After two years of sofa tourism, European travel is finally back on the agenda this summer. This, clearly, is great news. And even allowing for some of the winery-related activities that didn’t make it through the pandemic, wine lovers are still spoiled for choice; all but the most introverted wineries offer tastings – and often tours too.
In fact, the problem is not what’s on offer – it’s what (and how much) you can convince your travelling companion(s) to take part in. After all, strange as it may seem, not everyone likes to spend sunny afternoons standing around in a barrel cellar.
This article picks out a dozen of the best visits that offer so much more than just wine, ensuring everyone goes home happy. Booking in advance is essential in most cases.
Champagne Pommery, Champagne
Get your art on
Domaine Pommery’s huge estate is close to the centre of the cathedral city of Reims. At 30 minutes’ walk from the train station, this is a visit you could do on a day-trip from Paris (45 minutes by train).
Lots of the grandes marques in Champagne have impressive visitor experiences (Taittinger just down the road is very good, for instance: taittinger.com). But it’s the non-wine elements that make this one stand out – particularly for those visitors who are less into wine. As well as the art nouveau/art deco Villa Demoiselle building, there are curated exhibitions of artworks from local and international artists. These are on display all year round (apart from changeover times), mostly 30m below ground, where Pommery’s famous ‘crayères’ (old chalk pits) form excellent galleries for contemplation. They can add a uniquely thought-provoking, amusing, poignant, and occasionally baffling element to your visit. Open every day, 10am-5pm, tickets from €24.
Champagne Legrand-Latour, Champagne
Meet a fossil
Every wine lover knows that Champagne’s terroir is all about limestone. And at Champagne Legrand-Latour in Fleury-la-Rivière, just northwest of Epernay, the team are keen to show you what it’s all about. In their Cave aux Coquillages (‘cellar of seashells’), they have put together a globally respected collection of more than 300 prehistoric shells – some of them unnervingly large – encased and preserved in limestone from 45 million years ago, when France’s coolest wine region was a tropical beach.
For those keen to know more or to get more involved, there’s everything from a half-hour introductory explanation of fossil-hunting to half-day and full-day workshops where you get to excavate your own molluscs from the rock. Obviously, it’ll be fun to see if you can taste the limestone terroir in the wines afterwards. Open every day, with visits from €13; workshops from €50, available Monday to Friday, minimum number of students required.
Domaine du Lycée Viticole de Beaune, Burgundy
Hike the côtes
The wine school in Beaune is a kind of ‘learn on the job’ winery, where students go to learn how to be the next star grower or winemaker. ‘La Viti’, as it’s known locally, is about half a kilometre from the centre of the town at the foot of Beaune’s premier cru vineyards. And the joy of this visit is that you can get out among the vines, following a 10km way-marked trail designed to help you discover six of the ‘climats’ belonging to the estate. Taking you up and down the slopes of the Côte de Beaune, the student-designed tour is not a gentle stroll, but it’s a good way to work up an appetite while engaging with the subtleties of the region’s terroir. It’s dog-friendly too. Download the free map online.
Domaine Laroche, Chablis
Picnic in the vines
If hiking the vineyards is a bit strenuous, then Domaine Laroche could be more your thing. It’s something of a one-stop shop in Chablis, with a good restaurant, accommodation and numerous tasting options, all located in and around the medieval ‘Obédiencerie’ monastery – part of a ninth-century abbey – in the centre of the town. There are plenty of leisurely food and accommodation packages available, plus the more entertaining option of heading out into the vineyards on an e-bike. You’ll be provided with a picnic and a map, which should allow you to explore the chalky pathways of the Chablis crus without working up too much of a sweat, and also give you a bit of downtime on the south-facing slopes. Most visits available year round; cycling tours (including wine tasting and Obédiencerie visit) from April to October, Monday to Saturday, 10.30am, €69.
Hameau Duboeuf, Beaujolais
Bring the kids
Children, it’s safe to say, aren’t likely to be interested in most wine-themed visits, so options for wine-loving parents with little ’uns in tow are pretty limited. But if you’re in (or passing through) Beaujolais, Hameau Duboeuf should keep both parties happy.
Billing itself as ‘Europe’s first wine theme park’, Hameau Duboeuf tries hard to make wine – and wine culture – digestible, not least in a 4D cinema where you can ‘fly’ over the crus of Beaujolais.
The gardens, open from April to September, are a good place for a stroll or picnic (or aimless juvenile charging about), and kids who aren’t interested in the winemaking centre can ride pedal bikes or play crazy golf instead. The 100 vintage drinks advert posters from 1890 to 1950 are practically worth the admission fee alone.
It’s just off the main A6 between Lyon and Mâcon, or a local train to Romanèche-Thorins will drop you straight in the park. Park open most of the year, Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm; tickets from €10 (children €6).
Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux
Food and spa luxury
This Pessac-Léognan estate has won a lot of tourism awards down the years, so no surprise to see it included here. The chance to be a winemaker for a couple of hours and fiddle around (supervised, of course) in the winery and cellar might be aimed more at wine geeks than those with a passing interest. But a tour focusing on the estate’s biodynamic ethos could have wider appeal. You might even see a horse ploughing in-between the vines.
The five-star Les Sources de Caudalie hotel has a two-star Michelin restaurant and a spa offering a variety of treatments, often involving grape produce. Try the crushed Cabernet scrub, for example, and you can sample the terroir inside and out. Château tours from €22; hotel from €335 per night for a double room; tasting menu from €165; half-day spa rituals from €302; workshops POA.
Château L’Hospitalet, Narbonne
The south of France doesn’t, on the whole, feature the glitzy tourist attractions of the wealthier wine regions. However, former rugby player Gérard Bertrand’s 1,000ha Languedoc estate in La Clape is a magnificent exception. There are plenty of interesting tour options, of which the one-hour electric scooter tour of the vineyards plus winery tour and tasting is the most eye-catching. But if Jazz at Château L’Hospitalet you decide to stay in the château then the less wine-engaged can happily amuse themselves in the spa or the winery’s beachfront restaurant while you feed your inner geek.
That said, the big attraction here, without doubt, is the annual jazz festival. It’s six nights of outdoor eating and drinking in the gentle warmth of a Mediterranean July evening, followed by a concert. There’s a different artist each night, and over the past 20 years it’s attracted some really big names. Open year round, with tours from €19; electric scooter tour, Saturdays only, €40.
Castello di Volpaia, Chianti Classico
Visit a medieval ‘borgo’
Just to the north of the walled town of Radda in Chianti – well worth a visit in itself – is the ancient borgo (hamlet) of Volpaia. Once abandoned, it is being painstakingly turned into a quirkily beautiful food and wine destination. There’s a restaurant, a bakery, olive oil and of course (this being Italy) artisanal ice cream. There’s also a winery, with its various production and ageing facilities scattered among the old basements, manor houses and former churches of the 12th-century village. So a tour here is as much a wander through the past as a viewing of vats and barrels – something that will appeal to foodies and historians alike. The estate has also teamed up with cycling company Ciclismoplus to offer personalised one-day bike tours of the area. Open year round, with group tours and tastings from €21; bike hire and bike tours, POA.
Bodegas Muga, Rioja
Up, up and away!
In Spain’s north, Bodegas Muga is one of Rioja’s five-star producers, handily located in Haro’s famous Barrio de la Estación. With the likes of La Rioja Alta, López de Heredia and Roda all clustered around the station, this is a great place for wine lovers to spend the day. But Muga has been one of the more creative in its offerings, with the standout attraction being an evening hot-air balloon ride over the vineyards.
Where the balloon goes obviously depends on the wind, but it’s a magnificent way to take in the topography, landmarks and wine villages of the region. Vineyard tours on a Segway could be an alternative for anyone suffering from vertigo. Guided tours and tastings available Monday to Saturday, from €25; Segway tours (including picnic and winery visit), €100; balloon flights available at weekends and during holidays (weather dependent), €180pp (€900 for a private flight).
Bodegas Monje, Tenerife
Underwater tasting… really
In the Canary Islands, Bodegas Monje does everything it possibly can to make wine and food interesting – and if you’re ever on this volcanic island it should be a must-visit.
Food-wise, as well as great brunches and lunches, there are wine and tapas matching sessions, while aspiring chefs (including children) can learn how to make the famous local ‘mojo’ sauces. Creatives can learn to dye fabrics with natural materials such as flowers and grapes. Also on offer are helicopter tours round the island, a night-time picnic and tasting, and (most bizarrely of all) an underwater wine tasting. You’ll need to be able to dive (obviously), but heading down into an underwater tasting room in the Atlantic to try the ‘sea-aged wines’ in situ is weirdly wonderful. Open year round, with tours and tastings from €12; wine and tapas pairing sessions from €19; underwater wine-tasting experience, from €675; helicopter tours from €945.
Quinta do Vallado, Douro
Sail/canoe Port country
The Douro is one of the most beautiful parts of the wine world, so even non-wine enthusiasts should be happy to spend some time here. Quinta do Vallado’s bijou hotel, just outside Regua, has a good restaurant, a pool and lots of activities that make the most of the region’s natural beauty. There are walking trails, picnics and Jeep tours in the vineyards. For this writer, however, the best way to capture the Douro is from the river, with the famous whitewashed terraces stretching up the steep arid slopes on either side of you. A Vallado-organised boat tour on the river looks fun; the chance to self-navigate on a canoe down the smaller Corgo river, even better. Contact via the website for more details.
Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau
Monks, Riesling and Big Sean
This is a visit that will interest fans of German Riesling (ie, 99% of Decanter readers) and fans of Sean Connery (ie, 99% of people ever). Why? Because as well as hosting various wine-related visits and activities (plus shop), the 900-year-old abbey was also the setting for the film of Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose. The abbey offers these various elements separately, but it’s more fun when it combines them. The chance to stroll the cloisters with a glass of wine accompanied by live Gregorian chants or taste and tour by candlelight make for a uniquely atmospheric experience. Open year round, with monastery tours from €17.50; wine tastings and tours from €34.50.