As many of us prepare to board our first international flight in months, a trip to a wine region may not be top of the list. But, for oenophiles it certainly ranks high. However much we may have enjoyed drinking at home during lockdown, wine, the pinnacle of site-specific comestibles, is taken to new heights when imbibed in its natural surroundings.
There is a right way to do wine travel and a wrong way. The latter involves too much travel time, too many stops and too much drinking. What’s more, on a practical level, there are still likely to be restrictions on winery visits for some time to come. Even where visitors are welcome, you may not feel comfortable crowding into a bus or barrel room just yet. This, though, may be a blessing in disguise: no more having to pretend to admire tanks and bottling lines before getting to the good stuff—the vineyard walks, library tastings and so on.
In the immediate future, destinations are admittedly limited: that dream trip to South Africa or Argentina may have to remain a dream a little longer; Europe and the US are not out of the woods, and some other destinations, notably Australia and New Zealand, are not yet open for business. However, with travel packages being booked for 2022, 2023 and beyond, there’s no harm in sketching the outlines of a future trip. The planning is half the fun anyway.
Here are the top tips I’ve accumulated over a dozen years of extensive wine travel to help ensure your first trip back to wine country is the joyous experience we’re all hoping for.
Where to go?
When your planned destination is far from home, particularly if it is your first visit and you don’t intend to be a regular, it can be tempting to try to check everything off in one go: California’s Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, say. Setting aside the fact that you’ll spend half your trip in transit, “checklist” travel leaves you without time to absorb the experience. This sounds obvious, yet countless people continue to ask me for wine travel advice with itineraries spanning hundreds of kilometres.
I recommend picking a location cluster that offers a level of contrast appropriate to your wine interest. If you’re a newbie, visiting a region where every winery produces one style and grape might start to feel monotonous. You may prefer somewhere more diverse; for example Australia’s Yarra Valley, where they make great pinot noir, chardonnay, sparkling wine, syrah and even Bordeaux blends; or Italy’s Piemonte, where you will find sweet sparkling wines; intense, tannic reds; juicy, drinkable reds; quaffable whites; and cerebral, challenging whites, all within an hour’s drive of each other.
If, instead, you’re a serious collector looking to broaden your horizons (say you’ve been to Burgundy a dozen times and now want to check out Italy’s Etna or Montalcino, or the Wachau in Austria), you still want some contrast between your visits. Consider a schedule in which each day is focused on a different aspect of the region: a day exclusively for whites, or high-altitude sites, or Riesling specialists, for instance.