There’s a point at which you can tell that a passing interest in wine has turned into something more involved. You don’t notice it at the time; it’s not a conscious decision. But at some point, all your holidays start taking place in wine regions. I’ve clocked up a dozen or more regions over the past few years, so I’m starting to get the hang of how best to plan a wine trip. But, as you’ll see, I’ve had to learn the hard way.
So you’ve decided to visit the region they make some of your favourite wines. To decide how best to get there, simply answer the following question: Which mode of transport will allow you to bring the greatest number of bottles home? Driving tends to be the best option, and you’ll need a car once you get to your destination anyway in order to reach various wineries. But it can mean less time relaxing if it takes days to get there, and the price of petrol and motorway tolls can make it an expensive option.
Don’t forget to factor in the inevitable garage bills. Normal cars aren’t designed for dusty vineyard tracks. Last year in the Rhône our car got beached on a hump in the road on the top of the hill of Hermitage. When we finally got it free it was making terrifying noises and leaking a unidentified fluid. I called a few local garages. It was Sunday; they were all shut. This year was much better – we only lost a wing mirror.
Travelling by plane is easier (and unavoidable if you are on the other side of the planet) but you won’t be able to bring much back. I’m buying luggage scales before I go away next time to avoid repeating this year’s frantic and undignified repacking of cases at the EasyJet bag drop. Trains tend not to have a baggage weight limit so they make a good option if you have some spare suitcases and you’re feeling strong. And when you get to your wine region of choice, hiring bicycles is always a good plan; that way you don’t have to spit.
Camping can be fun. We camped last year. We booked a pitch next to a mosquito-infested lake near Châteauneuf-du-Pape during the hottest week of the year. You know it’s hot when the old lady in the local deli exclaims “Putain, il fait chaud”. There was nowhere cool to store our growing haul. We cut our losses and hired a gite.
Hotels are the most luxurious option. But the best choice is self-catering. Sure you have to do all the cooking and cleaning. But you’ll drink well – you’ll be paying cellar door prices, not restaurant prices, so you can trade up. And you can drink what you’ve bought along the way, which is in fact an advantage. No doubt you want to meet as many producers as you can while you’re away; and it’s good etiquette to buy some wine at the end of each visit. Unless you have enough space to take it all home, you’ll have to drink some en route.
If you’re self-catering it also makes it easier to control what you eat, so no more foie gras overload. Just locate any nearby food markets and stock up. While you’re there, get talking to stallholders as they can be a good source of tips on local winemakers and restaurants.
So who should you visit once you’re there? In all likelihood, you’ll have chosen your destination on the back of some memorable bottles – so start by visiting them. Other sources of inspiration are The World Atlas of Wine, Drink Me (ahem), or other, more region-specific books. Checking out online forums is a good idea, as is searching critics’ tasting note databases and sorting by region then score. Blogs published by local wine lovers can be a good source of smaller and lesser-known estates. The Regions section of this website is also packed with good suggestions.
You’ll probably want to visit some wine shops, wine bars and restaurants with good wine lists while you’re there. As well as searching online and using restaurant guides, ask producers where they would recommend. Similarly, asking sommeliers and bar or shop owners which wineries they rate is a smart move.
Booking in visits
It’s worth giving some thought to the time of year you’re planning to visit. Don’t go during harvest, or the month of August in France or Italy when many wineries are closed. Some larger estates are geared up to receive visitors any time, but many smaller ones aren’t – so you’ll have to book ahead. Occasionally you can find contact details on their websites or elsewhere online, but some don’t make it so easy. If you’re having trouble getting hold of a particular winery, contact their distributor who might be able to help.
Some smaller domaines can be tricky to find, especially in countries that have vague or inconsistent ways of addressing properties. Always take full contact details with you in case you’re having trouble finding them or running late. But even if you do book in a visit, sometimes they just won’t be in. I booked a visit with Schlumberger in Alsace a few years ago; when I arrived they were shut, with nothing but this sign for a lost ferret attached to their gates.
More than three visits a day can feel a bit heavy going; allow an hour and a half to two hours for each one. If you’re in a hurry it’s worth mentioning how much time you have when you arrive so the winemaker knows how to pace the visit. If possible, try to see the vineyards; cellars are rarely as interesting, beautiful or instructive. Make sure you leave some gaps in the schedule as some of the most exciting places are those you hear about in situ: don’t be afraid to go off-piste.
What to take
Pack a decent corkscrew. You can bet the one at your self-catering cottage will be rubbish. The same applies for glassware – the last place I stayed had two eggcup-sized Paris goblets and that was it. Depending on how you’re travelling, either take glasses with you (along with a decanter) or buy some when you get there. GoVinos are a handy picnic option. Don’t forget to take a chiller sleeve for whites.
Take both a conventional printed map and a sat-nav/GPS. And even if you’re going somewhere blisteringly hot, take a jacket with you – cellars are universally chilly. Finally, only take a baby on visits if it’s less than a year old, after that it’s a nightmare. And if you do, consider how you might react if your baby craps on your partner during a tasting. Because we were entirely unprepared.
Six memorable visits
Kongsgaard, Napa, California
Sometimes it’s good to arrive with no expectations. John Kongsgaard’s wines are rarely ever seen in the UK: I just booked a visit on the back of a friend’s tweet. Turns out he makes some of the most mind-blowing Chardonnays in the world. We couldn’t believe what we were tasting, staring at each other in wide-eyed amazement.
Weingüter Mönchhof, Mosel, Germany
Uproarious owner Robert Eymael drove us up the hazardously steep slopes of the Ürziger Würzgarten whilst recounting local folklore over a soundtrack of ‘My Humps’ by The Black Eyed Peas. Not an experience I’ll forget any time soon.
Causse Marines, Gaillac, South West France
Sometimes the most interesting producers are in relatively uncelebrated regions. Owner Patrice Lescarret is a joy to meet, full of bizarre stories, funny anecdotes and anarchic ideas. His wines are brilliantly characterful.
Bodegas Pedro Romero, Jerez, Spain
The buildings had seen better days, but some of the wines were outstanding. Our guide Fernando was engaging and knowledgeable, and had heartfelt feelings about the unjustly enfeebled state of the Sherry industry. A bittersweet visit.
Domaine Marcel Deiss, Alsace, France
I thought I understood the concept of terroir before I arrived, but visiting this domaine really opened my eyes. Neither did I realise that Alsace produces some of the finest whites in the world. Deiss’s Grands Crus, we discovered, are among them.
Taylor’s Port, Douro Valley, Portugal
The trip from Oporto up the Douro Valley is one of the world’s great train journeys. Arriving at the Quinta de Vargellas we learnt how to use port tongs on some old vintages, then played skittles outside with the empties into the night. The high point was what was inside them.