Wine Tours- of Frogs and Princes


The question was asked on Snooth forums, “Where is the world’s best wine tour?” It started me thinking on where to begin with that. How to compare the manicured perfection of a Loire chateau with the rustic beauty of the Margaret River with the unmistakable terracotta hills of Chianti and Barolo and the easy-going efficiency of the Napa Valley?

Personal preferences and temperament will mean one person’s heaven is another’s ho-hum. It can even come down to cost. Some wine tourists resent paying to imbibe yet I prefer tasting fees. It removes that sense of obligation to buy generously and there is less need to feign polite enjoyment of a wine that is not to your taste.
This makes Napa/Sonoma a particularly relaxed experience for me. Too often in European regions where tasting is free and I don’t speak the language, awkwardness creeps in to the experience. How can I get around my inability to buy anything when flying? How do I communicate what I think of the wine? How to politely hide dislike of a wine?

Memories of the summer joys of travelling through Chianti have been eclipsed for me by one off-season experience. Years ago while living in Milan as relative wine novices we headed to Tuscany. The weather was foul and our accommodation was fouler. At 9pm last dinner orders were long past. Having dined on potato crisps, I awoke the next day hoping for a pleasant wine tasting jaunt and a soothing lunch. We stopped at a winery announcing tastings and a kindly bear of a man let us into the tasting room. Just him, just us and his wines. He spoke no English, we spoke very little Italian. Yet his exuberant welcome mitigated the sense that we had dragged him from his paper and pipe by the fire.

That is until I sipped the wine. Arms outstretched, beaming expectantly he waited for me to pronounce upon it. It was execrable: mouth-strippingly tannic, stalky, inelegant and unrefined. I bought three bottles. Better that than cloud his cheery face and read its analysis: nuisance tourists out for a free drink. Logically, our use of the spittoon negated such an impression but self-conscious hyper-politesse is rarely logical.

What I needed after that was a delightful lunch. Our guidebook listings were all booked out or closed and I grew cold, hungry and fractious. A long low dark-brick restaurant did not look particularly promising but it announced authentic food and we were desperate. It was icy and dank and empty. The waitress was surly and it seemed that their house wine supplier was the vigneron we had just left. At least, though, as she approached with the requested stew, it was steaming. I had only taken one mouthful when I noticed it. I knew that the Tuscans ate frogs. Fine, I eat frogs. They make delicious crumbed morsels in France. What I was not prepared for was a whole frog; a pimply unskinned frog with little flippery feet and bulging eyes. I am not a fussy eater. My constant boast is that I eat everything except eyeballs and testicles. Yet this disconcerting Kermit in my stew was a stretch too far on a trying weekend.

But enough of the bad tasting days. Most of them, including subsequent Tuscan jaunts, have been a joy. These days when I am flying-in so unable to purchase from the cellar door and there is no tasting fee, I explain up-front and most vignerons are happy to show off their wine to an appreciative palate.

Where has that tasting experience been most magical? Pages and pages could be written, but perhaps for starters the Margaret River’s Brookland Valley? Its cellar door and restaurant practically sit right in the beautiful Wilyabrup Brook which surrounds the vines. On a glorious sunny day, sipping their exquisite chardonnay, life seems exceedingly pleasant.

Or for a complete change of scene the Marche aux Vins in Beaune. The eerily lovely meandering cellars below the 13th church are self-guided heaven, especially if you have the place to yourself as we always seem to do. Knowing that the Burgundies atop the numbered barrel stations get better further on, the temptation is to hurry but several happy hours can be passed tipping your silver tasting spoon in the candlelight.

St Emilion, of course, must rank highly. A glass of the region’s finest taken anywhere amongst the Romanesque churches and ruins overlooking vines is memorable. Or there’s the Hotel Barolo overlooking the Cannubi hill and Castello di Barolo, church bells the only accompaniment to your violet heaven in a glass. The contrasts of Sonoma’s Chateaux St Jean and Souverain with the more rustic beauty of Gundlach Bundschu, Cline or Bartholomew Park make this area particularly special. Yet how to rate it against Tasmania’s Huon and Tamar Valleys with their orchards and vine-covered hills sloping down to the river?

They all cast a spell that is uniquely theirs, and the only answer is to visit them all. Do I hear fingers dialling travel agents?

©Lindy Hemsley 2009

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  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,573

    Lindy - I resonate with your first bad experience in Tuscany. My first trip to Napa was terrible. I stayed in a hotel that was still under construction, far south of Napa itself in a dodgy part of town. I missed breakfast one morning (45 minute line at iHop, which I refused to wait for) and suffered an entire day of agonizing acid reflux from the wines acidity on an empty stomach. I then went for a nap and woke up after all the restaurants had closed and ended up dining on raw pizza from the local Safeway.

    I've since learned to time my meals for the destination and to research possible dining establishments better.

    100% agreed on the awkwardness of not buying wine after a tasting when off to the airport.

    Sep 27, 2009 at 4:13 PM

  • Snooth User: D9sus4
    163476 316

    Lindy, So, did you at least taste the frog stew?

    Can't say as I've ever had a really bad wine tasting experience, but I think the most interesting one was when I toured the Kaiserstuhl area in the Baden wine region of Germany. Not an area that's on most people's wine radar. It was twenty years ago and at that time the wineries were quite small and very personal. The owners themselves would usually pour the tastings or they were done at a local coop. Everyone I met was very friendly and helpful and the local food quite good. It was a very intimate experience overall. A far cry from touring some of the corporate giant wineries in Napa, although there are still some smaller personal ones there too.

    Sep 30, 2009 at 9:29 AM

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