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The Independent Culture
MY FIRST holiday house among vines was idyllic, if spartan. We had been visiting industrial winemakers along the high-rise Cypriot coast, and afterwards had managed to rent a modest grape pickers' cottage in a mountain village deep among the sun-roasted vines. We went picking one day with the neighbours, shared their picnic, in sign language, under the olive trees, and I came back, not in the grape-laden pick-up truck, but on the donkey that lived underneath our house.

Ten years later, keener on comfort and three children heavier, we found a different style of idyll. The 17th-century Quinta de Lamelas farmhouse looks out on a spectacular mountain panorama 500 metres up above the Douro River near Pinhao in northern Portugal, in among the highest vineyards, olive and almond groves of the family port estate, Quinta de la Rosa. It was converted as a retirement house for the owners of La Rosa, no luxury spared, a fine swimming pool and every comfort sitting happily alongside the old granite pillars, ancient bread oven, hand-carved chestnut ceiling and famous blue and white Portuguese tiles.

I've been on the lookout since then for more holiday houses among the vines. Still in Portugal, in the Minho, two Vinho Verde estates do stuningly upmarket bed and breakfast. The medieval Casa di Sezim, near Guimaraes, has five spectacularly furnished bedrooms and use of the family swimming pool. Or there's the peaceful, 16th-century Quinta do Convento da Franqueira at Barcelos, which has three bedrooms, use of the pool, and gardens dotted with cork oaks, eucalyptus and pines.

In Italy, near Lake Garda, Verona and Venice, you can choose from eight apartments in La Foresteria, a superb Valpolicella estate owned since medieval times by the Serego Alighieri family, descendants of Dante. In the centre of Umbria between Perugia and Assisi, the Lungarotti family rent out an early 19th-century house called La Bondanzina in the medieval fortress village of Torgiano. The rooms are frescoed with wonderful mountain scenes or painted curtains - sounds twee but looks stunning.

Tuscany is especially good hunting ground for vineyard houses. Tuscany Now, a London-based company, offers farmhouses, apartments and bed-and- breakfast places.

If tastings and visits really appeal, and you are after more than simple immersion in the vineyards, a full-blown wine tour could be the answer. In the nine months since Barry Jerram retired from local government administration in the City, he and his wife have taken no fewer than three organised wine trips: to Australia, Bordeaux and Portugal. And it's not over yet. They are now eyeing up tours to South Africa and Chile. Jerram was no newcomer to wine tours even before he retired, having chalked up journeys through Alsace, Chablis, Burgundy and Rioja, plus three trips to the Loire and several to Bordeaux.

"We'd been on package holidays before," Jerram says, "and to be honest we'd prefer to be independent. But the herding was a small price to pay for being welcomed as wine-lovers by so many top winemakers. It was not nearly as successful when we spent a week going round the Napa Valley independently a couple of years back. Commercial winery trips for general tourists are not the same; you don't get the individual attention."

Arblaster & Clarke are the masters of the art of wine-related travel: they have 80 wine tours and some of the world's most exciting winemakers in their 1996 brochures. This is certainly the company I'd recommend for anyone with a serious interest in wine, but you don't have to be a buff and programmes are flexible enough to give plenty of free time to soak up the atmosphere and local culture. A&C tours are led by wine experts, often masters of wine, wine writers or consultants. There are new tours this year to Hungary (including several new wineries started up recently by well-known Western winemakers), South Africa, Languedoc and Provence, and old favourites to France, various parts of Spain, Italy, Madeira and California. For an extra twist, you can travel by hotel-barge through Alsace or Languedoc, Burgundy or Provence. Or combine wine with opera on a trip to the spectacular Roman amphitheatre at Verona and the best of the nearby vineyards of Valpolicella and Soave.

A&C's prices are very reasonable, but you will pay a shade less for the relaxed coach trips to classic French wine regions organised by Tanglewood Tours of Surrey, a friendly husband-and-wife team who lead all the tours themselves. They specialise in visits to small growers, many of whose wines they used to import.

Wessex Wine Tours are rather less expensive. "We aim our trips at people who know a little and would like to know more," says the owner, John Hill. Leaders of these tours to a few French regions, plus Rioja, are "two guys who are enthusiastic amateurs". Some but not all of their visits look exciting.

If you feel your clothes tugging at your midriff at the thought of being bused from one gastronomic experience to the next, a surprising number of companies offer specialised wine trips on foot or by bicycle, with the blessed back-up of a minibus to transport bags from comfortable hotel to hotel. Arblaster & Clarke, new to vineland walks this year (Burgundy, Loire and Chianti Classico), plot routes covering about five to eight miles a day, with wine visits paramount.

For Stephen Dallyn, the organiser of Winetrails, the walking route is more important than particular wineries. His trips are "designed to be more comfortable than most walking holidays but less formal than most wine holidays. Walking is ambling the lanes and paths at a gentle pace rather than route marching." Typical would be two to five hours' walking a day, 10 miles or fewer. Hotels are "small and characterful", groups of no more than 12 people. Winetrails will take you to Spain, Mallorca, Madeira, Italy, Bulgaria, all over France, Califoria, South Africa, Australia or Cyprus.


PORTUGAL: Quinta de Lamelas and Quinta de la Rosa - Mrs P Bergqvist, Moat Farm, Ford, Aylesbury, Bucks, HP17 8XD, (01296 748560); Casa de Sezim, Apartado 410, 4800 Guimaraes, Portugal (00 351 53 523000); Quinta do Convento da Franqueira, Carvalhal CC N 301, 4750 Barcelos, Portugal (00 351 53 831606).

ITALY: La Foresteria, 37020, Gargano di Valpolicella, Verona, Italy (00 39 45 770 36 22); La Bondanzina, le Tre Vaselle, 06089 Torgiano, Perugia, Italy (00 39 75 988 04 47); Tuscany Now, 276 Seven Sisters Road, London N4 2JD (0171 272 5469).


Arblaster & Clarke, Farnham Road, West Liss, Hants, GU33 6JQ (01730 893344).

Tanglewood Wine Tours, Tanglewood House, Mayfield Avenue, New Haw, Surrey, KT15 3AG (01932 348720).

Wessex Wine Tours, PO Box 43, Plymouth, PLI ISY (01752 846880).

Winetrails, Greenways, Vann Lake, Ockley, Dorking, RH5 5NT (01306 712111).