The third time I walked into the smoked-glass bathroom wall in my suite at the new Aquapura Douro Valley hotel, I thought to myself, "I don't know if the Douro is ready for Euro-chic designer hotels yet." This was somewhat self-serving, as the real question was whether I was ready for Euro-chic designer hotels—and the answer, judging from the bruise in the center of my forehead, was no.
But it looks like I'm going to have to get ready. The first time I visited Portugal's Douro Valley was back in 1998. (At the time, my job was hauling a bag of port bottles from the various Symington-family brands around the streets of New York City, trying to convince liquor store owners that July was a terrific time to stock up on dessert wines.) Since then I've visited the region five or six times, almost always staying with winemakers as their guest. Until this trip, I'd never really spent time in hotels in the Douro—mostly because there really weren't hotels in the Douro.
Now there are. Two new high-end properties debuted this year, and several wineries, or quintas, have recently opened bed-and-breakfasts on their estates. Plus there's the Vintage House Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property, which, after some bleak years, seems to have gotten its act back together; also, according to local rumor, the luxury hotel group Amanresorts is scouting sites. For the first time, the Douro seems to be embracing the idea of wine tourism.
For my part, I've always wondered why people haven't been clamoring to visit the Douro. The region is stunning: Mile after mile of winding green river is flanked by vineyards rising in steep terraces, their supporting rock walls painstakingly erected by hand over the centuries. Here and there, white-walled quintas suggest what it must have been like to be a winemaker here 100 years ago. The Douro is also vast, with more than 500,000 acres of rugged terrain running from the border of Spain west to the scruffy little city of Peso da Régua. I didn't visit Régua this time, but whenever it came up, whoever I was talking to would make a face and say something like, "Régua? Feh. Régua is disgusting."
Aquapura is across the river from Régua—a virtue, since from a distance, especially under moonlight, Régua looks charming. The hotel is an 18th-century quinta that's been redone in a faintly Asiatic style. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the guest rooms look out over vineyards or the Douro River, the spa offers Asian-inspired treatments like Thai massages and bamboo shoot facial masks, and the restaurant pairs chef Emmanuel Soares's inventive food (stone bass and wild prawns in a eucalyptus cream sauce) with the quirky designer touch of a small stream—a sort of mini Douro River—flowing through the dining room.
The night I battered myself against the bathroom wall, I'd had dinner at Aquapura's Alma Lusa restaurant with Manuel Guedes, a member of the family that owns Sogrape, Portugal's largest wine producer. In the Douro, Sogrape owns Sandeman and Ferreira; it also owns many other wineries, but its fortunes were founded on inventing, then selling, zillions of bottles of Mateus rosé. Over a soup of pureed cauliflower and foie gras, cream and local organic herbs (decadent and virtuous all at once, and ridiculously good), we discussed Sogrape's brand-new visitors' center at Quinta do Seixo, an estate where many of the Ferreira and Sandeman wines are made. The center is impressive, offering guided winery tours, a slate-walled tasting room and panoramic views of the river and vineyards; it wouldn't seem out of place in Napa Valley. Guedes, a laconically witty character, remarked, "In the past, in the Douro? Where could people stop, where could they stay, where could they eat? Nothing. There was nothing." Earlier, he'd mentioned that more than 200,000 people each year visit the Sandeman and Ferreira port lodges in Oporto, which overlook the mouth of the Douro River. Clearly, the new visitors' center was designed with a percentage of that tourist trade in mind.
But forget visitors' centers and hotels for the moment. Forget even the new D.O.C., where the next day, thanks to chef-owner Rui Paula, I had the single best restaurant meal I've ever had in the Douro (including the single best dish: perfectly pan-roasted grouper, on a cake of crawfish meat that had been poached in an intensely flavorful fish-and-shrimp stock). The biggest change in the Douro actually—appropriately—has to do with wine.
The Douro region is the oldest officially demarcated wine region in the world; its official boundaries were set in 1756, predating the Bordeaux classification by almost 100 years. Since early on, it has been known for port, one of the great wines of the world. But port is a dessert wine. Only in the past 15 years has the Douro started producing red wine in significant amounts, and at a level of quality that has garnered international attention.
Here's one way to look at this development. Imagine an area three times the size of Napa Valley. Give it some of the world's greatest vineyard land, but allow it to produce nothing but dessert wines for 250 years. Then flip a switch and say, "OK, time to make great red wine, too." Change on this scale rarely happens fast in wine; at best, wine moves at an agricultural pace, at worst, a geological one. Fifteen years in wine is a nanosecond.
Partly this shift has occurred thanks to changes in the 1980s to some truly recondite Portuguese wine laws, which forbade bottling wine in the Douro region (it all had to be shipped downstream to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto). Partly it's because the port business, while perfectly healthy, is not exactly a growth industry; partly because of an influx of young, ambitious, talented winemakers; and partly because there is already a vast reservoir of knowledge, assembled over those 250 years, about viticulture in the Douro—its grape varieties, vineyards, terroir. Though the Douro is known, in many ways, it's still untapped. As David Guimaraens, wine director of the port-producing Fladgate Partnership, says, "The Douro is the New World of the Old World."
At the moment, Douro red wines split into two styles: refined, more classically structured wines and riper, more extracted, brawnier ones. Nearly all are made with the main grape varieties of the region, which are the same grapes used in port production: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão, along with several other less significant varieties. Flavors run from wild berries to plums, often with notes of spice and pepper; even the most graceful wines tend to be full-bodied and powerful. Douro soil is largely bits of schist—like sharp-edged gravel—and vine roots have to dig up to 40 feet for water. The wine's intensity reflects that struggle. As Bruno Prats, formerly owner and manager at Bordeaux's Château Cos D'Estournel and currently a partner with the Symington family, says, "Obviously, the Douro produces Portugal's best reds."
The Prats-Symington partnership, which makes Chryseia, one of the most polished of the new Douro reds, is one face of Douro red wine: long-established port producers (the Symingtons own Graham's, Dow's and Warre's, among other brands) drawing on their substantial vineyard holdings and often partnering with famous winemakers. The other face of Douro red wine is more bootstrappy, and typically more local. The Douro Boys, a loosely organized social-cum-marketing group of wine producers, though led in spirit by the Dutch-descended Dirk Niepoort (who also directs his family's well-regarded port firm), fall into this category. So do Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges, the young couple who own Wine & Soul, one of the region's most ambitious new producers.
I spent an afternoon tasting wine with Tavares da Silva, first at Quinta do Vale D. Maria, where she makes extremely good wine for owner Cristiano van Zeller, then at Wine & Soul. We were accompanied by a young sommelier from South Africa and his wife and small child—though at one point, driving down from the quinta, they vanished; we turned back and found them standing next to their rental car, a six-inch gash in one of the tires. "Driving on schist," Tavares da Silva said thoughtfully. "It's like driving on knives."
Wine & Soul occupies a tiny winery that, as Tavares da Silva puts it, "was totally ruined when we bought it in 2004—no roof, just stones." She and her husband have largely rebuilt it by hand. We tasted through a range of wines, among them the 2006 Guru, a complex, melony white with a hint of barrel-fermented richness; the black-purple, plummy 2005 Passadouro Reserva, from a property that Serôdio Borges consults for; and Wine & Soul's top red, Pintas.
Pintas comes from a five-acre vineyard of 70-year-old vines that the couple owns in the Pinhão Valley, which runs north from the Douro. It's extraordinary wine, its 2005 vintage full of explosive wild black raspberry flavors lifted by floral aromas and supported by fine-grained, powerful tannins. "It's impossible to make wines in the Douro that aren't concentrated," Tavares da Silva says, "but we aim for elegance."
The balance of rusticity with elegance is also why the Douro is such an appealing travel destination. This is still very much an agricultural region; there are more than 33,000 grape growers, most tending tiny vineyards that have been in their families for years. Drive through the towns above the river and old women in black pause in the street to watch you go by. In Pinhão, arguably the Douro's central town, one truck over-loaded with cork-tree bark still constitutes a traffic jam. As Christian Seely, managing director of the great port producer Quinta do Noval, remarked, "The Douro is one of the last wild, unspoiled, beautiful places in Europe."
Which, to some extent, is why he and a group of investors opened Quinta da Romaneira, the Douro's other new luxury hotel. "Either you say there are no tourists, so let's not build a hotel, or you say, there are no hotels, so there are no tourists," Seely added, as we bumped down the steep road to the hotel in his Land Cruiser. "We chose the latter."
Seely, who is English but lives in France, oversees all of the wine properties owned by the French insurance giant AXA Millésimes, among them the Douro's Quinta do Noval. Romaneira, though, is a separate venture, together with French hotelier Thierry Teyssier. Like Aquapura, it's housed in an old quinta, but farther up the river, above Pinhão. (Apparently much of local Pinhão gossip, when I was there, consisted of arguments regarding Romaneira's rumored rates: "One thousand euros per night!" "Impossible!" "Yes, impossible—because it's twelve hundred!")
For the record, a night at Romaneira runs $682 dollars a person. But that includes all meals (Miguel Silva, Oporto's most famous chef, consulted on the menu). The two stone-floored manor houses are divided into 21 suites, each furnished with antiques and esoterica that Teyssier spent three years traveling Portugal's former colonies to collect: everything from seven-foot-tall African tribal masks to the antique canoes hung on cables above the slate-sided indoor swimming pool. Romaneira might be described as whimsically gorgeous or gorgeously whimsical, but either way, I think Seely ought to treat those Pinhão gossips to a night on the house—just in the spirit of helping them get acclimated to the changes that seem to be rushing their way.