One of the best ways to learn about wine is to visit wine regions, see the vineyards and speak to the growers and producers. Immerse yourself in the region, walk through the vineyards, enjoy the local country towns and farmers markets and eat the local food. Here are eight tips for planning a memorable wine tour experience
Visit wineries early in the day if possible
In high season after noon, tasting rooms can get packed. Staff won’t have time to discuss the wines with you. Plan your day so you are at a winery with good picnic/dining facilities at lunchtime. Obviously, it is best to visit during the off-season or midweek. Crush time, late August to mid-October, is busy and buzzing, so don’t expect to see the winemaker for more than a few frantic moments! Most wineries are closed on major holidays and many have restricted off-season hours, so always check ahead via the website or give them a call.
Visit no more than three or four wineries a day
More than that and you won’t have time to understand what’s happening at each location. Get the true tasting experience by lingering. A leisurely tasting allows you to really savour the wines and make the most of the experience. Don’t let the make-an-appointment winery requirement deter you. Some wineries requiring appointments do so because of limitations to their use permits, and/or because they want to make sure they have staff on hand to give guests the attention they deserve. Some simply have limited parking. Appointments can often be made on the morning of your planned visit, though the earlier the notice, the better.
Make the most of your visit
Some wineries now offer good food and dining experiences, too, including gourmet picnics and fine restaurant dining. Take advantage of a restaurant or outdoor picnic area to break up the day and, more importantly, to enjoy a spectacular meal or view. If you’re more of a do-it-yourself type, bring along your own picnic lunch, buy a bottle of wine at the winery shop and enjoy the view of the vineyards. Some wineries offer cultural experiences, too, such as concerts, art exhibits and spectacular architecture.
Get to know the winery and its wines. Even a simple question can proffer valuable information. Start with questions about the founders or the property’s founding date. Learning while in a wine tour is the most enjoyable way to get more out of the wine you drink back at home later on. Most staffers are friendly and knowledgeable and are happy to regale you with tales. In smaller wineries, the person behind the tasting-room counter may be the owner and/or winemaker. Only by visiting a winery and/or its tasting rooms can you get a true appreciation for the painstaking work that goes into each bottle, starting in the vineyard.
The spit bucket is there for a reason and it is not considered impolite to take a small sip and expectorate the remainder; swallowing is not necessary in order to taste the wine properly. Best bet: Drink a glass of water for every five ounces of wine you consume. But best of all is not to taste and drive. Each winery will offer you several samples over the course of a tour, and it’s easy to consume too much wine. Plan ahead and choose a designated driver before you begin. There are also other ways of wine touring: via limousine or bike.
Explore beyond your favourite wines
Every winemaker has his or her unique style of winemaking, so a variety of wine (e.g., Merlot, Chardonnay) will taste differently at each winery. Why not try one new grape variety at each visit? Or be even more specific and just try Merlots only—that way, you can explore how a wine changes from vineyard to vineyard, winemaker to winemaker. Remember, too, that some wineries may make very small quantities of a particular wine, sometimes because they are still experimenting and developing their vineyards or because they source the grapes from different places, not always nearby. Also, keep in mind that wine styles may change as a winery develops its strengths or when it changes sources.
Always ask if there are wines to buy at the tasting room that are not commercially available in stores. There almost always are, and they can be spectacular! Many wineries now offer older wines (library wines) and special “club” wines that are not available even at the winery for more than a few months. These are wines made in tiny amounts that are often phenomenal.
Relax, have fun, learn and enjoy
Allow time to visit other stuff en route. Historic sites are common in wine country areas. Many of the wineries are in spectacular country, where farmers markets abound. So do bakeries, cheese-making operations and local farms. For that reason, avoid chain restaurants and do not ask concierges at fancy hotels where to dine. Best bet is to call a local coffee roasting house a few days before your trip and ask which local restaurants buy their coffee. Local cafés willing to carry locally roasted coffee obviously care a lot about the foods they prepare as well.