Portugal’s endlessly open countryside, with its gently undulating plains, is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the world. A producer of wine since Roman times, the diversity of its terrain yields a wide array of Portuguese grape varietals (over 4,000) which in turn produce wines with distinctive characteristics depending on where they’re from.
In order to protect its superior wines, its appellation system was created nearly 200 years before that of France, and to this day, a great variety of Portuguese wines – port wine, vinhos verdes, and a variety of table wines – are labelled DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) which guarantees their origins.
One of the best aspects of Portuguese wine is its affordability, whether it’s refreshing vinho verde from Minho, full-bodied reds from Alentejo, fortified port wines from Douro Valley, or rosé wines which were first created in Portugal in the 1940s.
Vineyards cover Portugal’s hillsides and plains from the Minho to Faro. From the regions of Alentejo and Douro to the offshore islands of Madeira and the Azores, you can explore the country’s amazing landscape and culture through its many wine trails.
Along the trails are not only vineyards, cellar doors and quintas (wineries), but also restaurants, wine hotels, and classic luxury pousadas (historic hotels).
One can’t mention Portugal without its port (wine), the vines of which are grown on the terraces of the magnificent UNESCO-listed Douro Valley – one of the oldest demarcated regions in the world (dating from 1756).
Hugging the Douro River that runs through deep valleys from the border with Spain until near Porto along the coast, this region of schist mountains, with harsh soil, is ideal for port wine vines. Tens of thousands of vineyards line the steep-sided valleys. The terraces that surround the river Douro and its tributaries feature walls made of schist that support vineyards of white or red grapes, each vine planted step by step.
Port Wine Route
Plenty of quintas (wineries) dot the Douro Valley, with most of the vineyards reserved for port. Some quintas produce both port and table wine – Douro’s red, white and rosé wines are also highly regarded.
The Douro region has 2 wine routes – one for port, and one for wine. The Port Wine route encompasses around 50 quintas (40 open to public), with options for accommodation, dining, and wine tasting. In addition, you can also go for wine classes, or even cycle touring around the vineyards.
However, the biggest attraction happens throughout the months of September and October during the grape harvest season. This is when many quintas offer visitors the chance to participate in the wine production – from harvesting (in the steep terraces) to grape stomping to bottling – which tends to feel like a big festival.
You can tour the Port Wine Route by car, train or boat, since the river is navigable from Porto all the way to Barca de Alva, on the border with Spain. The journey starts by boat from the Gaia pier in Porto and follows the river to Régua, the most important railway station on the route.
Here, you can catch the old steam train for a historic journey to the village of Pinhão, w hose train station features azulejo tiles depicting wine-related activities. From here, the undulating roads that border the river are best explored by car.
Due to the size of the region, the port wine route is divided into 3 parts: the Lower Corgo covers 30 sites (including unique manor houses and taverns), the Upper Corgo is known for its handicrafts, while the Upper Douro offers stunning landscapes with ancient sites.
The main city is Porto, built along the Douro River, where wine barrels from the Douro Valley used to arrive on barcos rabelos (flat sailing vessels).
This UNESCO-listed city features some amazing architecture, including the Porto Cathedral (the oldest surviving structure) and a number of other churches known for their elaborate gilt work, along with the São Bento Railway Station that features beautiful azulejo tile panels. The city is often associated with JK Rowling – thanks to her Harry Potter series, the unique bookstore Lello and Majestic Café are now firmly on tourist maps.
Port lovers should drop by Gaia – located across the river from the town centre – where the port wine lodges of big brand names like Graham’s, Croft, and Taylor’s are located. Here, you can take a tour through the cellars, learn about the port aging process, and of course, taste (and buy) a variety of ports, like Tawny, White, Ruby, and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV).
CENTRO DE PORTUGAL REGION
A region of mixed landscape, the interior is dominated by mountains and plateaus, dotted with fortresses and traditional granite villages, while the coast is home to some of the world’s most famous surf beaches like Peniche and Nazaré which are known for their gigantic waves.
Unlike Alentejo, the region is dominated by pine and chestnut tree forests, creating a lush green landscape that turn into fiery hues in autumn. While the interior region may seem isolated, there is a surprising number of options for accommodation within the villages, ranging from rustic restored farmhouses like Villa Pedra, to swanky modern holiday rentals like Quinta do Fontelo.
The capital of this region is Coimbra, home to its famed UNESCO-listed University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest in Europe, which over time has shaped its image to become a “city of students”. The centrepiece of the university is undoubtedly the Joanina Library, considered one of the most beautiful in the world with its opulent gilt interior; protecting the centuries-old collection of books from moths is a colony of bats that live within the library’s specially-designed bookshelves.
Centro de Portugal has 3 wine-producing areas: Bairrada, Dão and Beira Interior, with the River Dão rising between the mountains in the interior, forming a narrow valley where vines have been cultivated since the 12th century.
Wines from Bairrada are typically high in acidity and low in alcohol content, making them ideal for sparkling wines which are perfect accompaniments for suckling pig, the region’s speciality. The main grape isTouriga Nacional, and Dão is considered a prime wine region since its wines are soft and elegant. While in Beira Interior, the wines tend to be very fresh.
The Vouga Valley, located in the Dão region, is a great place to explore the area’s rugged nature and its many villages, where ancient rituals and festivals remain popular. You can access the valley via Vouzela, famous for its soaring arched railway bridge, or Caramulo, a lofty village known for its sanatoriums.
The Parque Natural Local Vouga-Caramulo has a network of signposted trails – both hiking and mountain biking – that take you through centuries-old pastures and ancient villages with traditional granaries known as ‘canastros’, which are small, narrow, elevated shacks used to dry corn cobs and protect them from rats. Wild grapes grow profusely here, and used to be sources of local wine, but today they are mostly grown for shade.
You can follow ancient trade routes that take you through shady moss-laden forests dotted with stone barns. Farmers and their livestock can often be seen in the late afternoon returning from grazing grounds.
The drylands of Alentejo are delineated by its famous cork trees and holm oaks, both symbolic of this wine-producing region. The relatively flat landscape prevents condensation coming in from the Atlantic, while the surrounding hillsides influence the characteristics of the terrain.
Alentejo is also home to the world’s largest cork forests. Cork trees are easily identified by their reddish bark (which can be bright red right after they’re stripped in late spring and summer). The tree is never cut down as only the outer bark is stripped away every 9 years, and it takes at least 25 years for a tree’s bark to become good enough to become wine bottle-stoppers. Cork trees can live for hundreds of years.
Among the cork forests you may also find olive trees. While olives from Alentejo are renowned in Portugal, don’t be tempted to eat olives straight from the tree, as they need to be processed in order to remove their high acidity.
The Alentejo region is also famous for its cuisine, which features plenty of seasonal local produce in addition to the prized porco preto (Alentejo’s black pigs) and cheeses made with sheep’s milk.
Alentejo’s wine routes cover 66 wineries with cellar doors across the region, taking in cattle pastures, cork plantations, medieval hill towns, and historic villages along the way. There are 8 areas bearing a designation of origin: Borba, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira. Despite the varied geography and grape varieties in the region, Alentejo’s red wines tend to be intense and full-bodied while its whites are aromatic and fresh.
Thanks to a network of quiet country roads punctuated by vineyards and villages, you can explore the rolling countryside on bicycle – climbing steeply to citadels like Estremoz and Marvão.
Much of Alentejo’s wines come from the central areas – Borba, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos – which produce smooth, easy-drinking reds.
The largest city in Alentejo is the UNESCO-listed Évora. About an hour’s drive from Lisbon, this walled city features narrow cobblestoned streets of Moorish origin, and holds two millennia of history starting from the Roman era. Remains of thermal baths and a Roman temple, along with fine palaces and churches from the 15th century are some of its attractions. Not to be missed is the Chapel of Bones at the Royal Church of St. Francis, an ossuary with the bones of 5,000 people interred.
Beyond the city is a rolling landscape of farmland with olive, oak, and cork trees which are accessible via Évora’s network of nature walking/cycling trails. The Percurso da Água de Prata is a 8.3km trail – accessible on foot or on mountain bike – that follows the length of the Agua de Prata Aqueduct, constructed from the 1500s to supply water to Evora from the nearby parish of Graça do Divor.
The wine region of Portalegre is dominated by the hills of the Serra de Sao Mamede with its higher rainfall and cooler temperatures. The vineyards here – planted on steep slopes at over 1,000m – consist of small plots with very old vines, producing powerful, spicy red wines and highly alcoholic white wines.
The vast plains are punctuated with numerous hillocks upon which sit walled citadels. One such fortress is Marvão, perched high on a 900m-high granite crag on the border with Spain, which is home to a small village and an 8th century castle known as the ‘Eagle’s Nest’.
The neighbouring citadel of Castelo de Vide has a smaller castle atop a hill surrounded by a medieval village, and is accessible from Marvão via a scenic walk through the hills of Urra. The town of Castelo de Vide is home to one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in Portugal, which include an old synagogue and a labyrinth of streets with Hebrew names.
Both Marvão and Castelo de Vide are situated within Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede, a geologically-rich landscape where you can observe rare birds of prey such as the rare Bonelli eagle from hiking and mountain biking trails.
While each region has its specialty cuisine, all across Portugal you’ll find standard fare including bacalhau (cod), prepared á bras style (shredded cod and potatoes, pan-fried with scrambled eggs), in addition to a variety of sausages including chouriço (pork), alheira (poultry), or farinheira (wheat flour and pork fat).
There is no direct flight from Singapore to Lisbon, but there are plenty of flight options via Europe. For more on Portugal and its wine routes, visit www.visitportugal.com.
MINHO: VINHO VERDE
The latest darling in Portugal’s wines is the vinho verde – literally ‘green wine’, which is available in both red and white. Drunk chilled, its name is possibly related to the predominant colour of the region and has a peculiar acidity that’s particularly aromatic and refreshing.
Produced in the far north of Portugal, the landscape is one of high mountains, rolling vineyards, historic towns, dramatic Atlantic beaches, and archaeological sites, with vineyards typically concentrated along the rivers.
The Vinho Verde wine trail offers 5 thematic itineraries: cities and towns, the mountain route, the quintas route, the monasteries route, and the beach route.
In addition to visiting cellar doors for wine tasting sessions, you can drop by historic towns and villages, tackle pilgrim routes through important monasteries, explore Roman routes in the mountainous national park, or head to the coast for a spot of kitesurfing.