Quinta Nova: a wind-down in wine country

Food & drink

Quinta Nova: a wind-down in wine country

Can winemakers enjoy themselves on a busman's holiday to a winery hotel? We sent Ruth and Charles Simpson deep into the Douro Valley to find out

Ruth Simpson

BY Ruth Simpson3 March 2023

As wine producers ourselves, some would say that it’s ‘like taking coals to Newcastle’ for us to holiday at a winery hotel in an alternative wine region. And for a long time, we’ve avoided it. But this trip has undoubtedly revitalised and reactivated that enthusiasm, introducing us to an extraordinary area that we knew very little about.

Flying direct into (the super smart and very international) Porto airport is the first tick, given that hilltop countryside stay Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (or Quinta Nova as we came to know it) is a two-hour drive inland, we opted for a private taxi rather than the stress of hiring a car.

Douro Valley view

Quinta Nova helped us with this and Emmanuel from the Douro Feeling Collection was waiting at arrivals to whisk us off to the Douro Valley in a sleek Mercedes sedan. Mr Smith was feeling more relaxed already.

And what a drive it is, starting on the flat floodplains surrounding the city, then rising up through pine forests and bare hillsides, through white-and-orange-painted, cobblestone villages perched on increasingly steep slopes. Then down through olive groves and terraced vineyards that are beginning to turn autumnal shades of brown and gold, eventually catching our first glimpse of the mighty Douro River, carving its way westwards towards the Atlantic.

Quinta Nova is well worth the journey: it is quite simply stunning. The freshly painted white walls of the winery and hotel buildings stand out in sharp relief against the dry, terraced, vineyard-covered hillside, and it is surrounded by tall cedars, dark parasol pines, and almond and olive trees.

As we get closer along the drive we admire the network of schist stone dykes and walls covered in bright red Virginia creeper and Bougainvillea. It is a feast for the eyes.

On arrival, there is a buzz of activity and noise on the vine-covered terrace, with an eclectic mix of languages being spoken by guests enjoying a late lunch – and plenty of wine flowing. On the terrace, other guests are nestled in comfortable sofas and loungers near the pool and Princess, the house Beagle, is stretched out in the sunshine (a heavenly 27 degrees).

Away from the bustle of the terrace, the hotel has the calm, relaxed atmosphere of a country house, with quiet, tastefully decorated lounges, shelves full of books, and a magnificent wooden galleried interior section of Terraçu’s restaurant, our destination for dinner and breakfast.

Our bedroom is beautiful – more tasteful shades of olive, mint and forest green, with complementary chestnut browns and taupes. We chuckle initially at the fact that it is a twin-bedded room, but the beds are extraordinary – very high, old fashioned, solid wood, small double-size cradle beds with wooden steps on one side to get into them (yes really!).

The ensuite bathroom has a huge old-style shower that reminds me of my childhood home, all marble and stone, with the theme continuing to the all-natural, environmentally sensitive, bath and body products that are provided. French windows open out onto the most dramatic view south-west along the valley which you can never tire of.

As we stroll through some of the vineyards later, planning a route for a run the next morning, the challenges of viticulture in this area become increasingly apparent. As does the prospect of a run, given going any distance on the estate involves a steep incline either straight up or straight down.

We are already in total awe of how the Portuguese have cultivated vines in this inhospitable landscape. In some places there are terraces containing only one row of vines, creating wonderful contours and patterns on the hillside, but an absolute nightmare to farm. Some of the vines, we are later told, are over 100 years old; a field blend of red-grape varieties planted by hand a century ago, resulting in powerfully intense wines that are not for the faint-hearted.

Our apéritif, while sitting on the terrace watching a glorious sunset, was a Porto tonic: a deliciously moreish mix of white port, tonic and mint, and a twist of orange and lemon peel – definitely now on the cocktail list chez nous.

For dinner at Terraçu’s, the hotel’s highly respected, slow-food-championing restaurant, we splurge on one of the estate’s mighty ‘Centenarian’ red wines. This wine was inevitably going to overpower whatever we ate; however the short, regional menu provided a delectable range of choices for the carnivorous Mr Smith as well as my more pescatarian/vegetarian penchant.

The restaurant staff are knowledgeable and friendly and, with gentle jazz playing in the background, the ambience is calmer and quieter than at lunchtime, which we have learned is due to the influx of daytime visitors who combine a winery tour with a tasting-menu lunch.

The following day we run, we walk, we tour the winery, and we taste. We also go on an evening boat trip, all organised by the extremely efficient Quinta Nova team, who cater to our every need.

Unquestionably, everything here revolves around wine, its history and links to the landscape, the climate and the river. As a guest, you embrace it and feel fully immersed. It is the hotel’s raison d’être and they do it effortlessly well. We’ll be raising plenty more glasses in their direction.

Portugal uncorked: discover some of the country’s best wineries

Ruth Simpson and husband Charles have made award-winning wines at their southern French Estate, Domaine de Sainte Rose, since 2002. In 2012 they brought their savoir-faire back to the UK, establishing Simpsons’ Wine Estate in Kent – now comprising 38 hectares of vineyards, a state-of-the-art winery and an elegant tasting room, complete with world’s first winery helter-skelter slide. With a strong focus on provenance, Simpsons produce a highly-acclaimed range of exclusively estate-grown still and sparkling wines, which can be found in some of the finest retail and dining outlets both nationally and internationally.