There are many reasons for visiting Porto in Portugal, from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the central city to the charming museums, wide open green spaces and world-class leisure and cultural facilities. One of the most enticing reasons, however, lies not within the city itself but within the verdant green hills of the Douro Valley beyond.
Porto is famous all over the world for its Port wine, the delicious fortified wine that is distilled with brandy to give it its unique and distinctive flavour. The Douro has long been a wine-producing region; however, it is the particular combination of dry summers and wet winters, hot and cold temperatures, and unique soil conditions that makes it so perfect for the production of Port wine.
While it is possible to visit a number of Port wine cellars from within the city, by far the most exciting way to explore them is by heading out into the vine-swathed hills of the Douro valley where the Port wine grapes are grown. The best time to visit? During the Douro wine harvest, when visitors can get stuck in and do their bit to help prepare the year’s bumper crop.
The Douro valley region is divided more or less into three distinct areas: the Baixo Corgo, which is the coolest and wettest (though not in the summer of course); the Cimo Corgo, which covers some 19000 hectares and is home to many of the Douro estates; and the Douro Superior, the hottest area of the Douro where the river approaches the Spanish border.
Wherever you go along the valley, the scenery is spectacular. Steep slopes rise sharply from the river bed, twisting and turning their way relentlessly from the Atlantic Ocean, across the Peninsula into the Spain. The steep terraces on which the vines are planted are a feat of agricultural engineering, the product of centuries of wine-growing tradition. To join in with the Douro wine harvest is to stake your claim on your very own piece of viticultural history.
The best way to take part in the Douro wine harvest is to join an organised programme, of which there are many to choose from. Each programme will focus on one or more of the Douro estates, where you will learn about the history and practices of the grape harvest and work alongside other volunteers to help produce some of the best fortified wines in existence.
The Douro wine harvest occurs during the month of September, with the exact timing varying from grape to grape and from location to location. Even within a small area, the fruit can mature at very different rates, with those higher up the valley taking longer to ripen than those down closer to the waters.
Accommodation at the estates varies from comfortable and basic to five-star luxury with spa facilities thrown in for good measure. Alternatively, join a river tour which stops at several locations, enabling you to see much more of the beautiful surrounding scenery, joining in with the grape-picking activities along the way.
In a typical year the harvest will begin towards the beginning of the month but it is well worth checking before you book and travel as extreme climatic conditions can delay the harvest by several weeks, as was the case in 2012.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of joining in with the harvest is the opportunity it gives to work alongside the locals, enjoying all the aspects of a ritual that dates back for centuries. You will have the chance to tread the fruit in the ancient pressing basins with the soles of your feet, listening to folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion or guitar. And all of this against the backdrop of one of the most striking landscapes in Portugal.
You will of course share the experience with other adventurous travellers, while learning all about the local wine-making industry, enjoying hearty meals of gastronomic delights, and of course sampling suitable amounts of the fruits of your labour ― the delicious Port wine. A camera, a smile and willingness to get stuck in and do your bit for the industry are essentials, as, of course, is a little spare cash to invest in a few bottles of tawny, ruby, white or vintage to remind you of your adventures in Portugal’s beautiful Douro valley.