Wine without travel is like a foreign film without the subtitles: you can get the gist and there are moments of true enjoyment and appreciation, but it doesn’t really make sense.
With James jetting off to Canada, I started reminiscing about my own wine adventures and how special those memories are to me. There’s something really wonderful about tasting wines whilst surrounded by the environment that made them what they are.
Sure, you can read the back of a label and I’m sure it will give you a lovely description of the vineyard’s character. But the shape of the land, the composition of the soil, the strength of the sun, the direction of the wind… you can actually experience each element in person if you venture to the vineyard itself.
All of the factors above, and more, have a direct impact on what you can see, smell and taste in your glass. By tasting a wine at the cellar door, you forge a much longer lasting memory of that wine – and it’ll usually be a memory that you treasure for years to come.
Another significant thing to note about wine travel is that you will be able to taste wines that are only available locally. This is particularly true of newer vineyards that are either still building their reputations or simply produce very small batches – the export costs in these instances would not necessarily be justified. Even the larger, more established vineyards will have blends and vintages that are only available at the cellar door because of lower yields.
For me, travelling around a wine region was what pushed me off the fence and firmly onto the side of wine fanaticism. I went from enjoying wines at face value and not necessarily thinking too much about what I was drinking – other than knowing that I was a big fan of Rioja and dry whites – to really engaging with tasting properly.
Writing this blog with James, whose knowledge of Old World wine is much stronger than mine, has been really eye opening. For me, my education began in the New World.
I found my turning point in Marlborough, New Zealand, 2014. I could write pages about my love for this place but I’ll just give you a little taste for now – I’m guessing you’ll probably want to do something with your bank holiday Monday.
Now, first of all, I absolutely do not assume that everyone reading this will have the ability to just jet off to the Southern Hemisphere. It was a big trip to save for and embark upon and, if I’m completely honest, it’s probably the main reason that I’m still paying off my graduate overdraft today… (huge thanks to NatWest for their low fees and ill advised trust in my ability to manage my own finances).
If you’re in the UK, you don’t need to travel very far at all to experience some of the best wine regions in the world. With Europe on our doorstep and the increasing number of brilliant British vineyards, planning a trip needn’t break the bank.
It just so happens that my first proper encounter took place in NZ almost exactly 3 years ago; a place that I have been pining for ever since. To start us off, here are some basic facts about Kiwi viniculture’s young history.
Where Old World wine history dates all the way back to c. 4100 BC (in Armenia), New Zealand’s relationship with wine began tentatively in the late 19th century and it wasn’t until the 1970s that their vineyards really started to thrive. In the 1980s, they developed a reputation for producing a distinctive style of Sauvignon blanc, particularly in the cooler climate of the South Island but with many successful vines in the northerly parts of the country.
Since then there’s been a surge in the growing of Burgundy grapes, namely Pinot noir and Chardonnay in the south, and even Rhône varietals, such as Syrah, in the warmer climates of Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island on the North Island.
After travelling solo around Australia for a few months, it was such a treat to meet my friend Angus at Christchurch airport in New Zealand. We were about to set off on a 2500km road trip around the South Island in a pretty gigantic camper van, not knowing that we’d end up accidentally chasing a cyclone.
The calm before the storm was full of wine.
Before our trip to Marlborough, we stayed with Angus’s parents at their house in Kaikoura after a dark, rainy drive from Christchurch. Before bed, we talked for a good few hours over a couple of bottles of great wine – it was the perfect precursor to the trip ahead and I was filled with excitement on hearing John and Sandra enthuse about the amazing country and the wines it produces.
Our first stop was Yealands Estate‘s cellar door in Seddon, just south of Blenheim. Peter Yealands is a name that you may well have seen on the supermarket shelves and, if you’ve had the pleasure of trying their Sauvignon blanc or Pinot gris, you’ll know that they’re bloody good at what they do.
Their winery is CarboNZeroCertTM accredited and was actually the first winery in the world to be recognised as such from its inception in 2008. The main building was bursting with information about their process and products, and there was a palpable feeling of pride exuded by every member of staff we met.
We tasted a range of their wines, from an expressive Single Estate Pinot gris to a PGR (Pinot Gewurztraminer Riesling) and even a Winemaker’s Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir. I can buy Yealands wines in the UK shops, but there’s no way I’d be able to choose from the variety that was open to me on that visit.
We were guided through the relationship between the land and the wines they produce. I learned that exposure to stronger winds can cause the grapes to grow with thicker, more protective skins, in turn creating more acidity in the finished wine; the same grape, grown in a less exposed area would produce a completely different balance of flavour. We heard about the attention to detail when it comes to planting the vines and ensuring that they are straight, negotiating the curvature of the land.
The whole experience was enhanced by the fact that I could literally walk out of that building, cross the road and – within a minute – I was actually strolling amongst the vines themselves.
All of these factors are now memories that are a part of my history. Every time I see a bottle of Peter Yealands, I feel a genuine little jolt of happiness. In an instant, I remember how thrilled I was to be at that cellar door, learning, tasting and developing my palate with wonderful friends.
If I buy that bottle, I extend that memory by experiencing it again with whoever I might be sharing it with. The sensations of taste and smell are known to be heavily related to memory function, which makes drinking a glass of wine a very transporting experience anyway – if you’ve actually visited the vineyard, that transportation is understandably even stronger.
For those of you reading who might be waiting for a lightbulb moment when it comes to wine, I really do think that taking a trip to a vineyard might just provide you with the electricity that you’re looking for. If you’re looking for something a little closer to home try visiting Ridgeview or Sedlescome in Sussex, Camel Valley in Cornwall, or Holmfirth Vineyard near Huddersfield. Alternatively, you could make a small holiday out of it and take a trip across the Channel to unlock the boundless vineyards of France.
Wherever you choose to go, it’s time to switch those subtitles on and take your appreciation of wine to a whole new level with a trip you’ll never forget.
P.S. Apart from anything, vineyards are often located in some of the most picturesque areas a country has to offer. Great for the soul, even if your liver ends up taking a bashing.