Where Wine History, Technology and Art Meet

February 26, 2010

Nearly every traditional wine region in Europe boasts its own wine museum, sometimes more than one. It makes sense when you think about it – generations of wine producers have practiced their craft for centuries, and over time much has changed in terms of the technology in both the vineyard and the winery, in the marketing of the wines as well as in day-to-day life. The history needs to be preserved and if possible shared, so where better than in a dedicated wine museum, whether publicly run by a region or a private collection, usually of a family-owned producer.

It’s a good idea to visit a wine museum at least once, especially if you are enjoying a wine tour in Europe. But, you might think that once you’ve visited one you’ve seen them all, and certainly with a few notable exceptions there is a certain element of repetition.

The typical wine museum has a room with charts showing how wine production arrived in that part of the world; a room with Roman or Greek wine relics; another with all manner of vineyard implements ranging from hand ploughs to pruning secateurs and even early sulphur-spraying back-packs; next there will be a room devoted to harvest, usually complete with black and white pictures of jolly harvest parties; a room full of wine presses; the winemaking room with tools for cleaning barrels, fining and so forth (some not that different to the implements shown in medical museums); and finally there might be bottles, labels, glasses and even advertising posters.

Relatively traditional wine museums that I’ve visited recently in France that have a point of difference include a really surprising one in Montmélian in the little wine region of Savoie east of Lyon. In the same building that houses the tourist office of this unassuming town with a mountain view, my first visit there really surprised me. They have several extraordinarily huge old wine presses rescued from various parts of France, along with pertinent displays that demonstrate just how poor the mountain farmers of Savoie were before tourism came along to rescue them. I also recently discovered the fascinating négociant museum of Bordeaux in the revived Chartrons quarter, see my post on the delights of the city of Bordeaux. And, I’m told by Diane LeTulle on my informal twitter and Facebook poll that the Musée du Vin de Bourgogne in Beaune is very interesting these days, with a new take on an appellation map, actually showing the direction of the vine rows on the slope.

Moving away from traditional museums, there are those that, although they incorporate much on the history and heritage of wine, build themselves up to be major tourist attractions, not that there’s anything wrong with that if it encourages wine lovers to learn more. Notable in France is the Duboeuf Hameau du Vin in Beaujolais and – as we’re in Europe – London has Vinopolis, featuring not only interactive features and old artefacts, but some stunning pictures from the Cephas Picture Library who supplies most of the photos on the Wine Travel Guides website. In Rioja, it is Dinastía Vivanco’s Museo de la Cultura del Vino that is becoming a real ‘must-see’ destination for any wine lover visiting Spain. Not only does this museum have the most incredible and vast collection of corkscrews, wine art (from ancient to contemporary including an original Picasso) and wine-related machinery among many other items, it is beautifully displayed with excellently produced, educational videos all housed in a magnificent architectural masterpiece in the heart of the vineyards. And, a visit there can be combined with tasting at the winery and lunch in the very good restaurant.

One of the pioneers of linking art with wine was Baron Philippe de Rothschild who helped make the museum at Château Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac a Mecca for wine tourists long before the term ‘wine tourism’ was even invented. Currently closed for renovations, it is, of course, known in particular for the displays of original artwork for the château’s  wine labels, each year featuring a different prominent contemporary artist (Picasso among the most famous). Also well established and one of the greatest wine museums in Europe is Lungarotti’s wine museum in Torgiano, Umbria in Italy. Established in 1974 we visited it last year and were enchanted by the amazing collection of ceramics from ancient to ultra-modern; the fantastic, huge number of wine-related engravings and prints (yes, you might have guessed, including Picasso again!); unusual wine books (I could have stayed in that room for ever) and the most original collection of book plates or ‘ex libris’. You should certainly put aside a day for a visit to Torgiano as you can also have an educational tasting at Lungarotti’s tasting room; visit their olive and oil museum (which we had no time for) and eat at or even stay at their traditional hotel-restaurant.

Unsurprisingly France and Italy seem to have the widest range of wine museums – in Puglia in Italy, Hallmark Travels recommends the Leone de Castris museum and James Martin rates the Museo della Civiltà del Vino Primitivo. Back in Spain, Anthony Swift of Wine Pleasures also recommends the private Cava Museum of Raymondo Canals in Catalonia.

Please do add any of your favourite wine museums in Europe into the comments below (if you’ve never posted a comment here, please be patient, I moderate them as quickly as possible). How about good wine museums in Germany, Austria, Portugal, Greece or countries further east? There must be many …

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Two Travel Guides to the Rioja Wine Region Go Live

February 14, 2009
View to the vineyards outside Dinastia Vivanco

View to the vineyards outside Dinastia Vivanco

Rioja is one of those wines many people seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for, knowing it as a warming, soft oaky red wine, ideal to drink in winter a cosy wine bar with a plate of stew. But there’s much more to La Rioja in Spain than that and Tom Perry, an American who has lived in the region for 25 years, is just the person to show you what makes this region special. When he was head of the Rioja Wine Exporters Association, a post he left last year, I was part of a group of UK wine educators visiting Rioja for a few days and he created an insightful and educational programme for us.

Frank Gehry model for the Marqués de Riscal hotel

Frank Gehry model for the new hotel at Marqués de Riscal

On our visit to Rioja, just over four years ago, the fascinating Dinastiá Vivanco wine museum had only just opened, and the new Frank Gehry-designed hotel at the old Marqués de Riscal winery was simply an architect’s model. Much is happening in the region as it realizes the potential of wine tourism.

I was delighted when Tom agreed to write the two wine travel guides to Rioja and he’s done a great job in his recommendations, focusing on wineries that welcome visitors, the most central and interesting places to stay for a wine tour in the region, and restaurants and shops with a real local wine focus. Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Around Haro’ guide about taking a ‘tapas crawl’:

La Herradura is the area of Haro where the town’s tapas bars are located in the old town around Calle Santo Tomás. The street is called ‘la senda de los elefantes’, or the elephants’ path, because the Spanish word for an elephant’s trunks is trompa, which also means ‘tipsy’. Tapas-hopping is a way of life in northern Spain, when friends meet to go from bar to bar ordering a glass of wine or beer along with a bit of food. Each person in the party is supposed to pay for a round. With large groups, everyone puts a few Euros into the kitty and the fun lasts until the money runs out! Recommended places to visit are Mesón los Berones, Bremen and Bar Los Caños, on a small square off Calle Santo Tomás. There are also several bars on the Plaza de la Paz, notably the Café Suizo.

Our two Rioja guides bring to 50 the number of travel guides to wine regions, all of which go through a regular updating process. These 50 guides each cover a bite-sized chunk of larger wine regions. When looked at in PDF form, the 50 guides cover more than 600 pages and have around 1250 recommendations of wine producers to visit, places to stay, eat and shop, and attractions, all selected by writers with insider knowledge about their regions. Do take a look at the website and if you are planning a private wine tour this year, subscribe – the guides will save you a lot of research time and will be a great companion on your wine travels.

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