Vineyards and wineries, one of the best ways to travel a country
Vineyards and wineries are peculiar windows into a country’s culture, history, architecture, and landscape.
Whether you are traveling nationally or internationally and you want to learn something, not only new but special, about a place, head towards its vineyards and wineries. They offer an unusual angle into the place’s identity.
Identity is extremely multifaceted so I think it is always exciting to seek an experience that combines more than one aspect together. Visiting a vineyard or a winery allows you to immerse yourself in the landscape; learn about history especially the regional one; see good architecture; support local businesses; and enjoy good wine, maybe even paired to local food. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
The main difference between a vineyard and a winery is that the second one is licensed to produce the wine on site. Both are fabulous places, but the winery has in addition the winemaking element, very important.
A contemporary but emerging trend is the ‘urban winery’, a winemaking business located within city limits but that doesn’t grow its grapes, doesn’t own land at all.
I’ll focus my attention on wineries in the traditional sense, estates oftentimes away from the major roads crossing the countryside, sites that you need to look for to arrive at.
When speaking of wine, countries such as Italy, France, Spain, or the United States, South Africa, and Australia, come to mind. But what about Argentina, New Zealand, and even Japan and the United Kingdom? That’s right, there are quite the many countries that, although don’t top the list of best producers or best wines, are ready to offer you a unique experience with their wineries.
Japan winemaking, for example, is somewhat recent (700s AD or later) but they are known to have a keen eye on detail, so it’ worth the try. And I know for a fact that the United Kingdom is ramping its output up in quality and quantity of sparkling wine. So do your research, make a list, and head out.
The few important elements to consider when to narrow down a winery to visit are: history; location as in, immersion in the natural landscape; and architecture of the building because although usually the oldest the winery the more unique it is, there are some recent ones that have focused on the quality of spaces along with quality of wines. Newer ones might lack historical depth but are more likely to give you insights of contemporary-generations trends, which is still part of a country’s identity.
The collection and hand-down of knowledge is probably the most distinctive feature that makes us humans. The most important and effective way is in written form, but a building with its construction method, architectural style, artistic decorations, and involvement in historic events is a bearer of knowledge too. The artifact holds knowledge for all to absorb. If made in front of a tasty glass of wine, all the better.
The history of wineries is dependent on the history of wine, but I’m not going to focus on that (we don’t have years available, do we). I’ll mention only the important points. Such as, winemaking has been supposedly around since 11,000 BC (the middle Neolithic age) in the region between Israel and Georgia and Azerbaijan, with proven archaeological records of wine fermentation in China and Georgia in 6,000 BC.
And the oldest winery as we now intend it? It has been found in the Areni-1 cave complex overlooking the Arpa River in Armenia. Carbon-dating places it at 4,100–4,000 BC and it was a multicomponent ritual and settlement site.
How is that for heritage?
But these are archaeological finds and as cool as they are, the purpose of this article is to focus on still-functioning wineries. Well, the oldest winery still in operation is the Château de Goulaine, near Nantes in France, from circa 1,000 AD. Close second and third are the German Schloss Johanisberg from 1,100 AD near Frankfurt, and the Italian Barone Ricasoli from 1,141, in Tuscany near Siena.
Not only the history of a winery itself — how it was started, family traditions, and more — can be interesting, but wineries are collectors of broader historical events, some of which might be on the sidelines of books, but important nonetheless.
For example, the French wine blight of 1893 was caused by an aphid imported from the Americas on steamships, the introduction of which shortened the journey so much that the aphid survived it and spread in the old continent. 40% of vines and vineyards were infected and lost. Many solved the issue by grafting the french vines on resistant American-imported roots, but this caused controversy in the French winemaking industry which continues today.
And what about the aforementioned Ricasoli? They are based in the Castle of Brolio which has been in the middle of the historic Florence-Siena conflict, among other events. The Ricasoli have been producing wine for centuries and Baron Bettino Ricasoli, twice prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy, in 1840 came up with the Chianti formula which was later codified by DOCG regulations.
When choosing the location for a winery, pick one a bit inside the countryside, not too close to cities or towns. Italy is densely populated so you won’t be driving long either way, but you want those rolling hills dotted by a church, a citadel, or a hamlet in your view.
The trip to your destination will be just as educational and exciting as the port of call. You’ll pass historic towns, ancient forests, or fables landscaped farmland. You’ll see the native trees, seasonal flowers, or landscape style specific to the place you’re at. This changes considerably even within the same country.
The vast majority of wineries are in the countryside for the obvious reason that they were built next to the vineyard. Historic properties are not necessarily vast, such as many Italian ones which are centuries old but have a somewhat small property. Either way, some wineries are in a truly stunning natural setting and have been landscaped and cured to enhance the experience of the visitor and the views of the surrounding land.
Vines can grow just about anywhere — as mentioned, their origin is the stark land between the Middle East up to the Caucasus. Yet, in order to grow quality grapes, and specific grapes as per the winemaker’s plans, one needs various ideal, or sought for, factors for the plant. Environmental conditions, especially for soil and climate, are key but other important ones are farming practises and crop’s habitat, for example. Together, these factors are given a character, which is called terroir in the enological world.
Luckily, great terroir conditions are commonly found on the hill slopes with mild Mediterranean weather. Tuscany popped into everyone’s mind as an example. Tall poplars lining entrance roads undulating along the gentle hills seem out of a postcard, and yet are seen in regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont in Italy, or others in France, for example.
Although a historic winery, with centuries old building, cellars, and setting, is very unlikely to not look great, it’s understandable that a person might look for cutting-edge contemporary architecture, or a specific element of interest, such as the cellar.
Different architectures might also affect the demographics of visitors. So a modern tasting room will attract younger generations, and you’ll get a sense of their trends, while an old and musty cellar is more likely to attract older people, with their own stories and point of views.
Castles over vineyards is not only a Romance setting. They are somewhat common in Germany too, such as in the historic Ortenau region, in the south-west of the country. Along the Rhine and with a warm and sunny climate, the vineyards are in the narrow strip between the Black Forest and the river’s valley. Producers are small and wine is consumed locally. One more reason to go and explore all of it.
The Bodegas Ysios, Rioja, Spain completed in 2001 by famed architect Santiago Calatrava, is a good example of quality new architecture. The new winery didn’t try to look historic, rightly so, and embraced a contemporary and daring look. The undulating and sectioning roofline is a point of contact between the rigid and parallel vines’ lines and the outline of the mountains on the backdrop. The facade ochre and grey colors also recall those around the building, putting together the browns and ochres from the grounds and the wood, with the grey and at times light-blue of the metal roof.
Good architecture makes for a good experience. Tasting rooms can be intimate but shouldn’t be cramped. Terraces should offer views of the landscape without imposing sterile artificial lines to outside viewers. And interior spaces can be either elegant or informal, but shouldn’t be unfinished or sloppy.
“Life is too short to drink bad wine.” — Johann Goethe
All of the above aspects are great either way, but we do want to have some great wine as well. Once you’ve found a list of wineries that you’d like to visit, check their wine list. That’s a whole research in itself, but you’ll always find several options to fill your day — and your glass.
There are way too many fantastic wineries around the world to make an appropriate ‘best of’ list here. I’ll mention some that I either visited myself, or that people I personally know visited, just to offer some examples of what I’m talking about.
Mentioning Chianti again, the new and vast spaces for Marchesi Antonori is quite the sight. Set in the beautiful Tuscan countryside, they are hidden underground, visible from outside only by two “cuts” in the hillside with vine rows on top. This is in stark contrast with the interior, a timber-colored volume making evident it’s modern design and engineering. Marchesi Antinori, the world’s 10th oldest family-owned wine company having started in 1385, is also Italy’s biggest wine company and evidently they like to combine traditional winemaking with cutting-edge architecture for their visitors. The design included non-stop glazing along the openings to allow wide-range views.
If you prefer history and cultural heritage, try the Château de Pitray east of Bordeaux. Found between patches of trees and rows of vines, this French castle is from the 15th century and has been owned by few families since. It has been built in Renaissance, or neo-Gothic, style favored by famed architect and theorist Viollet-e-Duc. The property sits within the Saint Émilion wine area, within the broader Bordeaux area. Speaking of a lovely car ride.
Oregon is known worldwide for its Pinot Noirs. I’ve been to quite a few wineries up there. They are definitely smaller than the Californian estates yet their wines are not their second. Being smaller, they focus on quality (kind of have to, too). Oregon has a lush and beautiful landscape and the wine region sits on gentle rolling hills carpeted in green. They are easily reachable from the main cities, especially Portland.
Don’t forget that even in a historic setting with views over valleys and old fortifications, there are affordable places if (ok maybe they’re rare, but you should look out for them). An example is Torrechiara near Parma, Italy. The little-known winemakers will give you a free tasting in their cellars, simply a room under their house, in the old village, a stone-throws away from the 15th-century fairy-tale Castle of Torrechiara, which overlooks their vineyards growing just at its base.
Doing some research before heading out is key. You might have three wineries clustered together, yet have completely different experiences at all three of them. Perhaps one won’t have the ideal mix of history-location-wine, but aim for the best ones.