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European wine weekends for 2021: four great short breaks planned

A romantic escape, a weekend away with friends... Fiona Sims provides some much-needed inspiration for 2021 after the cancellation of so many travel plans last year, picking four vibrant European destinations that wine lovers will love

A long weekend spent in a wine region is about so much more than discovering a few new wines. You really get a sense of the place, its people and their traditions. But don’t think you can just hop on a plane and rock up to the wineries you’ve earmarked for a visit unannounced (if you want to taste the good stuff, at least). Indeed, many of the world’s most exciting wines are made in small, family-run wineries that just don’t have the budget to allow for tour guides and fancy tasting rooms. It’s not that they don’t want to see you – they do, they just need a little notice.

And with stomachs rumbling after a morning tasting, forget rolling into that perfect little eatery for lunch, as it’s likely to be rammed with locals and other smug wine tourists who have booked well ahead. Yup, you guessed it, some organisation is required – nothing intense, more a flurry of emails.

After you’ve booked your winery appointments, decide how you want to get around. Driving yourself is the most flexible – just be mindful of alcohol intake. But if you want to remove that worry, then there are companies that offer all-inclusive, guided wine tours all over the world, including in our four highlighted regions in the following pages. Or, if you want more freedom, then hotels will arrange taxis for you (some wineries, too). Or mix it up: drive one day and taxi the next.

Mix up appointments with tours and tastings, too, as it allows for a more flexible, immersive experience. Save the full-on tours for those wineries with exceptional grounds, and opt for tastings in the more modest establishments.

Mug up on the wine region’s USPs. Armed with a few nuggets of info, such as key grape varieties and some background history of the region and its producers, each tour will spring to life. Many regions and appellations have their own generic websites.

And for when you do fall in love with a wine or three – and you will – consider taking a special wine suitcase to bring your booty home, or arrange to have it shipped.

We’ve put together four separate itineraries that assume an arrival early Thursday evening and departure on Sunday. Fall in love with the region and its wines, and you’ll have to plan a longer visit, with a new list of wineries to discover…


European wine weekends quick links:
Etna
Vienna
Penedès
Loire


Italy: Etna, Sicily

Vino di Anna

Vino di Anna’s Anna Martens in the Nave vineyard, located at 1,100 metres on the northwest face of Mount Etna. Credit: Hesh Hipp @heshphoto.com

Why go?

As well as making headlines for its regular pyrotechnic displays, Mount Etna also produces seriously exciting wines – Nerello Mascalese is the red grape king here, and Carricante the indigenous white that reigns supreme. The winemaking heartland on Etna’s prized northern slopes is a 40-minute drive from Taormina. And it’s buzzing. Just 25 years ago there were only four wineries on Etna – now there are 137. Harvests are nerve-wrackingly late, at an incredible elevation. It’s no wonder that wine tourists are beating a path to its producers’ doors. Alongside traditional wineries hewn from black lava stone, there are architectural wonders, such as Pietradolces modern winery, blending stylishly into the hillside, with its panoramic views, just a short hop from your equally stylish hotel.

THURSDAY

Enjoy excellent wood-fired pizzas at winemaker hangout Cave Ox in Solicchiata, and try local wines from its impressive wine list, then sleep among Etna’s trademark Nerello Mascalese bush vines at bucolic wine farm Tenuta di Fessina, a five-minute drive away.

FRIDAY

Morning

Eric Narioo, co-founder of UK-based merchant Les Caves de Pyrene, makes personality-filled wines at Vino di Anna with his Australian wife Anna Martens. You can visit their winery in Solicchiata by appointment (email is best), an arrangement you will have to get used to on Etna, where you can expect to pay from about £25 per person. The big names in wine here include Marco de Grazia and his Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Passopisciaro’s Andrea Franchetti and silver-haired Belgian ex-pat Frank Cornelissen, whose controversial views and wines divide critics and consumers alike.

Lunch

Try one of Narioo’s favourite local restaurants, Terra Mia (+39 393 906 9704), in the country near Solicchiata, where you can feast on pasta with wild fennel pesto, roast black Nebrodi pork and local ricotta with chopped almonds, pistachios and chestnut honey.

Afternoon

Drive to Randazzo along Etna’s newly tarmacked roads (thanks to the volcano’s frequent belching), past vineyards planted on the mountainside on steep terraces, set among oak and chestnut forests, hazelnuts and apple trees. Built almost entirely of lava stone, Randazzo is the closest town to the volcano’s summit, but it has never been fully engulfed. Stroll the dark medieval streets before stopping for an early evening snifter.

Evening

Enjoy an aperitif at Il Buongustaio, nibbling on local cheeses and meats before moving on to dinner at gem of a family-run trattoria San Giorgio e Il Drago, feasting on grandma’s handmade tonnacchioli (pasta) with wild mountain greens and rabbit cooked with tomatoes, olives and capers.

SATURDAY

Morning

Visit another key Solicchiata producer, such as Alberto Graci, who makes elegant wines at his beautifully renovated palmento (mill). Nearby Palmento Costanzo, also stunningly renovated, produces wines within the Parco dell’Etna itself. If you want to peek into the mighty crater, then guided hikes are available with Etna Experience, plus there are shorter guided walks around the lower slopes combined with winery visits.

Lunch

Head back towards Catania and Etna’s eastern slopes via lunch in Linguaglossa at Dai Pennisi, a superior butcher with a kitchen (they also run a highly regarded gastronomic restaurant with rooms, Shalai Resort), before continuing on to the little town of Zafferana Etnea.

Afternoon

Zafferana Etnea boasts an astonishing 700 honey producers, thanks to the lush plants that proliferate alongside the vines, the slopes thick with lemon and chestnut trees. Just north of town, call in on Palmento Caselle, with charismatic winemaker Salvo Foti, regarded as the godfather of Etna, who believes in the most traditional practices in the vineyard and winery. He is one of the few actually still using the ancient palmento system for vinification, involving manual harvesting, a screw press in stone and wood, and open fermenters with indigenous yeasts.

Evening

On the other side of Zafferana Etnea, splash the cash at Relais & Châteaux property Monaci delle Terre Nere, a baroque-style manor house, bagging a table for dinner at its local produce-trumpeting Locanda Nerello.

SUNDAY

Pay a visit to pioneering producer Benanti, where a new generation is continuing to shake things up after founder Giuseppe Benanti put Etna wines on the map in 1990 – with help at the time from talented young Sicilian oenologist Salvo Foti. To get a sense of Etna’s wine evolution, sign up for its ‘library vintages’ experience, which also includes a food pairing.

Need to know: The nearest airport is Catania, less than an hour’s drive from Etna’s northern slopes. Visit: www.visitsicily.info


Austria: Vienna

Stift Klosterneuburg vines

Producer Stift Klosterneuburg’s vines in the Kahlenbergerdorf district, looking south towards Vienna city. Credit: Stift Klosterneuburg

Why go?

It may not be an obvious destination for a wine tour, but Vienna is the biggest urban vineyard region in the world, with 276 producers working more than 600ha of vineyards – all within sight of the Stephansdom, Vienna’s iconic, gaily roof-tiled cathedral. In fact, vines were growing within the city walls in what is today’s first district right up until the late Middle Ages. Wine is an intrinsic part of the Viennese way of life, making the city the perfect destination for wine tourists. Every weekend you’ll find locals hanging out in its heurigen, lively producer- run wine taverns with generous buffets open year-round, or in little hidden buschenschank set among the vines: open-air bars that pop up during the warmer months.

THURSDAY

After dumping your bags at wine-themed boutique Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design, cross the city on foot to two-star Michelin chef Konstantin Filippou’s second restaurant O Boufés, where passionate sommeliers pull out thrilling Austrian wines to match imaginative dishes such as marinated trout with coriander, kohlrabi, mustard caviar and puffed rice.

FRIDAY

Morning

The steeply terraced vineyards of UNESCO-anointed Wachau can be taken in as a day trip from Vienna. In little more than an hour, a direct train from Franz Josef train station will deposit you in historic Krems, one of the country’s oldest winemaking towns (make some time later to wander the pretty cobbled streets). Hop on the Wachaubahn to Dürnstein-Oberloiben. After a 10-minute walk along the Danube, you’ll find yourself in front of Domäne Wachau, rated the top vineyard destination in Europe for 2020 by the World’s Best Vineyards awards, as decided by a large panel of international sommeliers, wine critics and tourism experts. A small path behind the winery leads to a viewpoint at the top of Ried Kellerberg, where you will be rewarded by sweeping views down the Danube to the other side of Wachau. Other wineries to visit in Dürnstein include FX Pichler, Knoll and Tegernseerhof.

Lunch

Knoll winery owns the restaurant Loibnerhof in Dürnstein. Its menu offers smartened-up traditional cuisine, with dishes such as lamb carpaccio, venison ragout and veal goulash with dumplings.

Afternoon

Take a short hike up to the ruins of Dürnstein castle, built in the early 12th century, where Richard I was imprisoned after being captured near Vienna by Duke Leopold V of Austria. The baroque abbey of Dürnstein is also worth exploring. For more winery action, jump on the Wachaubahn to Spitz, where you’ll find notable producers Franz Hirtzberger, Franz-Josef Gritsch and Johann Donabaum. To get back to Krems, enjoy a 50-minute cruise along the Danube.

Evening

A two-minute walk from Franz Josef train station is hip wine bar and bistro Mast, run by top sommeliers Matthias Pitra and Steve Breitzke. The wine list focuses mainly on natural wines, and the food is made from organic ingredients sourced from local farmers and producers.

SATURDAY

Morning

Head to Wieninger on the gently sloping, south-facing Bisamberg, just a 20-minute drive from the Stephansdom. Owner Fritz Wieninger is credited with putting gemischter satz – a wine made from various white grape varieties that are planted, harvested and fermented together – on the map globally as Vienna’s USP. Wine tours in Vienna’s winemaking districts are by appointment, but the wineries are more than happy to show you around. Afterwards, walk 30 minutes (or hop in a taxi for eight minutes) to see Weingut Christ. Boasting 400 years of winemaking tradition in his family, Rainer Christ combines traditional and modern cultivation methods in his high- tech, gravity-fed winery.

Lunch

Weingut Christ operates a notable heurige, if you want to stop there for lunch. Or head to Heiligenstadt, a 25-minute cab ride away, to the heurige at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, a key player in the Wien Wein Group, with a winemaking history that dates back to 1683 – go for the sharing platter. It’s also worth noting that the winery owns a great restaurant back in town called Pfarrwirt.

Afternoon

Jump in another cab for the 10-minute drive skirting the Danube to Stift Klosterneuburg, the oldest winery in Austria. Combine a tour of its Augustine monastery with a tour of the cellar.

Evening

Enjoy the sunset at Wieninger am Nussberg, Wieninger’s summer pop-up buschenschank in its vineyard (a 20-minute cab ride from town), downing more gemischter satz and a plate of cold cuts. Want to stay in the city? Then head to Pub Klemo am Wasser next to the Aspernbrücke bridge – bag a table right beside the Donaukanal, where you can work your way through a line-up of Austrian wines by the glass with plates to match.

SUNDAY

Go for brunch at Meierei im Stadtpark, owned by the Reitbauer family, who also run what is arguably Vienna’s best restaurant, Steirereck, with its jaw-dropping wine list. The former establishment has a small terrace overlooking the Wiental canal and the park itself, and it offers breakfast until noon. Choose the Meierei breakfast, with its impressive spread including buttermilk pancakes served with curd cream and plum compote, then stock up on bottles to take home from a branch of Wein & Co, a superior nationwide chain of wine shops/wine bars, where you can glug a glass before the journey home.

Need to know: The nearest airport is Vienna, just 30 minutes from the capital and its wine region. Visit: www.austrianwine.com


Spain: Penedès, Catalonia

Vinseum

Vinseum

Why go?

Just a 45-minute drive south of Barcelona, you’re in Cava country. Prosecco might have made more impact among consumers looking for a value alternative to Champagne, but many Cava producers want a bigger piece of that pie and have upped their game in recent years, often producing fantastic value wines for the price. Remember that, unlike Prosecco, Cava is produced by the traditional method as used for Champagne, and estates now often cellar wines for longer than the minimum bottle-age requirements. Cava country is a great destination for a wine weekend – with wineries galore (smaller producers offer tours by appointment), boutique hotels aplenty, fabulous restaurants and even wine attractions. Specialist walking and cycling tour operator Inntravel offers a four-night trip on an electric bike for the more ambitious, but either way your time will be spent on the undulating, pine-scented, wildflower-edged camí rural that skirt the vineyards.

THURSDAY

The best place to lay your head is Cava & Hotel Mastinell, just a 15-minute walk from the centre of Vilafranca del Penedès, the capital of Cava, and its many restaurants and bars. With its Gaudi-esque roof resembling stacked wine bottles, guided tours including hot air balloon rides and pairing workshops, plus a restaurant with creative Catalan cooking, the hotel offers a sense of place like no other.

FRIDAY

Morning

Start your journey at Parés Baltà, a family-owned winery dating back to 1790, where elegant fizz is made by two women winemakers. Afterwards, head through Vilobí village to Can Descregut, where winemakers Arantxa de Cara and Marc Milà produce stunning wines made from organic grapes that are riddled and bottled by hand.

Lunch

Head to El Cigró d’Or above the market in Vilafranca del Penedès, where Catalan chef Oriol Llavina serves up smart dishes (and a bargain set lunch), which can be washed down with Cava from a stellar line-up.

Afternoon

Orient yourself with a visit to the nearby Vinseum in the centre of town. Once a royal palace, it became the first wine museum in Spain in 1945. It still leads the way, putting wine in the context of culture. The full self-guided audio tour takes three-and-a-half hours, or you can just cherry-pick from the 500 or so objects on show. Now brace yourself, as you travel a little out of town to the west, for Spanish wine giant Familia Torres and its vast visitor centre. Instead of Cava, the producer makes a premium Alt Penedès sparkling wine, Vardon Kennett Cuvée Esplendor, outside the DO. You can try it before tasting the award- winning red Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon, credited for putting Penedès on the map – it’s not all about Cava here.

Evening

Located opposite the railway station at Vilafranca del Penedès is Casa Joan, a local favourite that offers dishes rooted in traditional Catalan cuisine and a lengthy wine list packed with dozens of different Cavas to try. Don’t miss the stuffed squid.

SATURDAY

Morning

With the magnificent jagged mauve teeth of Montserrat framing your view for the 20-minute drive to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, you can start your day in the Cava Interpretation Centre, which reveals the world of Cava from its origins and history to its production process. Then make tracks to the winery of Recaredo, a producer that has done more than most to improve the image of Spanish sparkling wines. Recaredo officially left the Cava DO in 2019, along with a handful of other producers, who now call their wines Corpinnat.

Lunch

Head to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia institution Cal Blay Vinticinc, opened nearly 40 years ago by the Carda-Torner family. Expect an old-meets-new dining experience, accompanied by your pick from its extensive list of Cavas.

Afternoon

Follow the smell of roasting cocoa beans to the Simón Coll Chocolate Space, which has been making artisanal chocolate since 1840, and join the engaging 50-minute tour. Then finish the afternoon with a visit to Spain’s oldest family business, Codorníu, the second- largest Cava producer and the most architecturally impressive. At the very least, drop by for a glass of its finest at the bar in the astonishing winery-turned-visitor-centre designed by celebrated art nouveau architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

Evening

Cal Ton is a Vilafranca del Penedès institution, and it has been keeping the town’s residents happy for more than 30 years. Start with, say, salt cod fritters and smoked sardines with aubergine and lime, followed by meatballs with mushrooms, plucking wines to match from its impressive wine cellar.

SUNDAY

Morning

Point the car towards Barcelona and head to Vilarnau, a small, artisanal, cutting-edge Cava producer once owned by Spanish nobility but now in the González Byass stable. In addition to a slick Cava line-up, it offers much for the wine tourist, from helicopter rides to electric bike tours of the vineyards. Afterwards, get a table for lunch at the Cal Blay-run Mirador de les Caves, with more jaw-dropping views over the craggy Montserrat mountains.

Need to know: The nearest airport is Barcelona-El Prat, a 45-minute drive from Vilafranca del Penedès. Visit: www.penedesturisme.cat


France: Loire

Bike wine tasting

Bouvet Ladubay. Credit: Sophie Boursier

Why go?

With its cities and villages shimmering in tuffeau chalk and the glittering facades of countless fairytale châteaux, not to mention numerous cathedrals, monasteries and other buildings of historical significance, there is much to explore in the Loire. Plus, other wine regions would be hard-pressed to match the Loire’s range of dry, sweet and sparkling wines, made using grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne and Sauvignon Blanc, or reds Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pineau d’Aunis, with styles ranging from light, crisp Muscadet to raspberry-rich Chinon. But it could take months to work your way along the 800km Loire Valley Wine Route, so for a weekend you need to focus. Direct flights from the UK are scarce, so either drive all the way, or take a TGV train from Paris to Tours and pick up a hire car.

THURSDAY

From Tours, drive west for one hour to Saumur. Make your base the Hôtel Anne d’Anjou on the banks of the Loire in the heart of Saumur – the riverside location and view from the rear onto the town’s imposing château couldn’t be better. Walk for eight minutes along the quayside for supper at Le Pot de Lapin, a gem of a Saumur bistro with a well-chosen wine list.

FRIDAY

Morning

Start the day with a glass of bubbles at sparkling wine pioneer Ackerman, a 10-minute drive west along the river. Then join a pre-arranged cellar tour at Langlois-Chateau, offering dramatic views over Château de Saumur, and try its impressive range of reds – if any wine sums up Loire reds, it’s Saumur- Champigny, supple yet sparky with great fruit intensity. Retrace your steps back to Bouvet Ladubay for a unique cycle tour of its cellars.

Lunch

Drive 40 minutes east for Chinon, on the D751 along the Vienne river, but stop first for lunch in Sazilly, at L’Auberge du Val de Vienne, where chef Jean-Marie Gervais can turn out a posh plate of food; it’s the menu du jour that makes local hearts sing.

Afternoon

Stroll through Chinon, where the ruins of a medieval castle look down over the tree-lined Vienne quayside, the battlements offering visitors the first glimpse of Chinon’s vineyards. It’s the red wines that most come for here, made almost exclusively from Cabernet Franc – try them at Domaine de la Noblaie. Winemaker Jérôme Billard’s range includes Touraine sparkling, rare Chinon white and classic red Chinon. Then drive 20 minutes back to the pretty riverside village of Montsoreau for a ride on a traditional flat- bottomed toue, one of the region’s distinctive wooden boats. While there, slip in a visit to certified biodynamic producer Domaine de la Paleine.

Evening

Get your Saumur bearings by cruising the shelves at wine shop Maisons des Vins Anjou Saumur, then head to L’Essentiel for supper, where chef Anthony Vaillant serves up modern Loire cuisine in his fancy bistro.

SATURDAY

Morning

Drive a little more than an hour east to Vouvray, which boasts a range of white wines made of Chenin Blanc, with an enviable lifespan. First stop here should be Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau , one of a handful of biodynamic producers in this region, and one of 350 in the Loire Valley’s official network of caves touristiques, thanks to its atmospheric cellar. The most famous producer in Vouvray is Domaine Huet. Try for a tour by appointment; failing that, grab a bottle from its cellar door located just outside town in preparation for a picnic by the river.

Lunch

Make tracks to La Maison Hardouin in Vouvray, a legendary charcutier, open every day from 8am. It’s famous for its andouillettes (sausages) and rillons (pork belly), both cooked in the local wine, but also good is its pâté de campagne au Vouvray, perfect slathered over a baguette for that aforementioned riverside picnic lunch.

Afternoon

Continue on to Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, where winemaker Jacky Blot produces a fine Montlouis. He also makes elegant Cabernet Franc from his Domaine de la Butte vineyard in Bourgueil, rated one of the best reds of the Loire Valley. And tick off another castle, Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci saw out his days.

Evening

Still in the castle frame of mind, head to Château de Noizay, set back from the Loire, for dinner, bed and breakfast. Just a 10-minute drive from Amboise, this impressive manor house is complete with cupids, starched linen and gleaming silver, along with its refined presentation of locally sourced ingredients.

SUNDAY

Finish as you started with more castles, first with a visit to Château Royal d’Amboise, where kings and queens from Henry III, to Charles VII, to Catherine de’ Medici have lived or stayed. Finally, round off your weekend with a smart lunch at Château Belmont in Tours.

Need to know: The nearest airport is at Tours, and there is a regular TGV train service from Paris to Tours. Visit: www.loirevalleywine.com


See also:

UNESCO wine regions to visit

Jane Anson’s guide to Bordeaux châteaux to visit

Ultimate Tuscany: Ten top wineries to visit

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