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A nose for the good life

A vineyard tour is a great way to learn the difference between Bull's Blood and Bordeaux, says Jeremy Atiyah
Have you ever wondered why the picnic wine you drank from a plastic bottle with manchego curado and jamon serrano in that orange grove in southern Spain last summer tasted so much better then than it did after you had brought a couple of dozen boxes of the stuff back to England?

If this has happened to you (and you have spent the rest of the winter languishing in a warm-beer-induced depression) I suggest a wine tour: not cheap but a hell of a way to learn about wines. Tours revolve around tastings and multi-course gourmet dinners accompanied by large numbers of wines.

The number of countries on the standard wine-tour itineraries has rocketed in recent years. Alongside the old stalwarts, France, Italy and Spain, tours and tastings of the best wines of Switzerland, Portugal, Hungary, Bulgaria, Chile, South Africa, California, New Zealand and Australia are all possible.

Two specialist operators who can provide wine tours of all or most of the above destinations include Arblaster and Clarke (tel: 01730 893344) Alternative Travel (tel: 01865 315678) and Wine Trails (tel: 01306 712111). Holidays on offer include group tours with expert guides, walking tours of vineyards, as well as virtually any kind of tailor-made package. Many wine tours take place during the harvest season, which means early October for the European wineries. In fact, tastings and vineyard walking tours can take place at any time of year.

A (somewhat subjective) list of the best wine-destinations might begin with Rioja in northern Spain. The wine is fantastic, the scenery divine, and the prices are not as high as in France: a nine-night tour with Wine Trails costs pounds 1,095, not including flights.

"Chiantishire" tours of Tuscany are also fairly irresistible: five nights in Umbria and Tuscany in October cost pounds 999 with Arblaster and Clarke. If that still sounds expensive, try Jerez in Andalusia; Wine Trails can put together a package of five nights to that area, including lots of sherry, several gourmet dinners and visits to at least one bodega each day for about pounds 450 (not including flights).

The Eastern European destinations may not sound terribly promising by contrast but the vineyards look just as nice in the sunshine. And in Hungary there are ancient traditions of wine-making: visits to the Tokaj region, from the beautiful Baroque city of Eger, are an excuse to experience the famous Bull's Blood wine, once known as the "Wine of Kings". A five- night trip next October costs pounds 699 with Arblaster and Clarke.

The more traditional wine areas of France, such as Bordeaux, can work out expensive. Another Arblaster and Clarke trip where you stay as "private guests" of Chateau Lascombes and enjoy entertainments such as visiting the First Growth of Chateau Latour, amounts to no less than pounds 1,500 for four nights and five days (with outstanding food and wine).

Do-it-yourself wine tours are perfectly feasible as long as you are in a place which has a tradition of wine-tasting. Oporto in northern Portugal is one such place: a vast number of different Port wines can be sampled by simply walking from one warehouse to the next. This sublimely pleasant experience is free.