IT is not every evening you enjoy an exquisite tasting menu from Masterchef's top judge.

But this is one of many delightful surprises in the Douro Valley - the oldest demarcated wine region in the world - a boat trip up river from Porto.

While its wine-making traditions span the centuries, the region is continuously looking for innovative new ways to attract tourists.

From staying overnight in vineyards and making your own wine, to relaxing in luxurious barrel-like hotel rooms, this industrious region continues to re-invent wine tourism in the country.

The Douro Valley is a seemingly endless terrain of steep-sloped terraced vineyards where the grapes are grown for the Port which adorns many a Christmas table in Britain.

The barrels are transported to Porto where they are aged for the appropriate time to become either a ruby, tawny or reserve Port.

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Our masterchef experience was at Rui Paula's magnificent DOC restaurant in Folgosa, in the heart of the Douro Valley.

Paula is the Portuguese equivalent of John Torode.

His restaurant lies on the road from Regua to Pinhao, which was judged four years ago as the best road in the world to travel for the breathtaking views as you wind your way through this magnificent valley.

The menu was a sensation: the Carolino rice with seafood and lobster to die for.

But this is only one of several top quality restaurants and vineyards in this stunning region.

Our trip started in the city which gave Port its name with an exquisite lunch at Sandeman's George Restaurant and Terrace overlooking the Douro river.

Many port houses were owned by British families as the tipple became very popular back home, especially with the ban on French brandy during the Napoleonic wars: hence the brands Taylors, Sandeman and Croft.

There followed a tour of the centuries old cellars where our guide, dressed in the Zorro-like costume of the Sandeman logo, explained the port-making process, followed by a leisurely tasting.

Our downtown tour of Porto took in the Lello bookshop made famous by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, who based the grand staircase at Hogwarts school on the elaborate staircase within, while she taught in the city.

Our guide Hugo pointed out other inspirations including the famous capes worn by university students to wizard Salazar Slytherin named after the Portuguese dictator.

Then it was on to Vinho Verde country to the charming, pretty village of Ponte de Lima, Portugal's oldest - founded in 1125.

The village had a lovely, laid back vibe with its beautiful Roman bridge, still in use today.

We visited the Vinho Verde Centre, where we learned about the famous wine - literally translated as "green wine" but meaning young or fresh, and undertook a wine tasting, which is set at a price to suit each party. Entrance to the museum is only three euros.

The region has many grand manor houses and quintas (vineyards).

One family-owned house Casa de Sezim lies in the heart of the countryside near Guimaraes.

It was tranquil, rustic with large, elegant rooms complete with intricate wallpaper depicting many historical scenes such as the Battle of Austerlitz.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch all sourced locally, much of it on the estate, along with exquisite wines.

By now our group was becoming accustomed with the different types of port and various grapes used for Vinho Verde.

And we had the opportunity to test our recently-acquired knowledge and make our very own wine at the Monverde Wine Experience Hotel.

Vinho Verde's biggest market is the US and its magnificent hotels such as these, amid rolling hills and picturesque vineyards, which are attracting tourists from across the pond as well as on the continent.

Our wine-making experience was great fun and we were all able to choose our preferred mix, from a choice of six grapes, and decide on the percentage per grape, after some necessary tasting and expert help from our host Pedro.

I plumped for a mix of 70 per cent Avesso, which had a nutty taste with 30 per cent of the sweeter Arinto.

How did it taste? I still don't know but my bottle of "Don Miguel" is ready to be uncorked for a special occasion.

Another innovative idea which is ensuring tourists are not visiting for the summer months is the "wine barrel" suites at the Quinta de Pacheca.

Yes, that's right, guests stay in suites in the form of gigantic wine barrels amid the estate's vineyards.

Our host explained wine and food tourism works just as well in winter as in summer as the quality remains, whatever the season.

His words were backed up by the fact the barrels, which cost between 200-400 euros a night were fully booked till next Spring.

Another sumptuous meal proved this is another "quinta" fighting above its weight.

Our base for the Douro wine region was the elegant Vila Gale Collection Douro Hotel with its breathtaking views of the river Regua.

From here we drove to Pinhao, at the heart of the port making region, to take a leisurely cruise up the Duoro where we gazed at the wine estates, lush scenery and passing boats.

We disembarked at the magnificent Vintage House, whose bedrooms probably offered the best view of the valley and vineyards in our trip.

Add to this its tranquil gardens and pool - the perfect place for an overnight stay.

Having visited smaller independent estates, it was now time to visit two of the "big guns" in the area: the Croft and Sandeman vineyards.

At Croft's Quinta de la Roeda our friendly guide Miguel explained how the grapes were still trod in the traditional way - by foot.

We sampled a trio of fine ports and Miguel revealed that Port wasn't actually that popular in Portugal but was becoming more fashionable thanks to Port cocktails such as Port and Tonic, which are quite popular in Britain too.

Just down the road was Sandeman's Quinta de Bomfim estate.

Here, they have adapted the latest technology to replicate the traditional method of grape-treading by using a machine which employs silicone bricks to crush the grape, without bruising it or crushing the pip.

So two major players, employing different methods, but both still producing quality port.

Our final stop was the picturesque manor house and gardens of the Quinta de Aveleda.

Unfortunately, there was torrential rain on our tour of the gardens but our charming host Paula valiantly showed us around the beautiful estate, which included, quite handily, a cork tree, as like all the quintas we visited it produces its own wine.

You could imagine how delightful the gardens would look on a sunny day.

The grounds also boasted working goats and colourful peacocks.

After a tour of the cellars we settled down to a hearty Portuguese lunch of staple favourites such as salted cod and pastel de nata and I tasted my first Portuguese brandy - lovely!

The gift shop was also a must, the Quinta produces many fine wines and cheeses at great value.

We all bought a gift or two to take home.

As Paula pointed out it was 500 years ago, that a son of the Douro, Ferdinand Magellan, used his skill and tenacity to set forth the first circumnavigation of the world.

His descendants are employing the same vision to ensure this beautiful region continues to grow as an attraction for lovers of good food and wine.


TAP Air Portugal flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon and Porto, prices start at £80 return including all taxes and surcharges.

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