Expert Tips on How to Plan the Perfect Wine Holiday
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.
Again, it depends how serious you are about wine. I would say anything longer than two weeks and your liver aches, your eyes puff and everything blends into one endless stream. On the other hand, a day or two is not usually enough to get a proper sense of a region. If you have multiple stages (say Napa then Sonoma), I find three days per cluster is adequate. Outdoor activity days (eg safari in South Africa or hiking the Andes) should be added to the total and are a great way to break up the cycle of tasting, eating and drinking.
When to go?
If you show up either during summer (particularly in Europe) or at Christmas time, don’t expect to experience anything truly interesting. Wineries that will host you at these times tend to be part-winery, part-tourist attraction, and hence are not likely to offer anything worthwhile to serious oenophiles.
Harvest, while an interesting time to see a winery in action, tends to be a frantic period, so you are highly unlikely to secure time with key decision makers such as owners, winemakers or viticulturalists. This is fine if all you’re after is a walk through the vineyards and perhaps a picnic, but for an in-depth visit you are best picking another time of year. Similarly, be aware of key wine trade fairs like Italy’s Vinitaly, France’s Vinexpo or Germany’s Prowein: trade visitors schedule winery visits for a week or two before and after fairs, so yours may not be a high priority.
Shoulder seasons are usually best: early winter when harvest and fermentation are complete but before Christmas (not relevant in the southern hemisphere), or spring, when there is vineyard work and tank cleaning, but nothing is too frantic; the latter is particularly beautiful, with lush growth in the vineyard.
Alternatively, if you’re after a gourmand’s jaunt with some wine rather than a wine-focused tour, it may make more sense to plan around local food or wine festivals such as the Alba White Truffle Fair or Festivities of San Mateo in Rioja. It is extremely doubtful you will get personal winery tours, but there will be plenty of ambiance, food and drink in their stead.
What to do?
For the wine-obsessed, I suggest starting by categorising wineries by priority: 1. must-see; 2. would like to see; 3. will see to fill in a gap. Contact all the must-sees two or three months before your planned visit to maximise the success of your visit. Sadly, the desirability of a winery is usually inversely proportional to the ease of contacting it; if you can book a tour on the website, you probably don’t want to take it. And remember, too, that just because there is a paid tour already available, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can’t arrange something more bespoke.
Make the most of your hoped-for visit by requesting something specific: tasting is a given, but perhaps you might mention that you’d like to see the vineyards (rather than trudge around the winery), or demonstrate familiarity by saying, “I’ve heard that you’re developing more cru wines and would love to get a better understanding from [insert name of the winemaker/owner/viticulturalist] of the differences between your main sites.” Specifically asking to meet with the viticulturalist can yield great results—they rarely get the fanfare that the winemaker or the owner’s family members get but often know the wines just as well or better.
Try to avoid booking more than one must-see per day, both to preserve the visit’s specialness and to avoid missing out if one overruns. In many regions, winery visits can run to three hours or longer. I rarely book more than two or three per day.
In all likelihood, you’ll find most “gap-fillers” fall off the list, as there are more interesting things to do between visits; eating, for one thing. I try never to book more than one big meal per day and, depending on the region, space out Michelin-starred (or similar) meals with more casual fare. Whereas in France, Austria and Germany I find Michelin-starred restaurants are consistently worth the splurge, in southern Europe and particularly Italy I will almost always take a trattoria or the equivalent with an accomplished nonna over anything nouvelle, especially if they’re BYO. Spain is something of an exception, with gems in both camps.
In many regions, particularly in the New World, great wineries have beautiful restaurants onsite, but in Europe I tend to find that a winery with a restaurant attached is not always of the first rank—indeed, in many cases the restaurant is worth a visit while the winery distinctly is not. Often in Europe, homey restaurants will surprise you with the depth of their cellars, but storage conditions may be spotty and, in famous regions like Barolo, many are now well picked over.
Finally, I try to block out an hour before and after meals without any appointments—you’re on holiday, after all, and the last thing you want to do is rush.