The Gracious Grape

Six top wine destinations to discover and explore in Europe.

Six top wine destinations to discover and explore in Europe.

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Drinking good wine at dinner is a pleasure many of us enjoy regularly, but if you consider yourself a wine enthusiast, tasting some fine vintage at a winery in southern Europe is a must-try. You can learn about the various types of wine and the technologies involved in making them – or just get a little tipsy in beautiful surroundings.

Burgundy, France

“O happy Burgundy which merits being called the mother of men since she furnishes from her mammaries such a good milk.” Such wrote Erasmus in 1522 about Burgundy in Central France, and for good reason. Home to the famous burgundies, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Burgundy vineyards produce some of the most expensive wines in the world, including those of Domaine Leroy, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and Domaine Leflaive. But Burgundy is not only a drinker’s paradise, the region also boats some magnificent architecture and a rich cultural history, as evidenced by the proliferation of old castles and several well-preserved Roman churches. Food lovers will also love this region for its culinary heritage, which produced several now globally famous dishes such as Boeuf Bourguignon, Coq au Vin and Escargots a la Bourgogne. Don’t want to miss anything? Take one of the many gourmet tours being offered in the region and visit a selection of vineyards and local eateries for an authentic and supremely satisfactory experience.

Bordeaux, France

Often considered the wine capital of France, Bordeaux will sweep you off your feet, perhaps literally. With more than 120,000 hectares of vineyards, this is the largest wine growing area in France; the most widely grown grape varieties are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In Bordeaux city, the newly renovated wet docks offer the perfect spot to sit and enjoy the local wines while watching the world go by. The city also features an excellent art and music scene – make sure to visit the Musee D’Art Contemporain – due to its lively student scene. Other highlights include Gambetta Square, often referred to as Little Paris for its many cafes, art shops, and lively bars, and La Victoire, popular for its student life and historical landmarks. As in Burgundy, several companies arrange local wine tours and wine tasting trips, either for larger groups or customised tours with a private driver and personal guide.

Champagne, France

The word champagne is now synonymous with any white wine with bubbles, yet strictly speaking it is only the wine produced from grapes grown in this part of northern France that can officially bear the name. The production of Champagne adheres to the rule of secondary fermentation in the bottle, giving the wine the heady bubbles. Having initially derived its special status from the French nobility, some critics argue the popularity – and price tag – of champagne today can be ascribed to some rather efficient publicity stunts on behalf of the producers back in the 18th, 19th and 20th century, rather than the actual quality or taste of the wine. Whether you agree or not, there is no questioning the special role played by champagne at special occasions such as weddings, anniversaries, or any excuse for celebration. Even if Champagne is not your thing, the province still has lots to offer such as idyllic its countryside, speckled with ancient castles and medieval churches.

Tuscany, Italy

Birthplace of the renaissance and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, Tuscany has so more to offer than leaning towers and naked Davids. The region’s wines are among the most notable in the world, and include the popular dessert wine, Vin Santo. Although Tuscany has a long, proud history of wine production and many of the vineyards adhere to centuries old traditions, Tuscany has in recent years embraced more experimental wines, both pure and blended, using new technologies and grape combinations. Many wines are made with grape varieties that are unique to one small area, with a certain type of soil and micro climate making Tuscany’s wines interesting and one-of-a-kind. Of course, you can’t mention Tuscany without mentioning Florence and the city does demand a visit on any trip to the region. Enjoying enormous significance for the spiritual, historical and cultural history of Europe, the city has plenty to offer in way of sightseeing, shopping and culinary excellence. Sit down with a plate of cured meats and local cheese and enjoy one of the many unique wines in their picturesque natural habitat.

Veneto, Italy

Protected from the harsh climate by the Alps, Veneto’s clement weather makes it perfect for the harvesting of white grape varieties such as Garganega, with is used in production of Soave wines. The famous Amarone is also produced in Veneto, on the Adriatic coast and in valleys where the climate is slightly warmer. Visiting Veneto without visiting Venice is like visiting Tuscany without visiting Florence. The city famous for its many canals and houses built on stilts has a lot more to offer than fine wine and food. The Doge’s Palace is where Casanova was jailed for “grave faults committed in public outrages against the holy religion”. The Rialto market comprises numerous small shops and restaurants, as well as the local market where farmers sell their fresh produce. Although heavily touristed, the Piazza San Marco is also worth a visit for the atmosphere and for the experience, despite having to pay seven euros for an espresso.

Rioja, Spain

Not limiting itself to grapes only harvested in La Rioja region, Rioja wine is also commonly derived from grapes grown in parts of Navarre and Alava in the Basque Country. Although wine has been produced in this region for more than a thousand years, this region now has its fare share of innovators as well as traditionalists and new methods and techniques for producing wine have sprung up in recent years. The Rioja region is divided into three main areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja, with Rioja Alta probably the best-known. Rather interestingly, Rioja is home to some very distinctive wineries designed by world famous architects. Such wineries include the Bodegas Ysios, with its arched roof designed by architect Santiago Calatrava who also built the Science Museum in Valencia; Bodegas Julian Chivite designed by Rafael Moneo of the Atocha Stadium on Madrid; and Marqués de Riscal, Frank Gehry’s highly original take on a winery.

The Incredible Grape

  • About 20 million bottles of wine are produced around the world each year
  • The most expensive white wine ever sold was purchased last year by Christian Vanneque for US$117,000. The 1811 bottle of Chateau d’Yquem was bought not for investment but for drinking, said Vanneque, a former sommelier at the famous La Tour d’Argent in Paris. He will display the bottle at SIP wine bar in Bali.
  • The most expensive red wine in the world is greatly disputed, but many agree that it is the 1787 Chateau Lafitte for which Malcolm Forbes, publisher of the Forbes Magazine paid US$160,000 at an auction in 1985. In today’s money that’s around US$315,000.
  • As Champagne is fermanted in bottles, the shape and volume of the bottle is important to the wine’s taste. Fermenting bottles usually come in two sizes, the standard 750 millilitres and the 1.5 litres magnum bottle. The magnums are thought to be of higher quality due to the lower amount of oxygen in the bottle and the volume to surface ratio favours the creation of bubbles.
  • Wine corks started becoming standard use in the mid 17th century. Until then, oil-soaked cloth was stuffed into the neck of the bottle. It wasn’t until the mid-90s plastic stoppers and screw caps become more common.
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