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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Somontano – wine, nature and culture at the foot of the Spanish Pyrenees

December 8, 2009

Wine tourism in Spain is considered by many to be a trip to La Rioja, and whilst it cannot be denied that this mighty wine region has a lot to offer, many of the smaller wine regions in Spain present unique and special experiences off the beaten track. Kathy Abell has lived in Northern Spain with her family for five years and has a background in tourism. She teaches vocational English courses for people working in the wine industry and also translates wine related texts into English. From her website you can download a useful dictionary of English-Spanish wine terms. Kathy says, “Living on the doorstep of the spectacular wine region of Somontano is a privilege that I try not to take for granted, and has opened my eyes to what constitutes an attractive wine destination.” We’re delighted that Kathy has chosen to share some of her passion for the region here.

Somontano Vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees ©CRDO Somontano

For those unfamiliar with the Spanish wine scene, the very name of Somontano (meaning ‘at the foot of the mountains’) may provide a clue to the location of this young Denominación de Origen (DO) referring to its enviable position in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Framed by majestic mountains and the mighty River Vero, the landscape is peppered with vineyards, olive groves and almond trees and winding roads pass small villages that offer visitors charm and tranquillity.

With 13 authorised grape varieties, Somontano produces wines that are distinctive and contemporary. The range boasts several signature wines and a few organic wines, and a couple of the wineries are committed to resurrecting the almost extinct indigenous varieties of Alcañon and Parraleta with the specific aim of producing unique wines that reflect the true terroir of the region. Fresh and fruity, both red and white wines have good acidity and are ideally suited to local cuisine that includes locally raised lamb, cured pork products, hand-made cheese and wonderfully fresh vegetables from the River Vero basin.

Wineries range from traditional, small, family-run bodegas to modern, avant-garde buildings that care as much about their image as they do about their wine. There are 33 wineries dotted across 4,700 hectares of pre-Pyrenean terrain and thanks to the pro-active nature of the DO council and the Ruta del Vino – a non-profit organisation charged with the promotion of the region – around half of these wineries welcome visitors.

The following are two of my favourite winery visits – in both cases English is spoken, visits must be pre-booked and there is a small charge for tasting.
This is one of my favourites as it certainly has the wow factor – an impressive, family-run winery boasting views of rolling vineyards and Pyrenean peaks. Visitors are warmly welcomed and given interesting information in the wine production areas and cellars before moving to the light and airy tasting area to sample a couple of Olvena’s exquisite wines. The red ‘Hache’ is a personal favourite and comes from a vineyard in the shape of an H, hence the name of the wine; ‘hache’ is how the letter H is pronounced in Spanish.

One of the biggest wineries in Somontano, yet a visit here feels special thanks to the warmth and friendliness of the staff. An added bonus is a visit to the Viñas del Vero boutique winery of Blecua, which is housed in a beautifully renovated 19th century house with an impressive wine cellar. Well made wines to suit all tastes – my personal favourite is the delightfully aromatic Gewürztraminer.

For a meal after your visit try the Casa Samper. This striking restaurant is housed in the refurbished wine cellars of a beautiful, old house tucked away in the tiny village of Salas Altas, yet easy to reach from the wineries mentioned. The modern decor provides a sharp contrast to the traditional architecture but the real attraction is the marvellous food and the genuine friendliness of the owners. A set menu costs just €12 with a la carte around €35 per person. There is an English menu available and English is spoken even though the website is only in Spanish.

The village of Alquézar ©Mick Rock/Cephas

Cosy rural accommodation with views of rolling vineyards and mountain peaks is a strong feature of the tourism offer and to enhance their wine experience, Somontano delivers with a range of cultural, natural and historical highlights. The magnificent scenery of the Sierra de Guara National Park with its dramatic gorges and diverse birdlife; visitor centres proudly exhibiting the culture and history of the region; UNESCO protected, pre-historic cave art and the impressive medieval village of Alquézar, perched precariously above the River Vero canyon, are just a few attractions that can easily be visited. The close proximity to the Pyrenees and the spectacular Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park provide an added bonus.

The Somontano Festival in early August is enjoying increasing success and has seen stars such as Julio Iglesias and Joe Cocker perform in recent years as visitors enjoy fine wine and local tapas. But, whatever the season, Somontano is worth considering for a short break or as part of a longer holiday, to take in the beautiful scenery, warm welcome and relatively unknown wines.

Visit the Ruta del Vino Somontano website for more information about the area, including accommodation, winery visits and how to get there and the official DO website for more about the region’s wines.

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News! All Wine Tour Content Now Free to View

October 30, 2009

We’ve made some major changes on the Wine Travel Guides website, which will benefit anyone planning a wine tour in France, Tuscany or Rioja and other regions we will add next year. All the contents of our 50 micro-region travel guides to wine regions can now be viewed free on the website.

There’s no catch here, but anyone who would like the convenience of downloading the guides as PDFs to plan their wine trip off-line and print pages as required, can purchase the guides at a very reasonable price of £5 (approximately US$8.50 or €5.50) with discounts for multiple guide purchases. A sample PDF guide can be downloaded on registration; for those of you who have already registered, do log in and take a look as we’ve changed the sample to the Southern Graves and Sauternes guide by Jane Anson.

We have also converted our former Gold Subscription to Gold Membership, which allows any of our guides to be downloaded for a full 12 months (meaning you get the latest, updated guide) including any we add in the future. The price has been reduced too – Gold Membership costs just £29 (approximately US$49 or €32). A package of member benefits is also planned, and these should include discounts on other valuable wine and travel related information.

In case you are not familiar with the content on our Guides, our micro-region guides are bite-sized chunks of major wine regions, for example, we have 8 guides to Bordeaux; 5 to the Rhône Valley; 2 to Tuscany (covering only central areas at present) and so on. Each guide (about 10 – 20 pages in PDF form) includes 8 – 12 recommended wine producers to visit; a few places to stay (ranging from top hotels to friendly Bed and Breakfasts); restaurants, shops and attractions, plus a useful aide-memoir of the regional wines including appellations, grape varieties and wine styles. A wealth of information in a small package.

Most importantly of all, our guides are written by a selection of top wine and travel writers, selected because they have the inside track on their regions – some you’ve already seen on this blog, others are also top-class, including three Masters of Wine and several published book authors. We also make a point of updating our guides regularly, once a year at a minimum with tweaks during the year as necessary.

There are no other travel guides to these wine regions which are as authoritative or comprehensive as ours available anywhere else on the web, so please visit the site and tell the rest of the world about our existence. The main idea of these changes is to open up our content to many more independent travellers who love wine. Increased visibility – and let’s be honest about it, revenue – will allow us to expand our guides to other countries and regions in the future.

Thank you for reading this blatant sales blog post.  I felt that it needed to be spelt out as going from 60 pages to over 1500 pages of quality content is pretty big news for a website! I hope you agree and look forward to your reactions to the changes. I promise you that interesting wine and travel posts will resume soon!

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Twitter Quiz No. 12 – Ysios in Rioja

April 22, 2009

The most famous wine region in Spain – Rioja – has become recognized in recent years not just for the quality of its wines, but for the number of architecturally spectacular wineries in the region – almost certainly more of note than in other wine regions of Europe. The region is dominated by fairly large wineries, typically more New World size, rather than the boutique, family-owned wineries characteristic of most French and Italian wine regions, so these larger companies are more able to fund these fantastical structures by famous architects.

Ysios winery in Rioja

Ysios winery and vineyards in Rioja with the Cantabrian mountains behind.

The best-known architect-designed project in Rioja is Marqués de Riscal’s new winery building and hotel, designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum just a couple of hours up the road. But, before that was opened, an extraordinary building could not fail to catch your eye driving through the vineyards of Rioja, the winery of Ysios, near Laguardia and owned by the giant Domecq wine group.

Tom Perry, an American resident of Rioja, who writes our two detailed micro-region travel guides to the Rioja wine region explains about Ysios:

The inspiration for the name of this winery was Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic, and it is truly magical when you see the place for the first time, with its undulating aluminium roof against the stark backdrop of the Cantabrian mountain range. When you approach the winery, the roof reflected in a pool looks like a row of casks. Inside, architect Santiago Calatrava has created a simple yet functional design to make winemaking as easy as possible, with the movement of wine directly from one end of the winery to the other.

Congratulations to Katie of Chicago who magically came up with the right answer and wins a PDF guide of her choice.

Do follow me on Twitter for random notes about wines I’ve tasted, places I’ve been and updates to the Wine Travel Guides website. You might also want to check out our Facebook page – especially if you haven’ t yet participated in our poll as to which country we should focus on for our next guides. Please do make a comment on this blog or join in the conversation on Twitter or on Facebook  to discuss anything about travel in wine regions. A bonus: all Facebook fans and Twitter followers are eligible for discounts on subscriptions to the guides. We’ll do another twitter quiz soon.

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Twitter Quiz #10 – Win a Wine Travel Guide PDF

March 11, 2009

Into double figures, where does the year go? Have you planned your next wine tour yet? Here’s your chance to win a micro-region guide from our choice of 45 wine regions in France (46 if you include the free guide available when you register), 2 in Tuscany and 2 in Rioja (see this independent review from a Rioja fan). I am trying to alternate the quiz questions between those that are resolutely for wine geeks (last week’s perhaps) and those that require sleuthing wearing more of a travel hat. Inspiration often comes from the guides, sometimes from my own experiences. So, read on for today’s little challenge.

Weekly Twitter Quiz #10 – Question
At which Bordeaux château would you likely have a philosophical discussion?

You must follow me on twitter to compete. The first correct answer that is replied to @WineTravel wins the prize.

I will announce the answer and name the winner on Twitter first and then on a new post here with the answer and some extended explanation.

The Weekly Twitter Quiz #7 – win a PDF Wine Travel Guide

February 18, 2009

Welcome, especially to any newcomers who’ve found this through the new Facebook page. Every week I give you a chance to win one of our micro-region guides (in addition to the sample guide which is available when your register on the site). We have  now reached a half-century … no less than 50 guides with 46 guides to France plus 2 guides to Tuscany and the latest additions, 2 guides to Rioja. Be the first to give the correct answer to this quiz on Twitter and you can choose any one of the guides them as your prize. Here goes:

Weekly Twitter Quiz #7 – Question
Name the pink wine made by an ancient method close to Bourg-en-Bresse.

You must follow me on twitter to compete. The first correct answer that is replied to @WineTravel wins the prize.

I will announce the answer and name the winner on Twitter first and then on a new post here with the answer and some extended explanation.

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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