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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