Iberia’s third longest river, the majestic Rio Douro, gathers waters from over fifty major tributaries to form the peninsula’s largest river basin.
Rising at more than 1,500 metres in Spain’s Picos de Urbión, the Rio Douro (River of Gold) journeys 917 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean through mostly rural and strikingly beautiful landscapes.
Harnessed by several dams on both sides of the border, the once wild and uncontrollable currents are now a major source of hydroelectric power and more recently the river has metamorphosed into an upmarket cruising destination.
And now a few words about the famous Douro Valley demarcated wine district through which this most enchanting of all the Iberian Peninsula’s rivers passes.
Wine has been produced by traditional landholders in the Douro region for some 2,000 years. Since the 18th century, its main product, port wine, has been renowned for its special quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects the region’s technological, social and economic evolution.
The most dominant feature of the Douro landscape is the terraced vineyards that blanket the countryside. Throughout the centuries, row upon row of terraces have been built according to different techniques. The uniqueness of port wine comes as much from natural factors – soil, climate and aspect (the position of growing surfaces) – as it does from the way the wine is made.
The key to port wine production is fortification: adding a high-strength grape spirit, or brandy, to the fermented grape must (in other words, grape juice) to arrest fermentation which in turn increases the alcohol content and preserves some of the sweetness.
Visitors to Porto (indicated on the map below), Portugal‘s second city, should spare a thought for the River Douro, now at journey’s end, whilst they savour a glass of port wine in the many red-tiled lodges lining the south bank at Vila Nova de Gaia.