Portugal’s Douro Valley should be on every wine lover’s bucket list.

While Esther Mobley is on vacation, San Francisco Chronicle wine reporter Jess Lander takes over the newsletter.

One of the most popular European destinations (alongside Italy) during this summer’s travel boom was Portugal. The country reported a record number of US tourists in July, and I was one of them. Crowds of Americans are also moving there.

But despite this newfound attention, Portugal’s most prized wine region, the Douro Valley, remains hidden from most wine travelers. France and Italy are understandably among the top attractions for those looking to enjoy the best wines in the world; In fact, Esther Mobley, senior wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is currently exploring the rolling hills of Tuscany. But after visiting Portugal this summer, I believe the Douro should be at the top of any wine lover’s bucket list.

Its history is deep, the dramatic scenery is second to none and most of the wines are incredibly priced. Portugal has many phenomenal wines priced under $20.

Portugal is best known for Port, the sweet fortified red wine that can be aged for decades. While Port is made and aged in the northern city of Porto, the grapes are grown in the Douro, which is about a 90-minute drive northeast. The port’s history dates back to the 17th century and the Douro region is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vines are planted in hand-dug terraces that climb steep slopes to the tops of the mountains while the Douro River meanders through the valley below. It is truly remarkable that these grapes are hand-picked.

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Even if you don’t like dessert wine, it’s worth a trip here, because the Douro is in the midst of an exciting wine renaissance. Because port wine is extremely expensive and time-consuming to produce — and the market is dominated by a handful of companies — many wineries have shifted their focus to dry reds, which are just beginning to gain global attention.

A visit to the Douro should begin in Porto. Most port wine production has moved out of the city’s cobbled historic district, but many of the old port houses still offer tastings, and some, like Taylor Fladgate and Graham’s, offer excellent tours that delve deep into Port’s fascinating history. A visit to WOW – the World of Wine – is a must. The modern collection of Disney-level interactive museums is so impressive that I would recommend spending a full day there. If you’ve got some cash to spend, the Yeatman is worth staying at for views of the infinity pool alone, but non-guests can also enjoy the panorama of Porto from the hotel’s Dick’s bar. Order a porto tonico, Portugal’s fizzy drink (made from white port) that’s arguably better than an Aperol spritz.

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Most people visit the Douro on a river cruise ship or a day tour, but neither of these options will get you much coverage. Instead, rent a car and stay at least three days. The entire region stretches for 300 miles, but it’s actually quite easy to get around using two main roads that circle the river.

The town of Pinhão is a good base within walking distance to many wineries and restaurants. A local favourite, Veladouro serves great traditional Portuguese dishes in a cozy and friendly environment. Bonfim 1896 is a new fine dining restaurant aiming for a Michelin star. Stop by Quinta das Barrocas, a tiny butcher shop, to buy local meats and cheeses for a few euros. The owner speaks very little English but hands out complimentary wine from a small tin tank.

Within walking distance from the center of Pinhão, Quinta da Foz has one of the best examples of an old and traditional Douro wine cellar from the 1870s. Here you can see the traditional stone lagares: large, flat barrels used to pound grapes for the production of high quality port wine. Groups of workers stomp in unison for hours and later sing and dance in the grapes. Many wineries have switched to mechanical pedaling, but some have kept the tradition alive.

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Quinta dos Murças produces some of the most serious and complex wines I’ve tasted on my visit. Ask for an adrenaline-pumping vineyard tour of the massive estate, not recommended for those with vertigo. The family-run Quinta da Gaivosa (of the Alves de Sousa brand) requires a bit of a drive, but it’s a shining example of the high-tech modernization that’s starting here, and the wines are fantastic.

If you want more, the full-day visit to Quinta do Vesúvio (€300 per person) is unforgettable. You will take the train from Pinhão along the river to the stop created just for the winery. A private visit to this serene piece of paradise includes a tour of the vineyards—which reach up to 500 meters—the winery and historic estate, as well as a cellar tasting of Vesúvio’s premium, very limited-production wines, and a multi-course lunch.

Jess Lander is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jesslander

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