|Portugal - The Alto Douro Valley|
The Alto Douro Valley
The Alto Douro has produced wine for about 2,000 years, and its main product, Port, has been renowned throughout the world since the 18th century, to the extent that it has become one of the major symbols of Portugal. This long tradition has shaped an exceptionally beautiful cultural landscape, reflecting control of the stubborn nature, on the marquis of Pombale's initiative. This impressive cultural landscape continues to be managed profitably using time-honoured traditional methods. Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001 acknowledged the importance of the Alto Douro as an outstanding example of a European wine-producing area.
The Alto Douro is an example of a landscape that illustrates several significant stages in the history of mankind. From time immemorial, the valley of the Douro River has played a major role as a corridor of peoples and cultures that, at least since the time of the Romans, dedicated themselves to cultivating the vine. The majestic and humanised landscape of the vine-covered hillsides in the valleys of the River Douro and its tributaries is a continuing witness to methods of planting vineyards from different historical eras that developed with the appearance of new technologies yet retained their identity whilst mustering the expertise, techniques, customs, rituals and beliefs of the local populations.
The Douro, a unique nature
The cultural landscape of the Alto Douro is an outstanding example of man’s unique relationship with the natural environment. Its nature is determined by his wise management of limited land and water resources on extremely steep slopes. It is the outcome of permanent and intense observation, of local testing, of the profound knowledge of how to adapt the culture of the vine to such extremely unfavourable conditions. It is an expression of his courage and determination, of his acumen and creative genius in understanding the cycle of the water and the materials, of his intense, and almost passionate, attachment to the vine.
The Douro, a turbulent river at the heart of the vine-growing landscape
The river Douro has shaped the outstanding landscape and history of the region which bears its name. The steep slopes which frame the river's course are composed exclusively of loose schist and slate, white-hot in the sun. It has an extreme climate: according to an old proverb it has "nine months of winter, three months of hell", with reference to the very hot and dry summers.
Wine has been produced since time immemorial, but it was in the 17th century that it came into its own, with the rapid rise in fortified wine exports from the town of Oporto, shipped on flat-bottomed boats. As a result of this rapidly expanding trade, particularly with England, the Douro valley officially demarcated and regulated its wine production in 1756, the first region in the world to do so.
Port, a harmonious, full-bodied wine
Port has always been important for Portugal, both economically and culturally. The vines, planted on terraces on the hillsides overlooking the river, produce a wine of flame red and raspberry colour.
Traditional methods of hand-picking and treading the grapes are still used, in spite of the development of mechanized techniques. The sweet wine is obtained by adding brandy which stops the fermentation. It is then left to rest throughout the winter in "quintas", before being transported to vast warehouses in Oporto, where it is monitored and stocked for several years. The different types of port show the fruit of nature and humankind working in total harmony.
The Douro, a harmonious union of nature and culture
Over the years, port has guaranteed the prosperity of the Douro area. The architecture bears striking witness to this prosperity: wealthy merchants' houses, manor houses of the large producers, warehouses, roads, chapels, etc.
The grape-harvest has become a major tourist attraction, with thousands of foreign visitors coming to witness this unforgettable ritual.
Little by little, man has tamed the Douro, controlling its flow to make it navigable. Comfortable cruises are now organized to allow visitors to discover the outstanding work of nature combined with that of man: gentle vineyards, olive trtees and almond, spectacular architecture, as well as sheer cliffs plunging vertiginously into the waters of the Douro.