Tourism boost: The terraced vinyards in Portugal's Douro wine region
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.
So far 60,000 people come through the tasting room and store every year, and Mackay is betting that number will rise further.
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