Ancient Traditions, Endangered Species, and Sustainable Development: Travel for Wine and Wildlife Lovers

A visit to Portugal’s wine regions, renowned for their rich history and exceptional vintages, offers travelers not only wine trails, wine museums, and wine tastings, but also remarkable opportunities for conservation, sustainable development, and wildlife viewing.

Portugal’s tourism numbers have rebounded and exceed pre-pandemic levels; and global wine tourism is growing at a rate of over 4% per year and exceeds $8 billion.

Three of Portugal’s winemaking regions stand out for wine and conservation-related travel: Alentejo, the Douro River Valley, and Pico Island offer unique local blends of wine tourism and wildlife viewing, creating an unforgettable experience combining human history and the natural world.

As wine tourism flourishes in these regions, a growing focus on sustainable development and wildlife conservation is transforming Portugal’s wine industry. 

Alentejo: Vineyards & Wildlife Conservation co-exist in Cork Oak Forests

Situated between the Algarve and Lisboa regions in southern and central Portugal, the Alentejo wine region is the largest in the country. Its eight subregions also harbor a hidden treasure — the largest cork oak forests in the world, covering over 1.8 million acres.

cork oak forest wildlife habitat herd of deer

Forest may be a misnomer; these remarkably biodiverse permaculture areas contribute both to Portugal’s status as the leading global producer of cork, and also provide both local employment and habitat for a stunning array of plants and animals. Thirty-seven different species of mammals can be found in cork oak forests, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx, the most threatened feline species in the world. Rabbits, weasels, deer, mongoose, and forty-two bird species, including kestrels, little owls, black storks, and the endangered Iberian Imperial eagle can also be spotted there.

With an estimated population of fewer than 700 individuals, the Iberian lynx is a critically endangered species making a comeback. Additionally, the region serves as a vital nesting ground for the Iberian Imperial Eagle, a majestic raptor whose population has faced significant decline. The preservation of cork oak forests is instrumental in safeguarding these species, making Alentejo a remarkable example of how wine tourism and wildlife conservation can thrive together.

Iberian lynx

Iberian lynx

Visitors to this region also enjoy a glimpse into how ancient winemaking techniques contribute to climate resilience, as Portugal is the only country that has a dedicated appellation for wines produced in clay amphora. Alentejo’s commitment to sustainable agriculture, sustainable development for the local communities, and wildlife conservation is evident asgrowing numbers of wine tourism visitors explore its picturesque vineyards and remarkably biodiverse cork oak forests.

Huge clay wine containers in Alentejo region, Portugal

Huge clay wine containers in Alentejo region, Portugal

Douro River Valley: A Riverside Haven for Wildlife and Wine Enthusiasts

The Douro River Valley stretches almost 400 miles across northern Portugal from Porto. The uniquely terraced winemaking tradition in the Duoro Valley dates back thousands of years; it was the first demarcated wine-producing region in the world, established in 1756.

Douro River Valley

Douro River Valley

In 2001, UNESCO named the Alto Duoro Wine Region a World Heritage Site, declaring: “The cultural landscape of the Alto Douro Wine Region is an outstanding example of humankind’s unique relationship with the natural environment.” and citing:

  • The long winemaking tradition has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that is a reflection of technological, social, and economic evolution. The dramatic landscape is still farmed in traditional ways by traditional landholders.
  • The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the range of activities associated with winemaking – terraces, quintas (wine-producing farm complexes), villages, etc.
  • Since the 18th century, its main product, Port wine, has been world famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty.

The Douro River Valley provides a sanctuary for various bird species, making it a paradise for birdwatchers. The region’s vineyards also offer ample opportunities for wildlife viewing, with red deer and wild boar frequently spotted roaming through the vineyard landscapes.

The Douro River Valley is an important stopover for migratory birds, attracting species like the black stork, which find respite in the wetland habitats along the riverbanks during their annual journeys. The Griffon vulture, a majestic bird of prey, is frequently spotted soaring above the Duoro River Valley. With a wingspan of up to 9.2 feet, these impressive scavengers are an essential part of the valley’s ecosystem. The Douro River Valley is also home to the endangered Iberian magpie, a species found only in the Iberian Peninsula. Birdwatchers can catch glimpses of these striking blue-and-black birds as they flit among the vineyard landscapes.

spanish imperial eagle iberian eagle perched on a cork oak tree

Iberian eagle (also known as the Spanish Imperial eagle) perched on a cork oak tree surrounded by magpies

WWF says the species to spot is one of the last packs of wolves in the region; it calls Douro International Natural Park home. According to WWF, the best way to see wildlife is kayaking along the river; it brings you up close to the vineyards of Portugal’s wine country. Cruising along the Douro River on Natural Habitat Adventure’s River of Wine trip, travelers can revel in the picturesque scenery while catching glimpses of the elusive Iberian wild goat, an agile creature perfectly adapted to the rugged terrain. The river trip also presents opportunities to spot otters, which play a vital role in maintaining the region’s ecosystem balance. These charismatic creatures are indicators of a healthy river ecosystem. 

Pico Island: Where Volcanic Vines Meet Marine Conservation

Pico Island, part of the Portuguese Azores’ central group of islands, is home to the towering Ponta do Pico volcano, the highest mountain in Portugal and the Azores. In 2004, UNESCO designated the vineyards a World Heritage site stating, “The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture is an outstanding example of the adaptation of farming practices to a remote and challenging environment.” Grown in black volcanic soils, viticulture has been a cornerstone of the island’s economy since the mid-15th century. Today, these vineyards stand as a testament to the island’s historical and cultural significance, representing ancestral traditions and harmonious coexistence with nature.

Sunset over a volcanic rock vineyard on Pico Island

Sunset over a volcanic rock vineyard on Pico Island © Rebecca L. Self

Seventeen grape varieties are grown on Pico. White Verdelho is what Pico is most well-known for, but other whites include: Arinto, Pico Terrantez, Generosa, Seara Nova, Rio Grande, Viosinho, and Gouveio. Red varieties include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Saborinho, Agronómica, Tinta Roriz, and Periquita.

For 500 years, Verdelho vines have been grown in the black volcanic soil surrounded by dark stone walls known as currais. The stone walls protect the vineyards from salty winds off the ocean. Smaller volcanic rocks on the ground heat up during the day and stay somewhat warm during the night, which helps the grapes that sit on top of them to ripen. In 2004, UNESCO recognized Pico Island’s vineyards as a World Heritage Site, preserving the island’s cultural heritage and the unique practices of its viticulture. Pico’s vineyards not only offer a glimpse into the island’s past but also remain a cherished heritage, showcasing a harmonious relationship between humans and the natural environment.

Beyond its vineyards, Pico Island is celebrated for its exceptional marine biodiversity. It is one of the top destinations for whale watching in Europe, with the Azores being home to more than one-third of the world’s cetacean species. The Azores lie along the Atlantic Ocean’s Mid-Atlantic Ridge in what WWF calls a blue corridor or superhighway for whales, attracting 28 species of cetaceans. The island’s strategic location makes it a prime spot for observing a diverse array of marine life. Pico Island boasts one of the highest success rates in the world for sighting sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), the largest toothed whales on Earth, providing an exceptional opportunity for visitors to witness these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Additionally, playful bottlenose and common dolphins frequent the island’s azure waters, offering encounters for wildlife enthusiasts.

Endless road into the hills of Pico Island, Azores

Endless road into the hills of Pico Island, Azores

Visitors to Pico Island support Portugal’s growing wine tourism industry and witness magnificent marine mammal migrations, both of which tell stories of the island’s past and providing a glimpse into a sustainable future. 

Wine Tourism, Wildlife, and Conservation – A Perfect Blend in Portugal

Portugal’s wine regions of Alentejo, the Douro River Valley, and Pico Island are living examples of how wine tourism and wildlife conservation can coexist harmoniously. From the cork oak forests of Alentejo, harboring endangered species, to birdwatching from the waters the Douro River, and the awe-inspiring marine life surrounding Pico Island, these regions celebrate the delicate balance between human heritage and the natural world.

As travelers embark on the enchanting journey of wine tourism in Portugal, they become not just witnesses to breathtaking landscapes and exceptional vintages but also active participants in the preservation of the diverse wildlife that calls this land their home. Through sustainable practices and a shared passion for both wine and wildlife, Portugal’s wine industry paves the way for a harmonious future where nature and culture thrive hand in hand.

Sperm whale fluke, Azores

Sperm whale fluke, Azores