Highlights

The Douro Region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001.

The Alto Douro Wine Region was inscribed on the World Heritage List, taking into account the following criteria:

  • The Alto Douro region has been producing wine for almost two thousand years and its landscape was shaped by human activities.

  • The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking - land, estates (winemaking agricultural complexes), villages, chapels and roads.

  • The Alto Douro cultural landscape is an outstanding example of a traditional European wine producing region, reflecting the evolution of this human activity over time.

The River Douro (Portuguese - Douro; Spanish - Duero; Latin - Durius) is about 897 kilometres long. It irrigates an area of 79 000 km2. The river rises in north central Spain (Sierra de Urbion). It flows westward across the entire north of Spain, and then turns south-west, forming the border between Portugal and Spain for 112 km. Then it crosses the border and the entire north of Portugal, reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. The River Douro flows through the districts of Bragança, Guarda, Viseu, Vila Real, Aveiro and Porto in Portugal.

The river runs through the Douro wine region for about 100 km up to Régua, where viticulture ends due to the strong influence of the Atlantic climate. Grapes are the main crop of the Douro valley and the estuary of the Douro is the trading centre of Portuguese wine. The Douro power plant is widely used for irrigation and as a source of hydroelectric power.

There is evidence that viticulture in the Douro Valley dates back to the times of the Romans. During the Medieval period, wine was primarily produced for use in mass at monasteries, and the horizontal areas of the terraces were reserved for cultivating grain and corn. Vines were planted in the apertures of the terrace walls (pilheros). Vineyards did not expand until the mid-eighteenth century, when the English began to seek them out for wine production.

At the time, England had already established a close relationship with Portugal. Whenever Portugal was at war with its powerful neighbor Spain, England assisted the small country with its army. The two states granted each other special trade privileges early on and a bustling trade with English goods (especially textiles) in exchange for Portuguese fruit and oil had been thriving since the 13th century. When small Portugal grew far beyond its capacities in its period of colonial expansion, the country was greatly impoverished. The inhabitants of Porto earned the name "tripeiros" (tripe eaters) at that time, since the townspeople had no other choice but to eat innards. Today "tripas à moda do Porto" still are a local delicacy of the city.

The English skillfully made use of the Portuguese crisis and entered into additional bilateral trade agreements, which drove Portugal more and more into dependency on the island state. Wine from Portugal was exported to England early on, but did not initially have a very good reputation. When the war between France and England broke out in 1689, the English were strictly forbidden to drink French wine and had to tap new sources.

Port first appeared around 1670. The addition of brandy to the wine, facilitated storage and this way the wine survived the voyage to England without harm. When brandy was added during fermentation, the residual sugar remained in the wine, enhancing both the taste and the storage capacity, and pleased the palate of the English people more and more.

The strong demand for port wine in England led to an overproduction in the mid-18th century, which was accompanied by a price collapse and a lesser reputation for port wine. To remedy this development, a system of origin control and regional classification (the world's first!) was introduced in 1756. Wines from good cultivation sites (vinho de feitoria) were approved for export, while wines from inferior cultivation sites were restricted for domestic consumption. They were called "vinho do ramo" (ramo = branch of a bush), because the bushes showed where such regular wine was available. It is assumed that this custom is the source of the English proverb "good wine needs no bush."

The viticultural site ordinance of 1756 has been amended several times, but basically still applies today. Heavy granite blocks, as they are found throughout the Douro region, were used for the demarcation of the best winegrowing sites. By the end of the 18th century, viticulture did not extend further upriver than the Cachão de Valeira. This large rock obstructed riparian navigation and thus the relatively quick transport of casks of wine. It took 12 years of construction work to make this section of the river navigable. As a consequence, viticulture became economically feasible in the early 19th century in the region of the Upper Douro Valley (Douro Superior). In the second half of the 19th century, viticulture in the Douro region was affected by large natural disasters similar to those we know from other winegrowing regions in Europe: by 1890 oidium, phylloxera, and mildew had destroyed approximately 65% of all viticulture areas in the Douro region. Many winegrowers were forced to leave their vineyards since the basis of their existence had been destroyed. As a consequence, large vineyards emerged owned by a handful of investors who purchased the (destroyed) Quintas for relatively little money. One of the most prominent figures in the history of viticulture in the Douro region is Dona Antónia Ferreira. Dona Antónia had a great capacity to forecast and envisage future developments. She was a skilled business woman and bought many vineyards, some of which were situated in completely inaccessible areas (Quinta do Vale Meão, in Douro Superior). When she died in 1890 she left her family (Ferreira) with more than 30 Quintas. Among the (primarily British) shippers - i.e. the trade companies with seat in Porto - it had also become fashionable by the end of the 19th century to own a Quinta in the Douro region. Some of the buildings therefore show architectural references to the English colonial style.

Until 1870, there had been many so-called "Quinta wines", i.e. wines that were produced and marketed by individual winegrowers. "Shippers", who had established themselves in Porto and primarily exported Quinta wines, increasingly replaced these vintners. In order to offer their customers port wine of consistent quality and to become independent of the unpredictability of nature and winegrowers, the shippers ultimately developed their own brands, blended the wines from different vineyards to create their house brands of port wine, fermented them in their own cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia (across from Porto) and ended up marketing them worldwide. This separation of production (vineyards in the Douro region) and maturing / marketing (trade companies in Vila Nova de Gaia) finally went so far that even a law was passed stipulating that port wine exports could only be carried out from Vila Nova de Gaia. This law was not repealed until 1986, when Portugal joined the European Union and its abolishment led to a true revolution in wine growing in the Douro region.

The law of May 8, 1986 decreed that wine producers in the Douro region were entitled to export their products independently. However, some limiting conditions continue to exist. Vineyards must have at least 150,000 bottles and sales inventory for three years in store. In addition, the sales may only involve bottles and not casks. The new ordinance initially only benefited the shippers who already owned Quintas in the Douro region and now were able to market independent brands of single-Quinta wines.

Nevertheless, quite a number of producers in the Douro region have since become independent. Since the limitations mentioned above only apply to port wine, the production of red wine ("table wine") has seen increased immensely and new and interesting wines are introduced to the market every year.

The Douro Valley is currently one of the most interesting wine regions of Europe, since producers that previously only supplied grapes are now producing their own wine and have gained more experience in winemaking and farming techniques. They have increasingly more knowledge on how to harness the soil and the typical characteristics of their land, and they have been gaining more self-esteem. An essential advantage is that producers work cooperatively and have become aware of the need to market their excellent wines jointly, in order to adequately position the Douro region in the marketplace. The fact that the original grape varieties continue to be grown in the Douro region and have not been replaced by foreign vines is an invaluable asset. This fact, together with the excellent geological and climatic conditions, ensures the independent and unmistakable character of Douro wines.

The north of Portugal consists almost exclusively of granite. This extremely hard stone with a thin layer of soil is practically of no use for agriculture. Interestingly, the Douro River also cuts through a massif of slate that happens to extend from Barca d'Alva almost to Régua. This slate frequently splits into vertical layers below the surface. This not only allows moisture to seep in, but also gives roots a place to grow. Thus these soil conditions form the natural borders of viticulture in the Douro region: vines thrive as far as the slate reaches.

Slate is hard but brittle and breaks down into ubiquitous yellowish-brown dust in the Douro region and becomes a souvenir on the shoes and car of every visitor to the winegrowing region.

250,000 hectares consist of slate soil, of which 40,000 hectares are now used for viticulture. Approximately half of these cultivation sites are located on slopes with inclines of more than 30%. Those steep and stony slopes are difficult and costly to work.

Four mountain ranges protect the winegrowing hills from cool and moist weather. In the north, this includes the Serra de Alvão, the Serra de Padrela and the Serra de Bornes, which set the Douro region apart from the cooler climate of the Minho (Vinho Verde). Toward the west, the infamous Serra do Marão, which rises to 1,400 m, serves as a reliable weather divide. In the summertime one frequently leaves the city of Porto in overcast, foggy and moist weather only to encounter the wonderful view of the peaceful valley in glowing sunshine after coming past the many curves of the Marão Pass. The heat in the Douro region is often insufferable and can reach temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius in the daytime, which is usually 15 to 25 degrees above the temperature of the relatively cool Porto. The highest temperatures are reached in the vicinity of the river and in the adjoining valleys on the right-hand bank. In contrast, winter temperatures in the Douro region can be quite low (around 0 degrees Celsius) and in some exceptional years there will even be snowfall. Once travelers cross the Marão toward the west, they usually encounter mild temperatures, soft sunshine and blossoming trees.

Even though the climate of the city of Porto on the Atlantic Coast is not suitable for viticulture, it offers the perfect cool and humid conditions to store wines for many years. Traditionally, the wine casks from the Douro region were brought to Porto (to be more precise: to Vila Nova de Gaia) every year in June before the beginning of the greatest heat to finish maturing in the lodges of the shippers. They were shipped downriver on sailboats ("barcos rabelos"), which today only anchor on the Douro at Vila Nova de Gaia as an open-air museum. (Almost) every port wine lodge polishes up its company boat only once a year: the traditional sailing regatta takes place on the day of the town's patron saint São João (June 24) and the employees of the port wine lodges prove their mettle in a sports competition.

The winegrowing region of the Douro is divided into three areas along the river. The Baixo Corgo ("Lower Corgo") is the area furthest to the west, spanning approximately from Régua to a tributary called Corgo. It is joined to the east by the Cima Corgo ("Upper Corgo") area that includes the town of Pinhão. The area to the east of Pinhão to Barca d’Alva is referred to as Douro Superior ("Upper Douro").

Baixo Corgo

By area, the Baixo Corgo is the smallest of the three areas, but has the largest viticulture site with 13,500 hectares of vineyards. The reason is that this area is the historic origin of viticulture. The grapes grown here are used mainly for the production of inexpensive ruby and tawny ports. Even in earlier centuries, the Douro River was navigable up to this point and production was shipped downstream.

Cima Corgo

Located further upstream from the Baixo Corgo, this region is centered on the town of Pinhão. The grapes grown in this zone are considered of higher quality, being used in bottlings of Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage Ports. The Cima Corgo is the heartland of (port) winegrowing. Some 17,000 hectares of vineyards are home to the best-known names and brands and many of the most beautiful Quintas.

Douro Superior

The eastern most zone extending nearly to the Spanish border. This is the least cultivated region of Douro, due in part to the difficulties of navigating the river past the rapids of Cachão da Valeira. Only a small portion (8,000 hectares) of the huge area of the Douro Superior (110,000 hectares) is used for viticulture. There are a total of 33,000 winegrowers in the Douro region. 80% own less than 0.5 hectares.

Rainfall in mm per yearAverage temperature
Porto120014.apr
Baixo Corgo (Régua)90018
Cima Corgo (Pinhao)65019
Douro Superior (Barca d'Alva)45021
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