Getting your foot in the door of the world’s most exclusive wine estates generally depends on who you know. So how better to see Château Pétrus or Domaine de la Vougeraie than by joining a merchant on a bespoke tour or buying trip? John Abbott samples a new style of wine holiday.
Wine holidays are nothing new. For decades, specialist tour companies have been taking wine lovers around treasured regions, relying on local knowledge and a network of contacts to open the doors of famed estates for a priceless peak inside.
Companies like Arblaster & Clarke (www.arblasterandclarke.com) have long dominated the scene, with great success, taking novices and aficionados on tours fronted by well-known wine figures such as Decanter’s own Steven Spurrier, Andrew Jefford and James Lawther MW. For them, a combination of who you know, and how long you’ve know them, is a surefire formula for success.
With the travel industry in relative chaos – a weak euro, air traffic strikes, ash clouds, airlines dropping like flies – it would seem a risky time for the arrival of new players. But now wine retailers are keen to get in on the act. And how new are they really? If a wine region really is worth visiting, retail buyers will be on the first bus. And in the bluechip regions, they have the contacts, having spent years building allocations and negotiating deals, so taking a few extra passengers on their buying trip shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a wonder nobody thought of it before.
But don’t wine retailers deal mostly in spreadsheets, high-value transactions, wooden crates and glass bottles? Have they really got the infrastructure to provide everything you expect from a luxurious holiday?
Option 1 – The bespoke Bordeaux Index experience
London merchant Bordeaux Index is known for pushing the boat out. Its Bordeaux 2009 en primeur campaign saw its PR machine go into overdrive as a relentless string of audacious press releases spoke of ‘unprecedented’ hype (no matter that it was self-generated) followed by demand for the ’09s reaching ‘fever pitch’. Now it’s at it again with the as yet unmade 2010s. Yet behind this brazen façade is a company willing to take risks, with a focus on giving its clients the most complete wine experience it can offer.
When it unveiled its bespoke wine tours service in January, I joined a two-day guided tour of Bordeaux to find out exactly what people could expect. From the outset, the focus was on unlocking the doors to the finest estates. Our itinerary read like a who’s who of must-see châteaux.
Day one featured a tour and tasting at Château Margaux, followed by Pichon-Lalande and Lafite, before dinner at the renowned city centre restaurant La Tupina. After an overnight stay at the five-star Grand Regent, the next day began at Angélus, before heading to Cheval Blanc and the notoriously private Pétrus (see box, overleaf, for details of all the above).
These are tours for people who have a definite sense of what they want. Every detail can be customised – from driving and making your visits alone, with Bordeaux Index merely facilitating your itinerary, to the merchant accompanying you as guide, and booking a chauffeur. Ultimately, it just depends how much you want to spend.
We did it in style, and everything from our stretch Mercedes (complete with chauffeur and blacked-out windows), to meals at Café Lavinal, L’Envers du Décor and La Tupina, as well as all our châteaux visits, flights and hotel arrangements, was diligently handled (though travellers should be aware that flights and evening meals are not included in the initial price).
That said, we were fortunate with the timing of the trip. Bordeaux is quiet in January, the perfect time to grasp the real selling point of these tours – first-hand experience of a working château – with the sweetener that, as it had all been arranged in advance, there was no imposition. At Château Margaux we were let in on the exact blend of the 2009 vintage – general manager Paul Pontallier had finalised it the day before. At Cheval Blanc, we saw the enormous new winery taking shape. At Pétrus, the 2008s were being taken out of barrel and being put back into tank. (Bordeaux Index says it endeavours to fulfil requests for appointments to be hosted by key château figures, but can’t guarantee it.)
These kind of nuggets are what make bespoke trips special – the sense of being involved and in the loop, tasting samples with world-renowned winemakers at their own estates. Not surprisingly, given I was travelling with one of the châteaux’s customers, everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed and treated to some serious wines (day one ended with a blind tasting of Lafite 1995 in the first growth’s famous circular barrel cellar).
Bordeaux Index says its tours are designed to bring the fantasy of major wine estates to life, while making each trip personal and tailored. ‘The key word is flexibility,’ explains Gleave. ‘Everything about these trips is bespoke.’ And it’s not only available to existing clients in Britain. Since the launch of the tours, the merchant reports that at least once a month it has arranged bespoke trips for both new and current clients from the Far East, the US and UK.
Option 2 – The expert-led Waitrose wine tour
There’s something trustworthy about Waitrose. Whether it’s the partner-owned John Lewis connection, or the Delia- & Heston-fronted TV ad campaign, Decanter’s 2010 Supermarket of the Year has a knack for instilling confidence. But is it up to the job of whisking shoppers away on idyllic wine tours?
Waitrose’s wine-buying team – once, though no longer, famously restricted to MWs – is highly respected for sourcing quality wines, as well being a champion of niche wines, supporting the English wine industry and paying particular attention to its organic ranges.
Now these buyers have opened their address books – offering wine lovers of any level the chance to join them on trips to their specialist regions of interest. A stellar line-up of hosts – Ken Mackay MW (Bordeaux), Nick Room (Rioja), Julian Brind MW (Champagne), Dee Blackstock MW (Burgundy), David Thornton (Loire) and Tim Syrad (Tuscany) – will take you to the region of your choice for a fixed price, on a fixed date. And, if you don’t think the itinerary gives you long enough, you can always extend your stay, or transfer to another city through an upgrade option, made possible by sister company GreenBee, a specialist travel operator, also owned by the John Lewis Partnership.
There are two main selling points with this type of tour. First, they are open to everyone – you don’t need any previous buying history with Waitrose – and there’s no retail obligation attached. It’s the perfect way for someone interested in wine, but with limited experience, to land deep in the heart of wine nirvana.
Second, the calibre of the tour leaders is remarkable. With a host of MWs and industry leaders, this is the kind of tour that will see you pick up inside information about the wines themselves, but also an insight into how deals are done and the kinds of relationship that a major retailer like Waitrose needs to have with its suppliers and its customers.
Tours are organised in small groups to allow more intimate visits to smaller properties, and no wine knowledge is assumed. Indeed, one of the purposes of the trip ‘is to help you become a mini-expert, with lots of shortcuts and tips,’ says Dee Blackstock MW, leader of the Burgundy tour and a Burgundy judge at the Decanter World Wine Awards. ‘But beware,’ she warns. ‘You will get hooked, and want to go back time and time again!’
The main difference between these tours and those of Bordeaux Index is the scale of the properties. The Waitrose experience is less about visiting headline estates, and more about getting to know your way around a vineyard, winery and barrel cellar, though the estates visited are well-respected household names. The five-day Burgundy tour includes visits to Louis Jadot, Domaine de la Vougeraie and Bouchard Père et Fils.
Written by John Abbott