My 6 Favourite Wine Travel Memories
I’m a drinks writer so I take a lot of trips as part of my job but even when I’m on holiday with my family, I can’t resist visiting a vineyard or two.
Here I’ve narrowed down 10 years’ worth of visits into six unforgettable memories. None of them are particularly off the beaten track but they all offer experiences that will appeal to wine lovers.
1) Paso Robles, California
My wife and I spent our honeymoon driving up the Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the return journey south, we stopped in Paso Robles, midway between the two cities. The landscape, with its pine trees, winding hilltop roads and the blue of the ocean, reminded us of the South of France, and compared with the tourist trap of Napa Valley, it felt undiscovered.
Quite by chance, we saw a sign for a winery that I had read about, Tablas Creek, founded by the French Perrin family. The climate and soil reminded them of their home in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhone Valley so they bought land and planted vines. The wines were some of the best we tried on that road trip, bright and Californian but with a French feel, just like the hills of Paso Robles.
2) Marsala, Sicily
The fortified wine of Marsala in western Sicily once had a high reputation but is now usually just used for cooking. While searching for old style Marsala, we stayed in a converted winery, the Baglio Donna Franca, set among the vines. I was told the owner of the hotel, Giacomo Ansaldi, was a historian of the region.
One afternoon, he took my wife and me on a tour of his vineyards, pointing out a ruined Georgian building that looked like something from Bath or Cheltenham; it was a former winery built by a British merchant. Then, he led us into his cellar, which was filled with huge barrels; these were old wines he had collected from farmers and producers, some dating back to the nineteenth century. He gave me a taste from one. The air filled with the smell of chamomile and cobnuts - I was tasting a little bit of Sicilian history.
3) Porto, Portugal
I’ve visited the home of port on a number of occasions but I’m going to pick my first visit back in 2014. As a guest of George Sandeman, we spent two days in the city Porto during the craziness of Festa de São João. Then, at night, we were driven at high speeds round the winding roads that led to Sandeman’s house in the Douro Valley (you can visit Quinta do Seixo). I felt thoroughly sick by the time we arrived and, after a light supper, went straight to bed.
The next day, I opened the windows. The sun was shining and the view took my breath away. The steep mountains laden with terraces of vines reflected in the still waters of the Douro River with not a sound to be heard. Each time I come back, that view still works its magic.
4) Bordeaux, France
A few years ago, I was researching a book on wine and British history, and I emailed the contact person on the Château Langoa-Barton website. I expected to get the PR brush off - instead a week later my phone rang and a patrician-sounding voice asked to speak to me. It was Anthony Barton, whose Anglo-Irish family have owned the Château since 1824.
He invited me to have lunch with him, so later that year my wife and I turned up in our best attire at the gates of the family’s estate, not far from the city of Bordeaux. Anthony’s wife Eva joined us; it was just the four of us. We drank vintage Pol Roger champagne followed by the 1982 and 1986 Leoville-Barton over a leisurely lunch of gloriously old-fashioned French food. All the while Anthony and Eva treated us like old friends. Afterwards, we caught a flight back to Luton Airport and the whole experience felt like a dream.
5) Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain
This is the trip my daughter still reminds me about regularly. It was a family holiday to the seaside town of Sanlúcar in Andalusia, with its beaches, ice cream and restaurants. It’s also the home of Manzanilla sherry so naturally I made an appointment to look around Hidalgo la Gitana, one of the best producers.
We arrived at 11am and immediately Fermin Hidalgo took us for copitas of sherry and jamon. There’s nothing more delicious than a chilled glass of Manzanilla in the morning. We then spent four hours tasting sherry in the bodega, including some 50- and 60-year-old wines straight out of the barrel, before we had one of those typically Spanish lunches that begin at teatime and end when it’s supper time in England. Heaven for the grown-ups, not so much fun for my little girl.
6) Santorini, Greece
You probably won’t believe me but sometimes the life of a wine writer can be hard work. On press trips you normally have to rise early and then visit so many vineyards and taste so many wines that they all blur into one. But not on a trip to the Gaia Estate in Santorini.
I visited with a small group of journalists a couple of years ago. The owner Yiannis Paraskevopoulos picked us up from the airport and immediately we were on island time. There was no schedule or rush, just plenty of time to slowly appreciate Santorini's unique wines made from the local Assyrtiko grape: modern versions are piercingly dry and lemony with an almost salty tang, while the old style wine, Vin Santo, is incredibly sweet. The island in May was quiet; the summer tourist deluge wouldn’t start for a couple of months. We swam, drank and ate. If only all wine trips were as languid.