Port, made from native grapes Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca & Tinto Cão , the still wines of the Douro Valley have also made significant headway in the world fine wine stage, aiming to satisfy the huge market demand for unfortified wines.  We spent an afternoon at Quinta Vale Doña Maria, which is owned by Cristiano Van Zeller and wife Joana.  Cristiano was the previous owner of the well known Quinta do Noval, before it was sold to French investment bank AXA in 1993.  After a tour of the vineyard, the facility and cellar, we proceeded to enjoy a beautiful lunch with owner Joana and wine making staff at their guesthouse

In retrospect, now I learned that cramming the tour in one day is not a good idea; it is simply too hectic.  My advice for future Douro Valley visitors: do spend a couple of nights in the area to enjoy the tranquility of the countryside, the refined cuisine, and exquisite fine wines.

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Traditionally, grapes destined for port and red wines in the Douro are first transported to these rather shallow stone tanks known as lagares.  Grapes are being treaded by foot (yes, human foot) until they turn into a dense and concentrated juice known as must, as fermentation kicks in.  This method is beneficial as it enables quick extraction of fruit and color, without breaking the grape pips that can bring bitter phenolics into the resulting wine.  Some wineries prefer robotic lagares rather than manual labor.  However in Quinta Vale Doña Maria, the original lagares are still kept in use.

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Addition of a 77% abv spirit to the grape must arrests fermentation before all the natural sugar are transformed into alcohol, which explains why Port is nearly always sweet, and resulting alcohol is around 20% abv.  The wines are aged in big wood barrels as seen in the picture.  If more of a tawny style is desired, the barrels will not be filled to the top, enabling a wider surface area for oxidation inside the barrel, to impart a nuttier finish.  My personal favorite style of port is Colheita, which is a tawny vintage port.

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We were very fortune to have made arrangements with the quinta so we could share a fabulous lunch with interesting company.  Irregardless of all the hype surrounding the Douro and its wines, it is gratifying to see that Quinta Vale Doña Maria still maintains a human touch and genuine warmth.  Below is the picture of the quinta’s kitchen, where employee Rosario works her magic to conjure delicious and hearty Portuguese cuisine.

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Upon arrival to the lunch area, we were greeted by a bottle of Rufo White, along with fresh olives picked from the quinta’s very own olive trees.  It is an interesting fact that a lot of quintas in the Douro produce olive oils from their olive trees; I bought a bottle by Quinta do Crasto on my way back to Toronto.

The homemade sausage was extremely juicy and tender.  Both food and wine complements each other very well.  Traditional Portuguese white grapes include Loureiro, Verdelho and Alvarinho.  With no oak aging, the wine is crisp, light and refreshing.

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Outdoor lunch on a patio overlooking the Douro landscape with owner and staff.  I was told that this is where they have lunch everyday if weather permits.  All of a sudden I began to question myself on why I am slaving away in an office on a daily basis.

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A bowl of hot pea soup, both stomach warming and heart warming.

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Red wines that were served to us include VZ Douro 2013, CV 2012, Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro 2012, and Vinha do Rio 2012.  Most vines in Quinta Vale Doña Maria are quite old, some even have an average age of over 80 years old.  Many are field blends (but do consist of main Port grapes such as Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz).  As the vines and grapes look fairly similar, sometimes it is almost impossible to distinguish one varietal to another, even to the most experienced pickers.  The grapes are foot trodden in lagares.  Wines are aged in combination of new and old French barriques.  Typical Douro unfortified wines are quite similar in taste profile to Port, reminiscent of plum, spice and floral notes like violet.  My favorite out of all is the Vinha do Rio.  I purchased a bottle at the quinta for €70, whereas some wine stores and online vendors are selling this wine for over €100!  Due to their concentration and the relatively higher alcohol, Douro wines are build for aging.

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Some very simple dish like a salad with oil and vinaigrette can be extremely tasty if all the ingredients are fresh.

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Joana told me that apart from China, Portugal is the second nation that consumes most rice around the world.  This homemade duck confit rice was moist because of the duck juice that was simmered into a broth.  Although I think about it quite often, I have yet to summon up the courage to replicate this traditional Portuguese dish.

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Two Portuguese cheese as our first dessert course.

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And a slice of delicious home-made almond tart, with cherry compost.

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To end our meal, we were served a 2010 Unfiltered Late Bottled-Vintage Port.  LBVs are usually bottled 4 to 6 years from the vintage date.  Due to longer oak contact, LBV is more approachable in comparison to Vintage Port, at a fraction of Vintage Port’s price.  Vintage Port is the most prestigious, expensive Port with the longest aging potential.  Aged for around 2-3 years in barrel, most Vintage Ports are bottled without filtering, hence the necessity to decant.  Vintage Ports are only produced in years that are a declared vintage at the discretion of each shipper, approved by Instituto do Vinho do Porto.

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