August 2019

European wine travel guide

If you’re anything like me, at the end of each holiday season, I immediately start thinking about where my next vacation will take me. That’s why in this special edition of the newsletter, I’ve put together a guide to European wine regions based on my own experiences. That’s why there are many regions missing - I haven’t been everywhere!

I hope this guide will be helpful when planning your next European vacation. Two important notes: 1) I always recommend making an appointment with a winery via phone or email, even if you can just walk into the tasting room. You will get better treatment. 2) Please refer to my dining tips page for specific restaurant recommendations.

My top regions for wine tourists right now: Champagne, Porto/Douro, Greece.

France

Champagne: one of the best wine regions to visit in France. Under one hour from Paris on the train to Reims, or a little longer drive. Most larger producers are well set up for visitors, and you should not miss the opportunity to tour the limestone caves under the city. Smaller producers are appointment only. If you have a car, the countryside between Reims and Epernay is beautiful in the summer.

Reims is a city rejuvenated in recent years, with numerous excellent restaurants and wine bars, and even dull Epernay has a couple of decent restaurants now. There are numerous very good restaurants and hotels in the villages too.

Burgundy: a wonderful region to visit even if you never go to a single wine producer. Beaune is a beautiful medieval town. You can cycle, walk or drive down the route des grands crus and see all the most famous vineyards. Chablis is a particularly charming - albeit very small! - town. The dining in Burgundy is some of the best in France but can be very heavy.

The downside of Burgundy is that unless you have a trade connection, it is very difficult to make appointments with top producers. They are simply not equipped for visitors. A better bet is to stick to the large negociant houses in Beaune and Nuits St Georges (e.g. Faiveley, Jadot, Drouhin, Bouchard Pere et Fils etc).

Bordeaux: everyone should visit Bordeaux. The town has been totally rejuvenated under Mayor Juppé and is a beautiful city. St. Emilion (about a hour’s drive from Bordeaux) is a well sited Roman foundation. The Médoc is dull for scenery, but spectacular for château architecture. There should be better restaurants in Bordeaux than there really are, but the region is finally getting there in food terms, even if it can be quite conservative.

For wine visits, most of the large Left Bank properties are now well set up for visitors (this was not the case even 10 years ago), but can be a little commercial. The small Right Bank châteaux are more difficult to access, especially Pomerol.

Provence/southern Rhône: spectacular summer scenery, the proximity of the Mediterranean and the powerful, herbal red wines make this an irresistible region to visit. Wine visits are usually easy, even in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (even more so in Gigondas or Vacqueyras), and good restaurants plentiful.

Spain and Portugal

Spain

Rioja: another great region to visit. Logroño is a lovely town. Wineries are very easy to visit, there is excellent food, and, this being Spain, mark ups on restaurant wine lists are miniscule, with ample older vintages available. Prepare to drink better than you do at home, particularly if you enjoy older wines.

Jerez: Jerez de la Frontera is a beautiful city, and the seafood is fantastic. The natural pairing is, of course, the local sherry. Because sherry still lacks for popularity, you will be received enthusiastically if you visit the bodegas. Make sure to ask to see the warehouses housing the barrels.

Portugal

Porto/Douro Valley: a hotspot for wine tourism at present thanks to considerable recent investment both in the charming coastal city of Porto/Vila Nova de Gaia, where many Douro producers have traditionally aged their wines, as well as up the river in the Douro proper. With Tuscany, the Douro may have the most outstanding scenery of any wine region in Europe. The people are wonderfully generous and visits are welcomed. If you don’t love port already, you will by the time you leave. 

Italy

Piedmont: Barolo and Barbaresco are some of my favourite wine regions to visit. The food is outstanding, even outside of truffle season (the fall). The scenery is absolutely gorgeous at any time of year, and the people are the nicest in Italy. In general there is less tourist infrastructure at the wineries, but if you make an appointment, this makes the visits all the more special because you will likely meet with the owner or winemaker. It is much more of a Burgundy than a Bordeaux model.

Tuscany: always a wonderful region to visit. Chianti has the most beautiful scenery in Tuscany, and the most enviable situation, perched between Florence and Siena (in my view, the more interesting of the two). Montalcino may arguably produce the finest (certainly longest ageing) wines in Tuscany, and is far more off the tourist trail (it does feel a little remote to get to but the spectacular hilltop town makes it worthwhile). Finally, Montepulciano is a nice town but requires a dedicated drive.

In all three, winery visits are relatively easy to set up, and the larger producers have established infrastructure for visitors. Look out in particular for opportunities to stay on the estates, in an agroturismo house. The food is excellent and lighter than Piedmont, although restaurants should be chosen with care. Tuscany is home to many woeful restaurants targeted at the tourist market.

Germany: you need to make appointments when making winery visits in Germany, but once you’ve done that, you will be treated wonderfully. German winemakers are particularly hospitable, making them a real pleasure to visit. The downside of Germany: the food. Everyday food in Germany is far worse than the equivalent in France, Spain or Italy. You need to choose your restaurants with care.

Greece: Greek wine is rapidly improving, and Greek winemakers are keen to get the word out. The result: you will be warmly welcomed if you wish to visit a winery. Everyone seems to speak English in Greece, and the Greeks are a passionate, often emotional people. Ask them good questions and you will make friends for life.

And although it’s hard to go wrong with Greek food - in the countryside stick to the simple tavernas, anything more complicated often misses the target - you should always ask the winery representative for the best local place. Their grandmother is probably the chef.