Last weekend I attended the Nordic Travel Exhibition in Helsinki. I was there to market my home city, Stockholm, however ended up on stage talking about wine. How did that happen? Well that I will save for another post. But long story short, I was on stage interviewing two fun ladies who had been living one in Barcelona and one in Lisbon for a large part of their lives, on wine-travel. We discussed the wine culture in both cities/countries, wine opportunities and most interestingly where and how to do wine-travel. I thought I would share some of the highlights of that discussion with you today on how to organize a successful wine-trip. There are of course organized tours, but the recommendations below focus on if you want to plan your trip yourself (which I always do).
First, check that there are no local holidays or events during your visit. Sucks if there is.
Second, decide where you want to stay (in the city or wine area). Staying at a vineyard is a lot of fun. I recommend looking at accommodation as close as possible to get into the right mood. Third, Decide how you will get there and how you will get around: If you do not want to be the designated driver (which I assume you don’t), see if there is a service in the area where you can rent a driver for the day. For example in Napa Valley we hired only a chauffeur to drive our rental. It was much cheaper than a taxi ride. These are the basics that you should look at before continuing with your planning.
Find your niche
Every wine area have their specialties, indigenous grapes and famous producers. I usually prefer to dive into a few selected types of wine and preferably something that has a history in the area. I believe that indigenous grape varieties are more often easier to grow and harvest (no extra irrigation or pesticides needed) and they have a strong connection to the local cuisine. Sticking to a variety or selected varieties also provides a good platform to compare and really learn about a specific grape. You will be tasting a lot of wine, so its best not to mix the palate too much. This is just how I like it.
Do the research
Many wine regions are large and have thousands of producers. Who to visit is the good question. We usually search for up and coming producers in blogs (check out the post: Blogs I Like), we look at who has won awards and we browse the selection at the monopoly. After some work, we make a long-list of potential winehouses we want to visit. Then we put the houses on a map and see what we can conveniently bundle together. Don’t even think about booking more than two visits per day. Even if you book a set tour you should leave some room for staying to chat, taste and look around if you just have the chance. It sucks having to leave before you are done. Soon your long-list will shrink into a doable short-list. And even on that short-list you should reserve some room for disappointments, if an interesting producer just does not respond to your inquiries.
Make sure you have variety
I am really not a big fan of mass production. I think the production process is interesting, but then the winemaker has had to make some compromises. It is seldom that volume and quality move on the same curve. Regardless of my slight bashing of big houses, it is interesting to see the process, equipment and branding efforts of a known winemaker. These types of visits are also easy to book as big companies are prepared for tourists. Perhaps one of the most interesting tours I have done is G.H. Mumm in Reims. Making champagne is not a very lean process so I still feel the craftsmanship in the way that Mumm is doing things (more about the tour here).
If you really want to get into the romance of making wine, try to book visits at smaller producers. Send some inquiries to interesting winemakers even if they do not have any visit information on their website. Many winemakers are proud of what they have built and happy to show you around if they just have the time. The reason I am suggesting to contact many is that there will be several that will not reply due to a language barrier.
Last but not least..
Consider how you can bring some wine home. You know you will want to. No point in thinking you wont. You have two options: bubble wrap or postage. We usually carry a lot of bubble wrap with us as well as some packaging that is specifically designed for transporting wine (bubble wrap in the shape of a bottle). I have never broken a bottle (knock on wood), so have no problem bringing a bag full of bottles in the airplane cargo. I think the record is 34 bottles in four suitcases. If you feel that packing the wines with your clothes is too daunting or you want to order large amounts, I recommend checking the rules of your country around import of wine from other EU countries (provided that you are traveling within the EU). The rules vary but most often you need to inform customs as well as pay the local alcohol tax if the wine is shipped. There are also rules around who needs to arrange the shipping, but in general the winehouses are happy to help with logistics.
However you decide to plan your trip, reserve enough time for the arrangements.