Touring and tasting your way through the vineyards of Europe is one of the highlights for any visitor to the continent. You only need to glance through the top ranked activities on TripAdvisor or Winerist to realise just how potent a tourist magnet anything wine or vineyard related is! After all, a glass of wine screams holiday and relaxation, especially in the picture perfect settings some European vineyards call home.
Yet, thanks to the rise of the budget airline (and those sneaky extra fees incurred for checked luggage), along with a wad of misinformation about just how much wine you can take home with you on a plane, it’s perhaps more rare that any wine is purchased directly at the vineyard. Which is a real shame, since there is more than one good reason to buy more at the cellar door. In fact, here at Lazenne we’ve come up with the five best!
Access to hard to find wines
In France alone there are over 300 AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or Controlled Designation of Origin), some counting just one or two producers (Palette in Provence) to hundreds (the simple Bordeaux AOC). Considering the scope, it’s easy to imagine how many of these wines don’t leave their region of origin. I lead wine tours through the Bellet AOC in the hills of Nice, one of France’s oldest and smallest appellations, boasting only eleven vineyards. With such a small production, the wineries can little keep up with the local demand, let alone consider opening up export markets. For most people, therefore, purchasing direct is the only access they have to wines which are simply not available in their home country.
Access to a guaranteed provenance
There are so many factors which can have a negative effect on wine as it’s shipped around the world. Correct storage conditions? Exposure to sun and heat will give a wine that highly desirable ‘stale’ taste, just one of a whole load of problems which can affect the bottle of wine between leaving a vineyard in, say, Italy and landing on your table in, say, Arizona. Yet, if you were to buy direct at said vineyard in Italy, you’ve seen firsthand the exact storage conditions of the wine. You can’t beat that when it comes to provenance.
Access to special vintages or limited wines
Often when you visit a vineyard you’ll be treated to a taste of their special cuvées which are typically available in such small quantities that even their distribution network doesn’t have access to it … but you do! And, if you like the wines you taste, it never hurts to ask if the vineyard has any ‘library’ vintages they are selling at the cellar door. These older vintages will have been cellared in perfect conditions (see above) and often the prices haven’t been adjusted to reflect actual market values. What’s not to love?
Avoiding the middle man (or men)
The USA is renowned for its complicated three tier system when it comes to importing wine. By that, it means your wine passes through three behind the scenes levels before it even reaches you, the consumer. Each of these tiers – the producers, the wholesalers and the retailers – obviously make a cut as they sell the wine on, this isn’t a non-profit industry after all! By buying direct at the source, you’re cutting out the middle men, especially when the Euro – Dollar / Pound exchange rate is so favourable!
Avoiding import taxes
Like tobacco, alcohol is one consumable that governments love to tax. Some countries pay almost the price of the bottle again in import taxes and duties, if not more. Never fear! For many countries, you have a more generous allowance than you think to bring back wine on the plane or train for personal consumption, and even if, at worse, you have some duty to pay to your friendly customs officer at the airport consider it a well worth expense. To put it another way, if you are buying a bottle of French or Italian wine form a store in you home country, the same duty and taxes are already part of the cost of that bottle. We all wish we could live in a land where wine is cheaper than water, but unfortunately that's not the case for most of us.
If you are considering taking some wine back with you on the airplane from your next wine trip our wine check luggage and other wine travel products come in oh so handy!
Learn more with our Flying with Wine and Alcohol 101 guide!
Chrissie McClatchie is an Australian freelance writer and wine specialist who has been living in France since 2008. You can follow her on Twitter @RivieraGrape as she explores the wines of the French Riviera and Italy's Liguria.
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.