The complete guide to wine holidays

There are as many different tours for wine-lovers as there are wines from different parts of the world. Whether you're an oenophile who can spit on a sixpence, or a "I don't know much about wine but I know what I like" type, there will be a holiday out there just right for your taste - and your pocket.

ARE VINEYARDS ALL MUCH THE SAME?

Far from it. Wine is the product of a combination of climate, soil, viticulture, the actual winemaking process, and that most unpredictable of features, the weather. When you see at first hand how the different elements interact, you'll begin to get an insight into why wines are so different. One patch of soil may produce stunning wine, while its next-door neighbour makes indifferent stuff.

What's the key? Is it the gravel, the south-facing aspect, the slope, the grape varieties? Or is it the way the vineyard is managed or the dedication of the producer? In fact, it isn't one single thing but a combination of many. As you travel from one vineyard to the next, you begin to get a real inkling of the factors that give a wine its individuality and how they come together.

DO YOU NEED TO KNOW ALL ABOUT WINE FIRST?

No more than you need to be a food- technologist to eat in restaurant. Visiting a winery is fun. Keep an open mind and let your lips and tongue do the talking. There are a host of tours catering for different levels of knowledge, from the technical, for those who can spit on a sixpence, to the more basic, for those whose catchphrase is "I don't know much about wine but I know what I like".

According to wine-educator Wink Lorch: "People's wine-knowledge inevitably varies. If a couple comes, and only one of them is interested in wine, it's not a problem because even in summer what we do is varied enough to satisfy everyone."

Choose the kind of tour that suits you best. If you just want to sit back and let wine trickle down your gullet at appropriate intervals, there are plenty of well-organised wine tours. Equally, there are tours which build flexibility into the timetable and tours which you can tailor to your own requirements. There are walking tours, gourmet tours, skiing with wine, golfing with wine, wine cruises, canal trips and tours specialising in jazz or opera or visits to local cultural attractions. Just decide on the balance you want to strike between wine and your other interests and then talk to the organisers.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO GO?

If you go at harvest time, you may experience the excitement of seeing the grape-picking and winemaking process at first hand. Harvest time in Europe is September to October, and in the southern hemisphere, March to April. Bear in mind, however, that this is the busiest time of year for the winery, and some producers will not relish having to entertain armies of visitors when they've been up all night supervising the harvest or nursing the fermentation tank. Unless the winery is specifically geared up for it, it may be better to visit when the winemaker or owner can give you his or her full attention.

Summer here is winter down under, so if you want heat with your sun, better to visit that part of the world in December or January. But bear in mind that it can get uncomfortably hot in regions such as the Cape and South Australia, and February is already getting close to harvest. In Europe too, timing can be important. Burgundy and Champagne may sound romantic - but the romance palls somewhat when you're freezing in an icy cellar in December.

WHERE ARE THE

TRADITIONAL PLACES AND WHERE ARE THE MODERN VINEYARDS?

Until a decade ago, conventional wine tours headed for one of the classic wine regions of Europe. France was the obvious focus, in particular Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Germany's Rhineland and Mosel, Tuscany in Italy and Rioja in Spain have also been traditional destinations. The New World revolution has changed the focus. Just as adventure holidays to far-flung destinations have grown, so the wine world has expanded to embrace vineyards in the heart of regions which are, in themselves, natural holiday destinations.

California's Napa Valley is the natural focus for a wine holiday, but you'll be rewarded, too, by visits to quieter, prettier regions such as Sonoma, Carmel and Santa Barbara, while San Francisco and Yosemite National Park are natural attractions in themselves. Australia's wine regions are mostly within striking distance of its seaboard cities - Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth - so you can pick and choose between wineries, beaches, shopping and some of the most innovative restaurants in the world. The infrastructure of New Zealand's South Island has vastly improved to make it one of the world's most beautiful natural holiday destinations. South Africa's Cape is equally attractive. The relative terra incognita of Chile and Argentina is ripe for discovery by intrepid wine-lovers who have the option of travelling on to the subtropical north, or south to the natural paradise of Patagonia.

In response, Europe as a wine- holiday destination has also expanded to include off-the-beaten track destinations. In France, new regions have opened up, such as the truffle- rich south-west, the Languedoc-Roussillon with its fascinating medieval history and proximity to both sea and mountains, or Savoie where you can go walking in Alpine meadows. On a tour of southern Italy, you might take in Vesuvius, Pompeii and Lecce, the "Florence of the South". If you love fortified wines, consider a visit to Jerez and Montilla in Spain, or Portugal's Douro valley and the breathtaking island of Madeira.

If you have very little time and even less money, take a tour to Vinopolis, London's new wine theme park which opens on Thursday and transports you round the world in a minimum of 80 minutes with a wine-tasting at the end.

CAN I GO INDEPENDENTLY OR DO I HAVE TO TAKE A PACKAGE?

Either. It's largely a matter of temperament - and language. Tim Clarke, who together with Lynette Arblaster runs Arblaster & Clarke, the biggest tour operator, puts the case for the organised package: "You have an experienced wine guide who is up to date and will put the entire region in context, draw out the salient facts and make it all far more interesting than if you went on your own." How? "We normally get a high-level visit with a very good tasting with perhaps the chateau- owner or winemaker, and we can throw a new slant on an area, which you won't necessarily get from the perceived view." And with a package, your travel arrangements, accommodation and most meals are all sorted for you as well.

Some regions are more geared to wine tours and tastings than others. The Champagne region is almost universally set up for the consumption of bubbles. With very few exceptions, among them Roederer and Bollinger, most of the big Champagne houses offer tours and tastings, with features such as museums of champagne-making and, at Piper- Heidsieck, a train running through its subterranean chalk cellars. Napa Valley, to the disgust of its residents, has a wine train chuntering through it, and is well set up for wine tourists, particularly at popular locations like Robert Mondavi and Moet's sparkling wine operation, Domaine Chandon. In Australia, both Hunter Valley, outside Sydney, and Barossa Valley north of Adelaide are easy-to-get-to attractions for day and weekend tourists. If in doubt about facilities, whether there's a charge or if you have to book, ask tourist information for a list of the district's local wineries and ring in advance.

Filling the gap between military-style organisation and free-wheeling independence, are a handful of individuals and couples who run small- scale tours tailored to more personalised requirements. The Trigwells at Tanglewood Wine Tours (01932 348720) run nine annual trips with groups of 24, aiming to give their clientele time for shopping and sightseeing. "We're for people who want to learn a bit and balance it with a lot of enjoyment," says John Trigwell. "We don't like wine snobbery. Accommodation is mostly in three-star, and some four-star, hotels." Leta Bester, who runs the London Wine Academy (0181-876 7660) takes groups of 10 people to the winelands of the Cape, then on to game reserves in Botswana and Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls. Wine educator Wink Lorch (01494 677728) runs wine weekends and longer breaks in the French Alps and will tailor holidays for small groups of between six and 15. With his wife Sharon, Ian Christians of Orpheus & Bacchus (0171-231 6944), orchestrates classical music and wine parties at their farmhouse overlooking the Dordogne river in St Emilion.

WILL IT COST A LOT?

The more organised and luxurious the tour, inevitably the more expensive it will be, with long-haul trips and cruises, or those with a specialist interest or gastronomic slant often the most expensive. In England, Jon Hurley's country- house weekends (01432 840649) start at pounds 175, while a weekend champagne break with Arblaster & Clarke starts at pounds 225. With the same company, you can choose from "good value" wine tours in the region of pounds 599, to luxury Bordeaux at pounds 1,349. Long hauls to New Zealand and Australia cost pounds 1,999, to South Africa pounds 2,299, to Chile and Argentina at least pounds 2,799. With Winetrails (01306 712111), walks vary from pounds 389 for a week in Pyrenees- Roussillon to pounds 1,195 (without flights) in Hungary. The Alternative Travel Group (01865 315681) offers a variety of trips for independent travellers with prices including flights from pounds 650.

DO I HAVE TO GET DRUNK?

There are no cellar rules as such, although a basic etiquette might usefully be observed. For instance, it may be a tribute to your host's wine, but it is generally not wise to ask (as one customer did) if you can dig up a vine and bring it home with you. Nor would it be recommended to thank your host for his wonderful wines and in the same breath tell him that they're much more expensive than you could ever afford. Try not to pour away samples of Batard-Montrachet or spit out into the producer's new oak barrels. And, Germans, beware the little old French lady who, before you enter the low stone entrance to her cellar, only tells you to mind your head once she's ascertained that you're not German.

If you swallow every sample offered at every winery visited, the chances are you're going to end up the worse for wear, albeit pleasurably. It's useful, though not essential, to learn a little bit about tasting wine beforehand by equipping yourself with one of the basic texts on wine-tasting (see below). Failing that, practise by following these basic procedures: swirl the wine in the glass, look at the colour, sniff the wine, linger over the aroma, taste it by "chewing" if you can, and try spitting. Practising in the bathroom with water is the simplest way. It's not rude to spit out. Professionals do it all the time. But if you're spitting in a cellar, look for a bucket or drain or go outside. It may be too late to ask once you've got a mouthful of plonk you're not keen to swallow.

You don't have to buy and shouldn't feel pressurised. If you don't like the wine, don't buy it. You won't thank yourself when you get home if you do. If you do like the wine, and you have room, think about buying between six bottles and a full case of 12, bearing in mind that you may be visiting even better cellars. If your fellow travellers also like the wine, you can always split a case. You may be able to pay with plastic but don't rely on it. Growers' faces always seem to light up at the sight of cash. Something to do with tax, perhaps?

DO I HAVE TO PAY DUTY TO BRING WINE BACK?

Not any more. The abolition of duty- free from 1 July makes no difference. You're basically allowed to bring back more booze for your own personal consumption than you can carry without severely damaging the rear axle of your vehicle. To be precise, it's 90 litres of table wine, of which not more than 60 litres may be sparkling wine, 20 litres of fortified wine, 110 litres of beer and 10 litres of spirits. If you want to bring back more, the onus is on you to show that it's not for your own personal consumption or that of your family. To give you some idea of whether or not it's worth bringing wine home, excise duty you save on table wine is pounds 13.47 a case of 12 bottles, pounds 17.97 on sherry, port and madeira between 15 per cent and 22 per cent alcohol, and pounds 19.19 on champagne and sparkling wine. With good cellar-door prices to start with, the champagne cellars of small growers can be particularly good places to buy. The saving on a case of spirits at 40 per cent alcohol is pounds 65.72.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?

Key books include: Buying Wine in France, the Traveller's Guide to Chateaux and Vineyards, pounds 7.99, Mitchell Beazley; Mitchell Beazley's handy regional pocket-guides and the wine atlas series, which includes France, Spain, Italy, California. Beginner's Guide to Understanding Wine by Michel Schuster, Simon & Schuster Amazon bookshop on the Internet. Discovering Wine, Joanna Simon, pounds 14.99, Mitchell Beazley.

HIGH FIVES

Most attractive: the competition for this award is intense but my accolade goes to Rolfe and Lois Mills' breathtaking Rippon Vineyard, whose vines skirt the shores of Lake Wanaka, one of the world's deepest inland lakes, against the backdrop of New Zealand's Southern Alps. The red Burgundy- style Pinot Noir in this up-and-coming region of Otago is pretty delicious here too. Fuller's sell it.

Most remote: a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires and a three-hour drive through the stunning rock formations of the Calchaques Valley will get you to Colome. At 2,400m, it is not only the world's most remote vineyard but probably the highest too. The Cabernet Sauvignon made here is old- fashioned and tastes surprisingly like a top Cote Rotie from the Rhone Valley. It's almost as hard to buy it as to visit. Try Adnams of Southwold, who are occasionally allocated minute quantities.

Most famous: Chateau Lafite, one of the five blue-chip Bordeaux chateaux in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. Baron Eric de Rothschild's Lafite is consistently one of the most elegant of all Bordeaux wines, often recognisable by the headiness of its cedar and sandalwood bouquet. In recent times it has reached a new peak of quality which - almost - justifies the prices. Buy from specialist Bordeaux wine merchants or the wine shop at Waddesdon Manor, which stocks vintages from 1995 (pounds 150) back to 1982 (pounds 380).

Biggest: E & J Gallo produce in the region of 65 million cases of booze, most of it in the grossly misnamed town of Modesto. In order to expand its premium wine production, Gallo recently bulldozed 2,000 hectares of Sonoma Valley and built a winery whose barrel- ageing shed has a full-size football pitch on top of it.

Best red: 1995 Frei Ranch Zinfandel, a robust and gusty, spicy California red, available at Majestic Wine Warehouses.

Most exclusive: Chateau Le Pin is a tiny property of less than two hectares in the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. Its rarity value, enhanced by the enthusiasm of the influential American wine critic Robert Parker in his Wine Advocate, has turned Le Pin into the ultimate cult wine. On 11 September 1986 at Sotheby's, a case of the 1982 vintage achieved a record price for a modern wine of pounds 30,800. English Master of Wine Fiona Morrison was so keen on Le Pin she married the Chateau's Belgian owner, Jacques Thienpont.

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