Travel: Wine tours, round two
CAN I GO INDEPENDENTLY OR DO I HAVE TO TAKE A PACKAGE?
EITHER. IT'S largely a matter of temperament - and language. Tim Clarke and Lynette Arblaster run Arblaster & Clarke, the biggest tour operator. He puts the case for the organised package: "You have an experienced wine guide who is up to date and puts the region in context, draws out the salient facts and makes 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 you won't ordinarily get." Travel arrangements, accommodation and most meals are arranged.
The Champagne region is almost universally set up for the consumption of bubbles. With few exceptions, among them Roederer and Bollinger, most big champagne houses offer tours and tastings, with museums of champagne- making and, at Piper-Heidsieck, a train running through its chalk cellars. Napa Valley has a wine train chuntering through it, and is well set up for wine tourists, particularly at Robert Mondavi and Moet'sDomaine Chandon. In Australia, Hunter Valley outside Sydney, and Barossa Valley north of Adelaide are easy-to-get-to attractions. 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. 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. The 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, the more expensive it will be, with long-haul trips and cruises, or those with a specialist interest 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. Try not to pour away samples of Batard-Montrachet or spit out into the producer's new oak barrels.
If you swallow every sample offered at every winery visited, the chances are you're going to end up the worse for wear. Practice tasting 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. This is not rude: professionals do it all the time. But if you're spitting in a cellar, look for a bucket or drain, or go outside.
You don't have to buy and shouldn't feel pressurised. If you don't like the wine, don't buy it. 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. You may be able to pay with plastic but don't rely on it.
DO I HAVE TO PAY DUTY TO BRING WINE BACK?
Not any more. The abolition of duty-free on 1 July made no difference. You're basically allowed to bring back more a huge amount of booze for your own personal consumption. 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. 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. 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 and 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.
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, 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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