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Today the noble art of wine making is practically a worldwide phenomenon. Pioneering vintners, far from the traditional centres of wine making have driven innovation which has produced spectacular successes. Yet despite this, the heritage and romance of the European vineyard tradition has a seductive allure that is hard to resist.
The world’s oldest known winery, complete with wine press and fermentation vats is actually in Armenia and dates from around 4100 BC, but it’s to countries further west that a wine lover’s attentions are invariably drawn: the fabled vineyards of France, Italy and Spain.
The complexity and scale of the wine industry in Europe has reached ‘wine lake’ proportions, with a bewildering array of varieties and factory scale processing that can appear daunting. France for instance produces 7–8 billion bottles a year, and Italy produces even more. Although if numbers impress you consider that Spain has the most land under the vine with a astounding 2.9 million acres devoted to wine production.
With numbers like this, the trick to bringing a wine holiday down to scale is to look at more than just the wine – consider the whole environment, which the French call the ‘terroir’. The climate and the land, married to the hard-earned skills of the vintner, will paint a picture of the holiday that’s just right for you.
If the dreamy hills of Tuscany beckon consider the enticing aroma of Sangiovese. It’s an excellent wine in its own right but it could also open the door to the exciting ‘Super-Tuscans’. This term describes any Tuscan red wine that does not adhere to traditional blending laws – by adding in ‘unsanctioned’ varieties sometimes richer, more complex wines are developed.
Most agree that the first of this breed was Sassicaia. This was the creation of marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta who planted Cabernet Sauvignon at his Tenuta San Guido estate back in 1944. Pick up a bottle for yourself, add produce from the local market and you’re blending food and wine they way the locals do. All you need now is an afternoon ‘poolside’ at your villa in the hills.
In France there’s Bordeaux’s eponymous Chateau Lafite-Rothschild waiting to welcome your credit card. The prices may be eye watering, but spare a thought for the original custodian of this fine vineyard; the marquis de Ségur knew fame, fortune and even Thomas Jefferson before eventually meeting Madame Guillotine.
The closest town to the estate is Pauillac, and it’s a wonderful place to try that wine/ food match up that the experts are always talking about. There are several good restaurants to choose from, but if you’re looking for a venerable, honeyed stone building lapped by vineyards, go to Chateau Cordeillan Bages. The knowledgeable staff will pair an inexhaustible cellar of wines to your meal and leave you feeling like aristocracy – heady, not headless.
There isn’t enough space here to discuss even a fraction of the delights awaiting a wine lover in Europe. Winemaking is prone to so many variables that it’s impossible to recommend one region over another, which is why if you’re in Europe, you should simply search out the more obscure wines that are hard to find in New Zealand, and then bring some home for your friends.
Discovering to your delight that a previously unheard of wine is a spectacular drop shouldn't come as a surprise. Often local wines, that seldom make it to international markets, have been developed to perfectly compliment the local cuisine. So by all means explore idyllic Burgundy, but take a couple of days to search out Savagnin wine from the Jura, it's a nutty wine that perfectly compliments a rustic poultry dish garnished with mushrooms gathered in alpine forests.
Illustrious Bordeaux is home to some of the most highly regarded vineyards in the world. So treat yourself to Chateau Latour but make sure you also drive down to the Basque region for your first taste of a spirited Txakoli. Still in Spain looking for hidden treasures? Try Mencia, either in Ribeira Sacra, where it's often produced in a straightforward and un-oaked style for clean and precise flavors, or in Bierzo where the same variety is usually meaty, exotic, and brooding.
Your journey into Spain has also brought you to the doorstep of world famous Rioja, so it makes complete sense sample one of Spain's standout wines. The area has more than 500 wineries to choose from and a hot-air balloon tour over them with wonderful mountain vistas shouldn't be missed.
Lots of variety for wildly different tastes, that's the joy of discovery in wine. Take Italy, a country boasting more than a million vineyards growing over 800 different types of grape. With such an abundance of varieties the country is perfect for an oenological adventure, from the refined north to the southern tip of Europe where a cherry-scented Sicilian Frappato evokes the exoticism of the east.
Explore Europe's vineyards and bring back your own discoveries, you never know, it could be a New Zealand first.
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