Wine tourism is a growing trend, with specialist groups focusing on tasting and appreciating wine and visiting vineyards to learn at first-hand from the professional growers and makers. Val Baynton checks out the experiences of organisers of different types of groups, and learns how both specialists and non-specialists can enjoy discovering more about wine.
Howard Hunter, a former electronics engineer in Scarborough, has a passion for wine, which now forms the basis of his group travel activity. Howard is an enthusiastic member of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers, founded in 1962, which brings together wine lovers from Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to enjoy wine tasting events, overseas trips and social events throughout the year. There are nine sections and each one has its own chairman and committee.
Over the last 12 years, Howard has shared his passion by organising overseas visits to Europe, primarily France, for his local group, the 47-member Scarborough section. The seven to 10-day wine tasting breaks usually take place in September or October, with around a quarter of the places booked by members from Scarborough, and the rest filled from the 500-strong membership of the whole Guild.
Wines tasted during the monthly meetings often inspire a particular trip. As Howard says, “Having tasted a wine and enjoyed it, it’s then most instructive to go and see where and how it is made.” Having decided on a vineyard, and thus region, Howard plans other parts of the itinerary partly by consulting books written by experts. “I also talk to the wine importers we have become friendly with over the years to find out what they would recommend in that area,” he adds.
Howard also researches hotels and makes some selections. Venues such as the Best Western Shonenberg in Riquewihr are praised by his group for the quality of the accommodation and friendliness of the staff. To finalise the arrangements, Howard hands over his draft itinerary to Pamela Edwards at specialist tour operator Golden Compass (see page 47). “I’ve worked with Pam for a number of years,” he says. “She always gives a great service, coming up with further suggestions for hotels and local restaurants. Over the years, she has come to understand just what our group wants from the trip, and liaises with the coach operator to ensure a good value package.” Howard points out that because Golden Compass also operate their own Wine Tour itineraries, as well as specialising in tailored and personalised tours overseas, they have the exact type of expertise his group requires.
Howard books a 49 or 50-seater coach, but the tours are actually restricted to 20 people; a core of around 10 members always come, and he’s found that giving everyone enough space on the coach, so they can sit on their own or move around, makes the journey far more pleasant for everyone. And, since the group likes to bring back wine, the large tri-axle coaches thus have sufficient storage space for numerous cases! Howard also says, “Twenty is the maximum number that smaller vineyards can welcome on a tour. Sometimes even this is too many, and we have to split into smaller groups.”
Yorkshire Rose Coaches is Howard’s transport choice. “The Mills family who own and run Yorkshire Rose are superb,” he says. “The coaches are immaculate and the service they offer is second to none.” For trips to France, the group travels by P&O Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge and, if the destination is southern France such as the Rhône or Bordeaux areas, they stay overnight in Reims. Last year, the group visited Spain, and sailed with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander.
WINE TASTING ITINERARIES
Howard’s trips have been made to the Alsace, Rhone, Bordeaux, Loire and Champagne areas of France and the 2015 trip will be to the Champagne, Macon and Beaujolis regions. Itineraries have also focused on visits to bodegas in the Rioja and Navarra regions in Spain, and the group has also called at German vineyards whilst in Alsace. The group was very impressed by wine made at Germany’s largest co-operative winery, Badischer Winzerkeller in Briesach. Howard recalls, “We were surprised to learn that the wine from each of the producers in the co-op was vinified separately, hence the reason for its quality.”
Wine tasting takes place every day of a trip and, in total, 10 or 12 vineyards will be visited on each tour. Viewing the cellars and vineyards is an important part of each individual visit, as well as meeting the wine maker. When the sommeliers arrive at a vineyard showing their enthusiasm and that they have more than a basic knowledge for wine, they are often invited to taste older, more exclusive vintages. Howard is anxious to point out that at vineyards the etiquette is to taste a wine and not to drink it. “We are privileged to sample some very exclusive vintages,” he says. “Some can cost over £200 a bottle.” He continues, “The time for ‘drinking’ wine is in the evening at meal times.” Usually, Howard plans a mixture of pre-booked meals in the hotel or local restaurant, as well as nights for ‘free-style dining’.
He makes notes during each vineyard visit about both the wines they have sampled and what the group thought. These notes are great reminders of the trip and can be used at future monthly tastings and presentations.
Howard has lots of ideas for the future, but is looking forward to the Champagne trip, where the group will taste some of the best of the region’s wines. He is particularly anticipating his first sip of a Laurent-Perrier champagne!
CHRIS TAKES WINE SCHOOL SCHEME NATIONWIDE
In 2000, having been a professional engineer for some years, Chris Powell decided it was time for a change. Inspired by an enthusiasm for food and wine, he set up The Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne. His objective was to make wine accessible for everyone and to offer a range of fun, friendly wine tastings, courses and experience days. The concept was quickly successful and so Chris has replicated the idea, establishing franchises for the schools, and there are now 26 Local Wine Schools throughout the UK, with some 60,000 clients. The schools’ courses are run by tutors who have qualifications from the Wine, Spirit and Educational Trust (WSET) and students can opt to attend professional courses that will lead to the WSET qualifications, or join the more informal tasting evenings or days. All schools are run independently of any retailer or wine merchant.
Chris has also organised five-day wine tasting holidays for students from the schools to visit vineyards in France’s Rhône Valley. The breaks are put on in conjunction with the Auberge du Vin, a wine school based in a converted 18th century farmhouse in rural Provence, near Mont Ventoux, run by Linda Field and Chris Hunt. Linda is a qualified wine educator and she helps Chris Powell plan a varied itinerary for each of his holiday groups, and provides essential support such as interpreting.
Around 12 to 14 people are typically on each trip, and Chris has found it works best if group members make their own way to France. Individuals or couples can then opt to make the wine break part of a longer holiday, or to use their own transport if they also want to buy wine to take home. “The emphasis is very much on wine and food,” Chris explains. “We may visit three different vineyards or chateaux in a day but there is also time for relaxation, and the Auberge has excellent facilities including a swimming pool.” The group tends to visit specialised vineyards that Linda and Chris have developed relationships with over the years and, usually, the group will meet the wine makers or owners, and frequently enjoy a special lunch with these experts whilst sampling the wine.
Originally the holidays were restricted to members in the Newcastle area, but since the school network has expanded, participants come from all over the UK. Last year, for example, a group of six students from the Hertfordshire Local Wine School, run by David Rough, joined the Rhône party. David says, “It was great to take part in this trip and it was very well organised with a good balance between discovering more about Rhône wines, such as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise appellations, and being extremely relaxing. There was lots of added value to the tour because it was customised to our specific group needs and made very personal to us. Elements such as visits to private vineyards were included that would not have been possible to experience if visiting the region as an individual.”
David also organises visits to vineyards in the UK. These trips take place a couple of times a year and typically there are around 20 in the group. Because members come from all over Hertfordshire, people make their own way to the vineyard, although quite a bit of car–sharing does take place. A recent visit was to Frithsden Vineyard, near Berkhamsted, which makes red, white and rose wines. The group had a tour of the vineyard and also enjoyed a tasting session and an informal supper. David says, “Going to a vineyard and meeting a wine maker helps to bring the theory we’ve talked about during the courses to life. Members also appreciate the chance to socialise with each other too.”
U3A WINE APPRECIATION GROUPS
Many branches of the University of the Third Age (U3A), in Britain and overseas, include wine appreciation groups that, alongside regular tasting sessions, organise trips to vineyards. In Jávea, located between Alicante and Valencia on Spain’s Costa Blanca, Geoff Woodward is the leader of the town’s U3A wine appreciation group. Geoff organises regular meetings with wine tastings for the group’s 85 members and, once a year, usually in June or September, he arranges a trip to a bodega so the group can see and taste at first hand some of the wines they have learnt about. Generally, the group visits bodegas that are within two hours travel, and 50 to 55 people go on each trip. Geoff reports that the last two trips have been unusual.
In 2013, they went to the Unión Vinícula Del Este bodega in Requena to learn about the production of the sparkling wine Cava. “We saw many parts of the Cava making process including the bottling line and we enjoyed seeing how it differs to wine making. We also had tastings of various Cavas, learning about the different qualities of each,” says Geoff.
In 2014, following a presentation at a meeting by the oenologist (or specialist in wine making), Paco Masia, from the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, which specialises in the Bobal grape, the group were invited back to visit the bodega later that year. Geoff states, “The bodega is one of the most prestigious in Spain, being only one of 15 in the country that are allowed their own wine denomination. We felt it was a real privilege to be invited, especially as they asked us to come at one of their busiest times – during the harvest in September.” During the visit, the group were led around the vineyards by Paco, who described the hand cultivation and watering system. Geoff continues, “We also toured the bodega and saw the wine making process from start to finish, including how grapes are sorted by hand, and we were introduced to the bodega owner, Toni Sarrión.” The group then visited the Wine Museum in Utiel, where members were guided around the displays with information about the history and origin of wines in the Utiel-Requena region, as well as the historic collections of wine making equipment and farming implements. The visit concluded with a fine lunch in Requena’s Fortaleza restaurant.
In Britain, U3A wine appreciation groups can be found all over the country from Matlock in Derbyshire to the Exe Valley in Devon. Fetcham & District in Surrey is one of the most active U3A branches, with over 80 different groups – including no less than eight concerning wine appreciation! The leaders of its wine appreciation group 7, Adrian and Jenny Coulson, explain that wine tasting is a popular activity as it allows members to socialise as well as learning about wine. Tastings take place in members’ homes so 15 is the maximum number for any one group and thus to cater for demand, additional groups have been set up. Adrian and Jenny’s group is particularly active, visiting a French vineyard at least once a year as well as English ones. A favourite trip is to the pretty and historic town of Ardres, about 15 miles south of Calais, where the group enjoy a wine tasting organised by wine expert Guy Boursot – sometimes in his own cellars in the town, or whilst taking lunch in the nearby Le Relais Restaurant. “Either way, we are able to taste a wide variety of wine and learn from Guy about each one,” Adrian says. “We also have some delicious food and, after the meal, there is a chance to buy wine to bring back home.” The Coulsons have organised the trips since 2009, and this year they are planning a visit to the Champagne area too.