Europe is the home of great wine. Countless wineries offer tastings and tours across hundreds of regions across the continent and you could easily spend the rest of your life wandering from one tasting room to another. But when your time in Europe is limited, you have to be more selective. Here are just A FEW ideas for Italy, Spain, France and Portugal. To see more in detail the wine regions of these countries, check out our other blog posts.
ITALY’S PREMIER WINE REGION
Situated in northern Italy, close to the France and Swiss borders, Piedmont is less renowned than Tuscany but produces some of Italy’s best wines. Against a backdrop of the distant Alps, the region offers seemingly endless vineyards interspersed with small medieval villages.
The Langhe and Roero regions are protected by UNESCO both for their outstanding landscapes and for the fine wines produced by the area’s small vineyards. Many of those wineries are family-run, and you can tour the vineyard with a member of the family before sampling some of their wines. The region’s two most popular wines, barolo and barbaresco, are often referred to as the king and queen of wines respectively. We personally also very much like moscato d’Asti, a sweet dessert wine that hails from the area, and love to take clients to visit one of the producers for a unique experience.
Aside from visiting local wineries and tasting their produce, you can also enjoy other wine-related activities. Visit the town of Barolo to spend time in the WIMU, an interactive wine museum that explores the history and culture of wine. Just a short drive from Barolo, you’ll find the medieval town of Pollenzo. Located within the same complex as a Slow Food hotel and the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the Wine Bank is something like a museum that holds a wide selection of wines from around Italy. It has a shop where you can purchase bottles at reasonable prices as well as literature dedicated to wine and food.
Many of the area’s hotels also have their own extensive wine cellars or produce their own wine. The luxury Relais San Maurizio has its own spa treatment room dedicated to vinotherapy (wine therapies). You can relax in a wine whirlpool or take a sauna in a giant restored barrel from the late 1800s. After a day exploring the region and its wineries, you can enjoy dinner in one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants in the area.
SPAIN’S RIOJA WINE REGION
Arguably one of Spain’s most identifiable wines, Rioja is known the world over for its dominant cherry taste, achieved through the expert blend of tempranillo (Spain’s most prominent indigenous grape variety) and garnacha, along with the occasional addition of mazuelo and graciano. The wine is produced from vineyards that flank the rolling hillsides close to the Oja River. This is a region of stark contrasts. Vines have been cultivated here since Roman times, and if you go up into towns like Laguardia, you can still see rocks that are riddled with aging cellars. The Moors never reached this far north, so the historic towns have a much more northern European medieval style than those in the southern areas, with wooden timber-frame houses and Gothic churches.
However, the Rioja wine region isn’t stuck in the past. Many wineries here are embracing Spain’s passion for pushing architectural boundaries and styling themselves not only as wine producers, but as modern works of art. Perhaps most arresting is Hotel Marqués de Riscal, an ostentatious confection of titanium ribbons, designed for the eponymous 150-year-old estate. Architect Frank Gehry, who also masterminded the Guggenheim Museum, created a structure of purple, silver and gold curves that represent the different parts of a wine bottle.
Alternatively, you can visit the Raphael López de Heredia Tondoni Winery, where you’ll find a striking pavilion designed by the flamboyant architect Zaha Hadid. An angular, bright, ultra-modern space, its outline is intended to resemble an old-fashioned decanter. Sleek and swooping, it serves as a luminous counterpoint to the nearby wine gallery, which dates from 1890 and has a far more traditional style.
DOURO VALLEY PORTUGAL
Known for its patchwork of steeply terraced vineyards, the Douro Valley in northern Portugal is a striking sight. Dominated by the Douro River as it winds its way toward Porto, the valley has been carved over the centuries to create the terraces that make this one of Portugal’s most important wine-producing areas. Port owes much of its growth to the animosity between France and Britain during the 18th century. Unable to import wine from France, British merchants looked to Portugal for a new source of tipple. A lucrative trade emerged as wine was shipped down the Douro River to the port houses in Porto’s Vila Nova de Gaia, ready to be exported overseas. In order to preserve the wine on the journey to Britain, it was spiked with brandy, creating the rich sweet wine that we know today.
You can visit Vila Nova de Gaia and tour one of the wine cellars that line the banks of the river, including Cálem or Graham’s. If you have more time, travel upriver into the Douro Valley. A private lunch cruise gives you the chance to indulge in a gourmet meal while admiring the vineyards and the lazy, snaking river.
An old favorite in Portugal, vihno verde has recently gained wider acclaim in international markets. This youthful green wine is made from alvarinho (albariño) grapes or combined with northern Portuguese varietals. A sharp wine that’s released just three to six months after the grapes are harvested, vihno verde is unusually refreshing thanks to a dry, citrusy profile and low alcohol content (usually about 9% ABV).
The vines for vihno verde were traditionally raised above the ground on high pergolas or trained up through trees to allow more space for other crops. Many farmers continue this method and you can still see this distinctive landscape feature as you travel through the region, but many modern growers are moving away from the practice. When I’m in northern Portugal with guests, I like to stop at a small family-run winery to sample this most typical of Portuguese wines.
BORDEAUX WINE TASTING, FRANCE
Two thousand years of history between men and vines are waiting you in Gironde. Bordeaux wines appeared under the Gallo-Roman era and their reputation soared in the Middle Age till the 19th century. Since then, they’re known all over the world. Today no less than 57 appellations exist. Bordeaux wines are the result of a mixture of grape varieties. Reds with cabernet-sauvignon, cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and Carménère. Whites from sémillon, sauvignon and muscadelle. According to your taste and desires, we will make you enter those family-owned estates.
Bordeaux, world capital city of Wine and UNESCO heritage
Bordeaux and its port have joined the World Heritage of UNESCO in 2007 as an “outstanding urban and architectural ensemble”. Besides its 18th century architecture (docks facade, Place de la Bourse, Grand Theatre …), Bordeaux preserves an important heritage of its Gallo-Roman and medieval past.
Bordeaux also rimes with great and unique artists; we’ll make you meet some of them, in their craft shop directly, among their pieces of art and passion.
“La Cité du Vin” is the world biggest museum dedicated to wine and opened very recently in June 2016. We were there and it is definitely a must-see site. Through workshops, games, sensory experiences, a fantastic cellar of 500 wines coming from all over the world and creative activities, everyone will enjoy this experience.
Nestled in lush vineyards, the medieval town of Saint-Émilion has retained all the charm of its origins: stones golden reflections, roofs with Roman tiles, maze of alleyways with stunning views of the surrounding vineyards. UNESCO World Heritage since 1999, here the Merlot ‘cépage’ is mostly the king. The famous appellations are Saint-Emilion (13 premiers grands crus and 63 crus classés), Pomerol (with its famous Château Petrus) and the Fronsac.
The vineyards around the medieval town of Saint-Émilion primarily grow merlot and cabernet franc grapes, taking advantage of the hilly landscape to give the vines more exposure to the sun. Irrigating these vines is illegal in order to protect the delicate ecosystem that supports their growth. The limestone rocks and clay soil help to regulate the sun’s heat, while trees and flowers provide shade, protection from the elements and natural pesticides to promote healthy grapes.