Which regions or countries would you associate with wine tours and tastings? France or Spain? Argentina or New Zealand? Many more areas are now opening up their vineyards to tourists and some might be surprising.
Winegrowers have seen success with the climate of Puerto Rico recently, while Canada hosts many vineyards in Ontario. Keri Jones spoke with two wine experts who recommend wine tours around their respective regions – Texas and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Sarah May Grunwald is a Californian who splits her time between Italy, where she is a professor of wine, and Georgia, where she’s become the wine ambassador for this country of three and a half million people.
“Georgia is a very special country because it’s the oldest wine producing nation in the world. Their slogan is ‘the birthplace of wine,’” Sarah May told me proudly when I met her in London. And that’s not just a marketing line. “Archaeological evidence from pieces of clay wine vessels dating back 8,000 years backs up this claim.”
The wine process in Georgia is very different. Wine is made in a kveri – a thick, egg-shaped pot, which is buried in the ground. As the bottom is tapered, during the process the impurities sink to the bottom. “It’s a very special process and the wine producer in Georgia would not say ‘I make wine’. That is considered vulgar. They say ‘I give birth to wine,’” says Sarah May.
The country is blessed with over 500 grape varieties, which are used to produce a distinctive drink. “You need to develop your own vocabulary for wine. The first time I drank Georgian wine was at a wine conference in Turkey. I thought I had no words for this wine. It was new to me as a Westerner and I wanted to know more. It was the moment of tasting the wine that led me to Georgia,” Sarah May says. The wine I tried was an amber wine, but although it is classed as a white wine it was almost the colour of Lucozade. It tasted Christmassy, like dried fruit or sultanas.
“What I love about visiting Georgia and drinking the wine is that there is a lack of snobbery,” Sarah May told me as I sipped. “Nobody acts better than you when drinking wine. It’s something that’s supposed to be social and bring people together rather than separate people into categories. Georgians drink wine to be social and 10% of wine production would traditionally have gone to the Orthodox Church.”
Georgian wine was traded because the country was accessible – it lies on the Black Sea and the ancient route between China and the Mediterranean. You can still see some of those influences in its food today. One of the most popular dishes is a type of dumpling.
“They look like something you would see in China. They are a remnant of the Silk Road. That’s how the wine culture spread,” says Sarah May. “Another specialty is a really salty bread made with a haloumi-type cheese called khachapuri. The food isn’t necessarily hot or spicy but the Georgians use a lot of aromatic herbs,” she adds.
Sarah May offers a number of guided food and wine tours including a three-day Immersion Into Wine culture trip. That takes in two regions where you will tour a number of wineries and monasteries and meet the winemaking monks. Find out more at tastegeorgia.co.
You can’t fly direct from the UK to Georgia’s capital Tblisi but you can get there from Glasgow, Manchester or London and change in Istanbul. One-way fares from Gatwick are as low as £86 with Pegasus.
You probably won’t have seen Texan wine on sale. 90% of production is consumed locally. The Hill Country area of the Lone Star State is home to 51 vineyards set across 15,000 square miles.
“The impression I had of Texas was gleaned from television programmes like Dallas,” I told January Weiss, Executive Director of Texas Hill Country Wineries. “I’ve always seen it as a place where there’s lots of barbecuing, eating ribs and drinking beer. Texas is not synonymous with wine to us. Is it different if you are Texan?” I asked.
“It is,” she replied. “The Texan wine industry has been around forever but it came back and became big in the 1970s. Over the last 20 years the winery numbers have been growing and the vineyard acreage has increased. The wine is getting better. It’s starting to come into its own.”
January says that the Bordeaux and Mediterranean varietals grow well in the Hill Country. Grenache and Pinot Grigio do well in some places but all the grapes have to contend with the heat, humidity and the bugs and insects. In other areas, January says there are some pockets where Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel also grow well.
Of course, you don’t need to know about the grapes to embark on a tasting tour. “We do self-guided wine trails, so the ticket you buy from us gives a complimentary tasting at each of the wineries. You can take your time and make your own schedule. You could even take a limousine or book a 14-passenger van. Alternatively, Hill Country Bike and Wine rent cycles and you can ride between wineries,” she says.
I pointed out that she represents somewhere called Hill Country and that didn’t sound good for cycling. But January told me they have mapped a circuit that avoids the steepest rides. “We found some routes which keep you off as many hills as possible and you’ll stay off the main highway too.”
You can find out more at texaswinetrail.com. There are daily flights on the 11-hour route from London Heathrow to Austin with Finnair and British Airways.