The Douro: Portugal's River of Gold

Portugal's Douro River may not be particularly long, but it carries a history that covers the beginning of the port wine trade in the 1600s.

Photography by the authors

Rivers invigorate, even define, a country; Egypt, for example, has been called “The Gift of the Nile,” because with its river, the longest in the world, came prosperity.

The Yangtze makes its mark, too, as does the Amazon, but they are all long rivers — around 4,000 miles — and the little Douro, which waters the north part of Portugal, trundles down from central Spain for less than 600 miles.

But what a history it carries down with it. A history that covers the beginning of the port wine trade that started in the 1600s, a century when, as usual, Britain was at war with France — but not with Portugal.

Britain was boycotting French wine and looking for alternatives. Northern Portugal was a choice, but it was so far away the wine didn’t travel well. So, according to one story, 2 brothers fortified their wine with grape brandy to maintain its quality on the long sea voyage and the Brits took a liking to its oaky flavor.

Little boats called rabelos took 3 days to run the wine from the hillsides down the dangerous, twisting river to Porto. Each boat carried 8 barrels. The boats arrived in a harbor congested with ocean-going sailing ships, many British. (Top image courtesy the Douro Museum. Lower image courtesy Taylor Fladgate.)

The Treaty of Methuen in 1703 opened trade where British woolens were traded for Portuguese port wine, and a year after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the popular Marquis of Pombal took the dramatic step of demarcating the Douro region as the only legitimate place that could claim to produce port wine.

Chianti and champagne are the only 2 wines with a history longer than port, but port is the oldest demarcated wine in the world. And a century later, when the Napoleonic Wars made the British even more averse to trading with France, British names became more identifiable along the wine estates of the Douro River.

Although companies can change hands, there has been remarkable consistency to the quintas, the port wine estates along the river. George Sandeman was a Scottish merchant who advised the troops of Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, on “the finer points of port.” Taylor’s port began in 1692 with the arrival of an English merchant, Job Bearsley. Dalva Port has a more modern intra-active form of advertising (referring to the film noir of the ’40s and ’50s and using Otto Preminger’s theme of the woman in black to suggest the mystery of wine.)

Then the British developed an even bigger presence. In the late 19th century an infestation with phylloxera laid waste the wineries along Northern Portugal. Some accounts say the Portuguese farmers and landowners simply gave up and sold their estates to wealthy British merchants who, somehow, took the long view that, in time, there would be a remedy.

There was indeed! It came from America, where the blight itself had originally sprung and where stock had become hardened and resistant to the phlox. The vines came back but, now, on British-owned land.

The advertising reminds viewers of the Gilded Age -- and a simpler time. (Authors’ images of posters courtesy of the Douro Museum.)

There are 50 wine cellars along the Gaia, the south bank of the Douro in Porto and about 25 are open to the public for tasting sessions.

The Old Town across the river is named Ribeira, and a bust of Hinze Ribeira has a place there amongst other worthies in the Stock Exchange Palace. A lot of people made a lot of money in those 3 centuries when port wine dominated the officers’ messes of the British Army and the dining room tables of aristocratic England. That you could make money from wine may have been taken for granted, because Brazil had already made Portugal rich. In the 12th century, Lisbon was the wealthiest city in Europe.

In the upriver town of Peso da Regua stands the Douro Museum and the headquarters of the Casa do Douro, the organization that has a hand in the regulation of port wine. Peso is the old town that became the center of the valley when the Marquis of Pombal laid out his granite boulders, his factory landmarks, to show the lines of demarcation.

In the Douro Museum, Marco, a guide, tells his guests there are 20 valleys around town each with its own tributary and its own microclimate. “The weather in the upper Douro Valley is generally 9 months of winter and 3 months of Hell,” he says. He presents a video that shows how, after the phlox infestation, workers attacked the slopes with hand tools to create flat terraces whose floor was broken slate and schist — and then the American hardy vine was planted as root stock. In time, those roots went really deep; so deep that, subsequently, the vines did not have to be watered. (Video stills by authors courtesy Douro Museum, Peso da Regua. Authors’ bottom image shows examples of schist, courtesy Ferreira Cellars, Porto.)

The Douro runs from the Iberian Massif, surprisingly wide and shallow at its source, until it plunges into the gorges it has cut for 20 million years. In places it has taken lives, especially in the 13th century (in the early days of the rabelo boats), but in the last century the dams and locks have made the river navigable and allowed tourists to visit safely.

Wine estates in the upper Douro. Gorges in the middle reaches. Examples of schist formations. Inset: a rabelos boat.

Moments in North American history allowed individuals to become fantastically wealthy: such as the Californian and Klondike Gold Rushes and, arguably, the Oklahoma Land Rush.

The creation of the Douro Port Wine trade similarly filled people’s pockets but the work again was physically demanding. Here was where people said, “God made the earth but man made the Douro.”

The miles were dangerous in the early days, but it was a smile a mile once the feisty Rio do Ouro was tamed by a system of dams and locks. Speed boats tear across the waters now creating their own excitement.

Still, the opportunities were there. The story of the young Scot, Joseph James Forrester gives some illumination. Born in the coastal town of Hull on the east coast of England in 1809, he came at the age of 22 to work with his uncle who was a wine merchant in Porto. His cartographical skills translated 12 years later to the first professionally drawn map of the entire length of the river. He won many national awards and prizes for his interest in the port wine trade and was made Baron Forrester in 1855, the first foreigner to be awarded a title by any king of Portugal.

Forrester’s famous map is on display at the Douro museum. Inset his image from the cover of one of his books. His altimeter and compass show how professional he was.

In 1861, the boat he was in with his friend capsized in the Douro and Forrester drowned in the rapids of Valeria Gorge. His body was never found. It is believed he sank because of the weight of his money belt, laden with gold coins for payment to the estate managers he was visiting that day.

Ferreira Cellars in Gaia, Porto welcomes tourists. Dame Dona’s carriage is on display with her fan and some of her personal effects. A photograph suggests her dress would indeed offer some floatation assistance.

His companion in the boat, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, survived the accident. The story being she was saved by the buoyancy of her crinoline dress. She put her life to great use and Ferreira has become one of the great wine estates of Portugal.

Pinhao, about 17 miles upriver from Peso (where the Douro Museum is), had a population of 24,000 in 1960, but its population has dropped by half, which is typical of many rural parts in Portugal. It has, nevertheless, been called “Portugal’s Picture Perfect Town.” It is a delightful little place, the kind of spot tourists would like to come back to if they had more time.

When we are traveling we find guide books by Rick Steves more than adequate. On occasion, we take a razor blade to select important pages and still save weight. We think the Insight Guides are fantastic, but so heavy. Yet studying the Insight Guides before you leave is a productive way to understand a country you are going to visit. The way the Guides cover a nation’s history is better done, and a lot more readable, than that in a history textbook.

The main charm in Pinhao is its railway station and the elaborate blue and while azulejos tiles that have made it famous. They show the history of the river and the very birth of port wine

Pinhao still has a train service; something to remember if you ever make a second visit to Porto.

But there’s an even easier way to learn about Portugal’s River of Gold — take a Douro River Cruise. We did with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and it’s our next story … about the river boat that Uniworld uses in its pioneer cruises into the Douro, a boat named not after Queen Isabella of Spain (who sent Columbus on his first voyage) but after Queen Isabel of Portugal, a much more saintly woman who was canonized by the pope in 1625.

The Queen Isabel was inaugurated in 2013 and — limited to 118 passengers — has been acknowledged as the best river boat on the Douro. On the shore excursions expect to spend time from Ferreira’s cellars in Porto to a bird’s eye view from Sandeman’s winery up river and all the places in between.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.