Upscale wine lovers throw lifeline to Portugal valley

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Long kept hidden from the tourist hordes by poor roads, Portugal's Douro Valley is opening up its quintas, or port wine estates, to upscale tourists who are throwing it a lifeline in a bad economy.

Starting near the remote border with Spain and cascading downriver to the sea at Porto, the historic port-producing valley is home to dozens of large quintas and more than 31,000 small growers, a world away from sprawling seaside resorts.

Also home to one of Europe's largest prehistoric rock art sites, its terraced vineyards and raw natural beauty have made it a magnet for travellers with a taste for upscale, sustainable tourism -- and fine wine.

"If you come to the Douro, you're not the usual tourist," said Jorge Rosas, export manager for port shipper Ramos Pinto, whose family has been making the wine since 1880. "Either you are a wine lover or you love our unique landscape."

While the number of wine tourists to the region is stable, the amount each one spends is on the rise, said Rosalina Dias, manager at the Graham's Lodge visitor center in Vila Nova de Gaia, the historic wine district in Porto.

Responding to demand, port shippers have been investing in upscale lodgings at their quintas as well as restaurants, walking trails, tasting rooms, shops and museums -- even as the country labours under a second year in recession.

Overlooking the city of Porto, the 19th-century Graham's Lodge has been totally revamped with a spacious restaurant overlooking the city, tapas bar, VIP tasting room and a museum due to open in late summer.

"The emphasis will be on creating contemporary Portuguese food that matches with our wines," said Euan Mackay, sales director of Symington Family Estates, which owns Graham's and 26 quintas, showing AFP around the construction site.

So far 60,000 people come through the tasting room and store every year, and Mackay is betting that number will rise further.

Travelling up the Douro river, at the epicentre of the vineyard region, the picturesque Pinhao train station, first opened in 1880, now houses a posh wine shop.

"We were looking for a special place and the train company needed an investor who could renovate the building," said Paula Sousa, tourism manager for Quinta Nova, which restored the station's shop and built a museum on site at a cost of some 400,000 euros.

"This was one of the first stations in the region and the blue and white tiles on the station tell the story of port wine. We restored the shop, built a museum."

With visitors arriving from as far away as Brazil and Russia, entrepreneurs in the region are working to keep them coming back.

"The region has big potential -- every year there are new tourism ventures, showing a lot of innovation."

Until just recently, tourism was not an option for the Douro Valley.

"The region was protected by bad roads for centuries -- not only from tourists, but from the port shippers too!" Rosas explained.

But today, low-cost air carriers and European Union-financed highways make it possible to leave London in the morning and be sipping a glass of chilled tawny in Pinhao in the afternoon.

Even within the wine trade, the relationship with the region has changed. A generation ago, the port shipping families visited growers at harvest time and Easter, otherwise remaining in Porto.

"A few years ago, it was unthinkable to live in the Douro, but the new generation of winemakers love the Douro and want to live there," said Rosas.

"We believe in the quality of our wines, and the best way to grow quality grapes is to live near the vineyard," said Rosas. "I would also like to see quality tourism."

Wine tourism is increasingly looking like the boon Portuguese vintners need.

Domestic sales have nose-dived with the economic crisis and exports are difficult. Last year, the Port Wine Institute reduced production to adjust to demand, which left many growers struggling to make ends meet.

The Douro's other two crops, olive oil and almonds, struggle to compete with rivals from Italy and Spain on one hand, and California on the other.

"The situation is drastic," said Rosas. "Of course, we are trying to sell more wine, but it would be good if we didn't just rely on the vineyards.

"So tourism could be the answer."

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