You’d be forgiven for thinking that wine tourism would centre on the world’s most celebrated winemaking regions—but you’d be wrong. Visitors travelling to the Médoc in Bordeaux drive past the locked gates of legendary properties in Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux, disappointed to find that there is little for them to see or experience there. Concerned about this situation, Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Château Lynch-Bages, built the faux village, Bages—a town square complete with tabac, boulangerie and bistro where you can order wines from his many properties. Designed to give tourists a feel for local life and a place to sample local produce, it ends up creating an uncanny feeling, as if one was on a stage set. At the other end of the scale, the prosperous town of Saint-Émilion is bristling with overpriced wine shops, whose proprietors try to lure you in to buy, not to taste, their wares—not an ideal location for preserving the romance of wine.
California is a major player in wine tourism, which has been vital for Napa Valley and Sonoma. Yet even here, the experience can feel a little forced. California was making good wine long before the rest of the world knew it. So, gamely, the properties set out to promote and welcome people to their wine culture through organised tours and tasting spaces. You pay a fee, taste selected wines while being told what you should think of them and exit through the gift shop. Such organised marketing does not always translate into a good visitor experience.
For that you must venture further afield. The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia was recently voted the second best wine region to visit in a USA Today poll (it was beaten by Alentejo in Portugal). The scenery is spectacular but the wines are little known among the public. This is part of a new phenomenon in the wine world, celebrating high-quality wines from small-scale producers in their local surroundings.
A good example is to be found on the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario, whose pretty wineries overlook the lake towards Toronto. The best have limited production but a dedicated following of visitors become subscribers to the new releases. Among these are Thirty Bench, whose elegant tasting room is situated among the well-tended vines growing everything from Cabernet Franc and Merlot to Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Their 2010 Small Lot Benchmark Red, a Bordeaux blend, is a long-keeper, showing ripe fruit and well-managed tannins. But you are unlikely to find it outside Ontario, let alone Canada. Just up the road you will find Tawse Winery, where a glass wall in the tasting room overlooks the large steel fermentation tanks. Tawse, too, produces some elegant, finely made reds and whites, but the prize is their ice wine, tasting of rhubarb and cream; the production is tiny.
Even more remote is the Brazilian winery of Villa Francioni in the high mountains of Santa Caterina. This state of the art winery was built with tourists in mind. They are channelled towards the tasting room, catching glimpses of the production through glass panels in the brickwork. On the walls hang paintings by Juarez Machado, representing each the five senses. The 2009 Francesco—an astonishing blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvingnon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah—is the best red I have tasted from Brazil: bright fruit and good concentration, a hint of cassis and gentle menthol notes. I had been on the hunt for their Chardonnay for some time and persuaded them to let me have the last bottle of their tiny 2013 production. I’m keeping it safe until it’s ready to drink.
These are impressive and deeply satisfying wines—but if you want to taste them, you will have to make the pilgrimage.