Long celebrated as one of the world’s most important wine regions, Portugal’s Douro Valley has been described as “a masterpiece of nature and human effort.” About one hour into the two hour drive from Porto to the Douro Valley we stopped at the riverside town of Amarante, in the Minho region, with roots dating back to the fourth century BC.
The construction of the Monastery and Church of St. Gonçalo started in 1543 by order of King Joao III and Lady Catarina, under the decision taken in 1540. The buildings include different architectural styles which belong to the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods.
Gonçalo de Amarante (1187 – 1259) was a Portuguese priest and hermit before becoming a Dominican friar later in life. He was canonized by Pope Pius IV in 1560. The saint is particularly popular in Brazil.
Before heading further uphill to the Douro Valley, we stopped at a local pastry shop for a mid-morning snack. “So-called St. Gonçalo cakes (in Portuguese: Bolos de São Gonçalo) are a fertility symbol and closely associated with the town of Amarante, though the reason for the association with the name of St. Gonçalo is disputed and obscure.” — WIkipedia
Our destination in the Douro Valley was the Quinta (wine estate) da Avessada located in the town of Favaios. Over the past few decades the winery has followed the new tradition in the Douro Valley and now produces both red and white table wines of high quality, along with the traditional Moscatel wines. While the Douro Valley is predominantly known for its Port wines, government regulations over the past few centuries changed several times and wineries above a certain altitude were not allowed to continue to produce Ports. Many wineries then went back to planting Moscatel grapes and producing sweet Moscatel de Douros. When regulations changed again and these wineries were again permitted to grow grapes and produce Port wines, many retained their Moscatel vineyards and continue to produce the very popular Moscatel de Douros (large marketing investments had created a large market for Moscatel de Douros). According to the web site Wines of Portugal, “The Muscatel or Muscat grape has numerous variants across the world. Two main types are grown in Portugal, one known locally as Moscatel de Setúbal (whose international name is Muscat of Alexandria) and Moscatel Galego Branco (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), the type found in the Douro, and recognised worldwide as the most and elegantly scented in the family – although elegance depends also upon vineyard location and vine management, and where and how the wine is made.”
After a welcome glass of Moscatel de Douros we had the opportunity to tour the vineyards and then the interactive museum. Here we saw the large concrete vats where teams of ten vineyard workers, barefoot and with their dresses/pants rolled up to their knees, stomp and crush the grapes for enough time to raise the temperature of the must to a temperature where the fermentation can naturally begin. This traditional method of crushing grapes continues in the valley, although some quintas (estates) have installed mechanical robotic systems to replace the humans in the concrete vats. After our tour, we enjoyed a leisurely luncheon, family style, with platter after platter of local specialties, accompanied by white and red wines from the estate, with a glass of Moscatel de Douros with dessert. We knew it would be a challenge to stay awake for the ride back down to Porto on the Douro River, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean coast.
In the Douro Valley terraced vineyards cling to a thin layer of man-made soil on steep hillsides, a labor-intensive practice introduced tow thousand years ago.
As we drove back to Porto (140 kilometers, or 87 miles) from Quinta da Avessada in Favaios in the Douro Valley, we headed downhill and then followed the Douro River to Porto. The terraced vineyards started at the riverside and ran up the hills.