Visiting the Douro Wine Valley in Northern Portugal

We inch up the serpentine bends, pulling the car precariously close to the side of the narrow road closer to the river, as an SUV returning from the mountain, hurtles down in haste.

Below us lies a latticework of vines growing in schist rock terraces, arranged at pleasing angles.

As if splitting the mountain interface, the mighty Douro river carves its way, flowing between Portugal and Spain.

The river has witnessed the efforts of man and vine for more than 2000 years; in 1991 the Alto Douro was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the long tradition of Port production and the resultant development in infrastructure in the area.

Related read: A Guide to Porto Street Art

Douro wine region
Douro wine region

Visiting the Douro wine valley

The Douro wine valley is as spectacular as they say, but even in the heat of summer, there are very few tourists. There are a number of rural houses across the river, some with a noble edge, and they cast ethereal shadows in the flat green waters. The terrain is unique and I feel a growing curiosity about the history and people who live and work here. 

While the grapes for some incredibly good table wines, of which we have had the pleasure over three months of living in Portugal to sample, are grown here in the Douro, the region is most famous for excellent Ports or fortified wines.

In picturesque Oporto which lies at the basin of the Douro, you will see prominent signs advertising the names of Port wine cellars. Port is stored in these cool cellars, but in order to get there, trucks must traverse the precarious journey down. We are told that it isn’t uncommon during harvest season for more than one collision or for a truck to tragically take a tumble over the side.

In the old days, barrels of pressed grapes were transported by rabelo along the unpredictable Douro.

The Douro wine estates

At various estates or quintas, you may still find rudimentary chapels built in the old style – these were houses of worship where the stewards of those small vessels would come to pray for safe passage.

At Quinta do Crasto, we are taken up to admire the views of the valley from the pool area before our tasting commences and the eye is tricked into believing the pool flows into the Douro river. 

It is here that we are reminded what we have been told before, that as popular as Port is, it isn’t so with the Portuguese. Rather, it’s an English custom that seems to live on; naturally much of the port produced is for export. The Douro developed the first appellation system, a wine classification to distinguish the three regions in which the grapes are grown. This was developed 200 years before the French system!

Later on at Quinta do Nova, we both agree that this could be the very spot for a renewal of wedding vows, except we both know we have family who wouldn’t commit to scaling the hills to get here. Lunch is an elaborate affair paired with the estate’s wines, under the shaded pergola.

After a day of exploring, Douro wine tasting (the driver must opt for sensibility, the roads aren’t worth the risk), and taking in views we head back to the beautiful CS Vintage House Hotel for a nap and a shower before dinner at Rui Paula’s DOC, a sleek and modern restaurant with an excellent reputation, on the water’s edge.

And tomorrow? We’ll blissfully do it all again!

Douro wine and port
Douro wine and port

Types of Port in Douro

Broadly, Port may be characterised into two types, wood and bottled aged. Wood-aged Ports include Ruby, Tawny and White. Glass-aged include Vintage and Crusted Ports. 

Port can be successfully paired with cheese, chocolate and cakes too.

Reasons to Add the Franschhoek Wine Region to Your Cape Town Itinerary

Planning a Cape Town itinerary means including a little bit of everything – beach, mountains, city life, and, of course, wine. This post is all about the wine…the Franschhoek wine region in particular.

If you want to experience the best of the beautiful Cape Winelands, make sure to include a visit to the Franschhoek wine district.

Why the Franschhoek wine region?

Boasting a huge 20+ wineries, Franschhoek is renowned for its ever popular wine tram tours, exquisite food and five star accommodation.

The relaxed nature of the town, stunning scenery and slow place make this the perfect relaxing break, city escape or fantastic day trip.

Franschhoek has a huge French influence, with the name meaning the ‘French corner’ in Afrikaans.

Where is Franschhoek?

This incredible destination is located 60 kilometres outside the hustle and bustle of the Cape Town city and 30km to the ever popular wine district of Stellenbosch (here’s a few things to do in Stellenbosch). The town lies between the Franschhoek Valley and the Wemmershoek Mountains.

Franschhoek wine region
Franschhoek wine region

Join a Franschhoek wine tram tour

This is the number one attraction in Franschhoek, with trams covering 8 tram lines and 8 to 10 stops on each line (you can stay aboard and skip some stops if you wish). Tram times run every hour allowing some wine tasting, food and a look around before heading off to your next destination. Be aware though, the last tram runs at 4pm, so if you settle in to a winery for a few hours be sure to keep one eye on your watch or it could be a long walk.

Book the tour now

Two wine stops you must make

Dieu Donne

Set on the side of the hills with views of the stunning Franschhoek mountain range and neighboring Stellenbosch, Dieu Donne offers a sense of freedom and a world away from everything.

Top Tip: This is the best place in Franschhoek to see the sunset.

Eikehof Wines

Eikehof is a smaller, more family oriented winery and you really get a sense of what it might feel like to grow up immersed in this world. The family shared some great stories such as the history of the 1940’s Ford on display – which belonged to the owner’s grandfather who used it to plough the fields back in the day. Such intimate stories shared by the owners added to the warm experience we had here.

Franschhoek wine tram
Franschhoek wine tram

Food in Franschhoek

Franschhoek is known unofficially as the culinary capital of South Africa. It boasts first class fine dining, while still creating a relaxed aura and feel that is Franschhoek.

Our favourite restaurant in Franschhoek

For us it has to be the Monneaux restaurant, a restaurant set with a relaxed yet intimate environment. With three rooms and the flow of a house, this really set a scene of comfort. This certainly was an environment we could feel comfortable in while still appreciating all the formalities and professionalism of a top end fine dining restaurant.

The food prides itself on locally sourced suppliers and artisans, seasonal menus and simplicity with a view of not over complicating things.

We enjoyed a small plates tasting menu trying 4 dishes and dessert. This is the way we like to eat getting many different flavours and textures. Presentation is fantastic and every dish was well executed.

Where to stay in Franschhoek

We stayed at the Franschhoek Country House and Villas a short 10 minute walk from the center of Franschhoek. 5 star accommodation at it’s finest. With complimentary champagne on arrival and a great breakfast of freshly cooked dishes, fruits, pastries, meats and cheeses laid out each morning.

Get poolside and enjoy some sun with poolside dining and cocktails, the fresh views of the mountains and the old fashioned passing wine tram.

The hotel also has an onsite spa with many many options of packages to unwind and rejuvenate.

Franschhoek Country House and Villas
Franschhoek Country House and Villas

5 Other Things To Do In Franschhoek

Staying for a few days? Here is five other great things to do in Franschhoek.

1. Franschhoek Motor Museum

With over 100 years of history and over 200 cars the Franschhoek motor museum is a must for any car enthusiast.

2. Franschhoek Pass

The Franschhoek pass takes you into the mountains with stunning drives and views that you can only imagine exist.

3. First South African Perfume Museum

Franshhoek was once a budding perfume district with a whole host of perfumeries. At the museum you can find out all about the history behind this industry in this area.

A little fact the restaurant we ate in the, Monneaux was actually home to one of the first Perfumeries in Franschhoek.

4. Soul Barrell Brewing

If you’re all wined out and fancy a change, then look no further than Soul Barrel Brewing. A selection of independent craft beers with taproom and tours available.

5. Hike Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve

Mont Rochelle is a Unesco World Heritage Site situated just outside Franschhoek. With over 30 kms of hiking trails and is also home also to Richard Branson’s stunning hotel and vineyard.

And Finally

If this doesn’t get you excited for some down time I’m not sure what will. We suggest going to unwind, slow down the pace and take it all in your stride.

A good three or four days would be a suitable trip, enough time to relax but enough time to tick a few trips off.

Placing this on a Cape Town trip is just perfect with the busy nature of Cape Town and so much to do, Franschhoek is just a perfect way to end.

Here are a few other posts to help you plan your Cape Town itinerary