This articles was published on The Guardian.
As the home of port wine, Porto is a magnet for wine-lovers, but the city hopes to up its appeal further with the opening of a €105m museum complex dedicated to the fermented grape.
The World of Wine (WoW), which opened on 31 July, celebrates the millennia-old love affair with oenology while signalling Portugal’s confidence as a wine-making nation of note.
Wedged like a multi-tiered wedding cake up the sloping south bank of the River Douro, the city’s new “cultural district” announces itself with aplomb.
With six museum spaces of immersive exhibits (the Wine Experience even has mock alleyways with fake sky), big-screen videos and interactive kids’ games, the project aims to educate and entertain. There are also restaurants, cafes, bars, and numerous shops.
Wow is spearheaded by the Fladgate Partnership, one of half a dozen or so wineries that dominate the country’s wine industry. Behind the big brands, however, the world of Portuguese wine remains diverse and highly localised. How to get a real-life taster? Step off the tourist trail. Here’s our pick of the best ways to explore wine regions across the country.
Bike ride in vinho verde country, Amarante
Unless you’re abstemious, it’s not ideal to be the designated driver on a vineyard tour. Far better to swap four wheels for two and discover Portugal’s wine country by bike.
Crisscrossed with a network of well-established cycle paths, the Amarante region, home of Portugal’s signature vinho verde, is a great place to start.
One of the best runs is along an old railway line through the grape-strewn Tâmega valley, north-east of Porto, starting in the pretty village of Arco de Baúlhe and finishing in the cobble-paved town of Amarante.
Local tour agency Amarantrilhos arranges a one-day excursion along the route, with a transfer from Amarante (€48, max 6 people) and bike hire (€16). For a halfway treat of lunch and a wine-tasting (€35), book a spot (via A2Z tour agency) at the picturesque Quintas das Escomoeiras estate.
Owner Fernando Fernandes offers an on-request explanation of the wine-making process (€25). A2Z also organises extended hiking trips in the area.
‘Home’ of the world’s most famous rosé, Trás-os-Montes
For British wine-drinkers of a certain age, the word “Mateus” evokes nostalgia for flared trousers, bubble perms and cheese fondue. Sitting in 1970s drinks cupboards alongside the wonders that were Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch and Babycham, Mateus Rosé brought pizzazz to many a suburban drinks party.
It’s as fondly remembered for its flask-shaped bottle and the label featuring a magnificent stately home as its frizzante contents. Welcome to Casa de Mateus near Vila Real, east of Porto, which, despite boasting its own ancient winery, bears no direct relation to Portugal’s famous pink export. Even so, as a prime example of Portuguese baroque architecture, it is worth a visit.
Dating to the early 18th century, this one-time home of the counts of Mateus contains fascinating exhibitions and original decor, as well as fabulous gardens. A wine tasting is available on request (€10-€20).
• €13 (children, €6.50), casademateus.com
Where corks come from, Alentejo
Portugal may boast fine grapes and wine-makers, but arguably its greatest contribution to the world of wine is the cork oak tree. The country is still home to one third of global cork production, the epicentre of which is the savannah-like province of Alentejo.
To see these ancient gnarly cork oaks close up, the cork and wine producer Herdade da Maroteira offers a leisurely hiking tour of its 540-hectare farm near the historic city of Évora. In the company of local expert José, the walks include a stop-off at a megalithic tomb and a hilltop picnic (with goodies such as Altentejano cheese, Iberian black pork and Maroteira wine).
For the less mobile, a 4×4 can be taken. Agro-ecological tour specialist Portugal Farm Experiences organises a similar half-day cork tour, also near Évora (from €39).
• From €55 with lunch, corktrekking.com
Sea, sand and steeds, Setúbal
Of the 1,115 miles of Portugal’s Atlantic coast, the Setúbal peninsula is one of the wildest and most beautiful, with miles of beaches, sandy-orange cliffs, beach bars and grass-tufted dunes.
Ninety minutes south of Lisbon, the tiny seaside village of Melides is as chilled as a crisp vinho branco.
Explore the beaches (or surrounding mountains) on lusitano horses before a post-ride tasting at the beach-side stables of the smooth, exuberant wines for which the region is famed.
• Horse riding + wine tasting from €65; picnic (€30) or private lunch (€35-€50) also available, children welcome, passeiosacavalomelides.com
Vineyard volunteering on the Algarve
The life of the farmhand is in no way glamorous, but, with the sun on your back and the whiff of sea air in your nostrils, it isn’t without upsides. Other plus points include the chance to work alongside locals, learn about wine-making first hand and practise your Portuguese (vinhedo – vineyard; uva – grape; estou exausto – I’m done in).
Long-standing organic wine producer Monte da Casteleja provides board and lodging to anyone willing to lend a hand through the WWOOF volunteering network.
Working alongside owner Guillaume and chief wine-maker Rui and their small team, it’s a half-day on/half-day off arrangement. Tasks range from weeding and pruning through to bottling and harvesting. Inland from Lagos, the beach is five minutes away.
• WWOOF membership €20, wwoof.pt
Olive emporium, Coimbra district
In central and south Portugal particularly, the sight of grapes on the vine usually means there are olives on the branch close by. Both fruits thrive in the region’s warm, dry conditions, though olives tend to mature shortly after the grape harvests (in autumn and late summer, respectively), thus fitting neatly into farmers’ diaries.
In the Museu do Azeita (Olive Oil Museum) near Oliveira de Hospital, visitors are treated to a celebration of all things olive-esque. In a modern building shaped like an olive tree branch, the museum’s ground floor has a collection of artefacts illustrating olive oil’s history and heritage.
Upstairs is a panoramic restaurant with a menu of olive- and olive-oil-inspired dishes and views over the Serra da Estrela mountain range.
The brainchild of veteran olive-oil maker António Dias, the museum also has a store that sells the oils, including Dias’s brands, and wines from across the Beira region.
• Admission €5, museudoazeite.com
Wine and literature festival, Dão
Home to the Touriga Nacional vine (the primary component of port wine), Dão’s temperate climate and mountainous terrain makes for highly tannic, full-bodied wines.
A new wave of wine-makers is changing things with fruitier, fresher, more sophisticated offerings. Most of these are independent, small-scale affairs, so the best way to check them out is by visiting one of the region’s regular wine fairs.
Now in its sixth year, previous speakers at the three-day Tinto no Branco event have included Jonathan Coe, Michael Palin and Joanne Harris.
• 6-8 December 2020, tintonobranco.pt
Winemaker for a day, Dão
Barely a century after the formation of Portugal in the 12th century, the first cork was wedged into a bottle of Taboadella wine, back in 1255.
To prove its heritage, the 40-hectare vineyard in Satão has an ancient grape press set in a monolithic rock.
That said, new owners (the Amorims, a four-generation family of wine-makers) have recently given the site a makeover, bringing the latest kit and viniculture know-how to the venture.
On a plateau in the Dão region, Taboadella’s doors are open for a range of tours (from €12), tastings (from €12), sit-down meals (from €35) and even a “winemaker for the day” option (€85).
This short course includes insights from Taboadella’s master wine-makers on the art of blending, as well as batch testing, corking and bottle labelling.