Just picture it: you’re sitting at a table nestled between two rows of grapevines, swirling a polished glass between your fingers and holding it up in the sunlight. A helpful winemaker is talking about varietals, oak aging, terroir before finally inviting you to take a sip of his life’s work. You clink glasses with your neighbor, drink, sigh in contentment and bask in this moment of pure relaxation.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Wine tasting is, without a doubt, one of the most relaxing adventures a traveler can experience. There are, however, some important things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your gustatory journey.
It’s important to understand the region you plan to explore. From the Willamette Valley, to Napa Valley, to the quirky Hill Country of Texas and across the pond to the historic regions of Provence and Tuscany you really can’t go wrong. With these tips, you’ll be able to plan your dream trip to wine country.
Planning ahead is key to ensuring your wine tasting trip goes off without a hitch. First, you want to make sure you have a good sense of what you’re going to be tasting. If you’ve never tried steak before and then going in for an $80 filet mignon wouldn’t be wise—it’s all about acclimating your palate to the grapes and the wines you’re going to experience first hand. Whether you’re going to be tasting the subtle, earthy Pinot Noirs of Willamette Valley; the toasted, oaky Chardonnays of Napa Valley; or the mineral-driven Rosés of Provence, it’s helpful to know what to expect. Remember, there’s no such thing as a bad palate—just an inexperienced one. If you’re headed to Tuscany and have never had a Chianti before, grab a few bottles at your local grocery store in the week or two before your trip. Doing your homework has never been more fun.
Speaking of homework, it’s worth your while to leaf through a book or map of the area you’re about to visit. Not only will it give you a background on the varietals—i.e., specific types of grapes—you’ll also get a sense of how you want to structure your trip. Do you want to visit some wineries in the south and then proceed northward, or vice-versa? There’s nothing fun about zigzagging all over when you could do it at a much more leisurely pace. If you need recommendations for certain wineries, check the zone’s Chamber of Commerce or tourism website. Whether it’s the Columbia Valley or the Rhone in France, each region boasts a helpful list of growers and producers that clearly state times the winery is open, the email addresses of each vineyard and whether or not you need to make an appointment. Most places accept reservations, so it’s always best to plan the day out. A typical tasting takes around 45 minutes but touring the grounds and taking in the sights can run an additional half hour. Aim to fit in around three to four tastings for each day of your trip.
Pro tip: Ideally you should plan a tasting at 10:00 am, noon, 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm with a break for food in the middle. TripIt can help you keep track of the day’s activities.
If you’re staying overnight, consider an Airbnb or a bed and breakfast close to the wineries. Hotels can be quite expensive and sometimes far from the vineyards, but many locals open up their guest homes to travelers. There’s nothing better than seeing the sunset over the vines and getting a good night sleep so you’re ready for the next day’s adventure.
Pro Tip: Bringing fido? Many vineyards are dog friendly, but make sure to call ahead. Vineyards with livestock and dogs of their own are less likely to welcome canine outsiders.
An important thing to consider in advance is transportation between the wineries. If everyone wants to taste and no one is itching to be the designated driver (shocker!), there are a number of choices. Tour buses are one option, and they usually come with the benefit of a helpful guide who can talk about the wines and the area. If you go this route, make sure it’s a small group event or you’ll end up feeling more like cattle than wine tasters as you’re herded from one place to the next. If you’re feeling athletic, you can always rent bikes from the town center and peddle your way between wineries. The best option—though it’s not always easy on the wallet—is to rent a driver for the day to make sure you can fully enjoy your experience. Check the region’s website for a helpful list of limo services.
Pro tip: Hiking is a great activity to begin your day and burn off a few calories while taking in the beautiful sights of rolling hills and valley floors lined with rows of vines. Renting a car for all day exploring? TripIt can keep track of that, too.
Stay Fueled and Hydrated
Save the day for wine tasting and bring a picnic of fresh fruit, cheese, baguettes, prosciutto, and most importantly, water. Pull over on the side of the road and have an impromptu lunch overlooking a vineyard. It’ll save you a few bucks and give you enough time to taste a few more varietals. If you’re dying to try a restaurant, save it for dinner since most vineyards close around 5 or 6 pm.
Wine Tasting Etiquette
In terms of the tasting itself, you should expect to spend around $10-15 dollars per winery, but if you want the good stuff, be ready to shell out $20-25 for the reserve list. The most important thing to remember is not to be intimidated by the tasting experience. Most places keep snobbishness at bay and prefer tasters to just really enjoy the wine. Here’s a helpful run down of what to expect and what to do when a winemaker pours your 1 – 2 oz. tasting:
- Keep the glass on the bar and lightly swirl it.
- Once the wine has “opened up,”smell its aroma, or “nose.”Take note of any elements you detect.
Pro tip: Remember red wines can be held by the glass, but white wines should always be held by the stem to keep your hand from heating the wine.
- Hold the wine up to the light and check the color. Is it inky and black or light and translucent? Can you see effervescent bubbles floating in the wine?
- What you’re ultimately looking for in a wine is aroma, taste, and lastly, finish. Take a sip, swish the wine around your mouth and try to suck some air between your teeth to bring out the full flavor of the wine. After swallowing, what tastes remain and how does your mouth feel? Does it feel puckered from the tannins? Acidic or buttery? How long does the taste or “finish”last?
Pro tip: Don’t be embarrassed to pour out any remaining wine you haven’t finished into the receptacle provided. Whether it’s not your favorite or you’re simply pacing yourself, it’s provided for your use. Just don’t rinse out your wine glass with water between tastings—it’s taboo!
- Tasting rooms are for exploring your palate, so feel free to ask about the wines, the wine making process and the history of the vineyard. Usually, you’ll hear some fascinating stories and facts that you can bring with you to the next tasting.
Pro tip: Keep track of your favorites. Ask for a pen or pencil and write down the tastes and smells you’ve picked up from each wine. Rank them on a scale from 1-10 so you can remember which one you liked best when it’s time to buy a bottle.
- Take a tour of the grounds and capture a few picturesque memories by the vines.
- Bring a bottle home. Tastings are usually free if you buy a bottle or two, and it’s a great way to repeat the experience at home.
Pro tip: If you’re looking to transport more than a few bottles, pick up a wine carrier at the local store. These Styrofoam lined bags can be checked onto airlines within the U.S. and will protect your wines from damage in transit.
With these tips, you’re sure to have a wonderful and relaxing trip to whichever wine region you decide to explore!