52 'perfect weekends' in the world's wine country »
A taste of global Wine Trails from Lonely Planet
By Robyn Lewis
You know Lonely Planet has come of age when they publish a food and wine travel guide. It’s decades since eating noodles while backpacking through Asia on $2 a day – now it’s Mendoza in sports cars, the Yarra Valley from balloons, picnics at Puglia's trulli stone cottages, top notch accommodation, dining in style and sampling beautiful wines along the way.
Give me a spare million dollars and a Tardis and I’ll happily spend the next 52 weekends exploring the beautiful destinations in Wine Trails. Wine country is some of the most beautiful scenery in the world – think verdant vineyards glowing like gemstones on rolling hillsides – with welcoming signs to tempt you to taste, sit by a roaring fire, sample regional fare, be pampered, or simply relax on a lawn, glass in hand, enjoying the view.
OK I’m a wine travel tragic, but what more could anyone want for a relaxing weekend away? (Yes there are vineyards by the sea, vineyards with art, with music, photography and cooking classes, even with adventure!). Wine Trails covers twenty countries and 52 regions, so there’s plenty of inspiration almost no matter where you live or where you’re heading for your next vacation.
Australia, France, Italy and the USA score seven regions each, being big on wine travel experiences; twelve other countries (from Argentina, Canada and Chile through to Portugal, Slovenia and Turkey) feature one per country. Even England gets a look in (gin trails are hot there right now too), but newer wine-producing nations like China and Brazil, and regions like Virginia and Texas, will have to wait for the next edition.
Naturally, feathers have been ruffled by the necessary omissions – there’s only so much you can get into 320 pages, especially with photos. Australia alone has over 60 wine regions and more than one ‘trail’ in each, so it’s impossible to include them all (except in a website like VisitVineyards).
Both the Barossa and the Hunter Valley are big, well-known names, so were they right to be left out? It’s a bit like leaving out Napa from the USA’s list in my opinion – this is a global guide, and the top Australian wine tourism region in terms of visitor numbers, and one of the pillars of Australian wine’s international brand identity should have been there in my opinion. (Was Tuscany left out of Italy? No. But they did leave out Bordeaux, and given none of these are 'budget' regions, that can't be the reason.)
Perhaps the Lonely Planet editors thought that it was time to shine a spotlight on a few lesser-known gems like the Clare Valley (managed by Barossa tourism, even though wine travellers likely don't know that) and the Tamar Valley? The media release covers it: the book “introduces the secret gems in well-known regions such as Napa and Sonoma, Tuscany, Burgundy and Rioja, and also explores off-the-beaten-path regions in Georgia, Greece and beyond.”
The Barossa gets a brief mention in the section on the Clare Valley, but it’s definitely not a region you can take in on the way back to Adelaide after a weekend in the Clare. Sure, the smaller regions are lovely, with great wines and memorable experiences in each, but as our own visitor research shows, the Barossa and Hunter win hands down for both international and domestic wine travellers, and they need to be there on the world stage. Wine travel is partly about tasting wines in situ, not just having a nice day out. So, perhaps next time.
For if this book is popular, there could be a companion volume, or three. There’s certainly enough material.This is the first in Lonely Planet’s ‘Perfect Weekend’ series, hitting the spot for those dreaming of short breaks, not six months in a campervan. I’ll put my hand up to write the one on Australia and NZ – with around 5,000 vineyards and wineries in Australia alone, it just begs for a print/digital collaboration and some clever use of tech, which would enable more than a mere written introduction, and provide real utility to intending travellers.
There are only around five pages per region (six if you include the intro shot for each), so don’t expect Wine Trails to be a functional travel guide either. It’s more a sample of delicious things to come. The text is evocative: “Picture a chilly autumn dawn. Along the low slopes of a forgotten range of celery-green hills… through beguiling ancient villages, a lazy river winds. The moist air sends up mists that kiss the vineyards of this undulating, UNESCO-protected landscape”. Dream stuff, but not itinerary planning material.
That said, for regions you've never heard much about, Wine Trails provides a basic introduction, and will tempt the vinicurious to investigate further – perhaps into Lonely Planet's more specific guides? (another opportunity missed).
Looking within the Australian regions that I know best, let's see who’s included and who's not, which will give us an idea of how thoroughly this book was researched. Again the choice is a mixture of big names and the new.
Take Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula for example: rightly highlighted is Montalto with its fabulous lunches and wines, picnics by the wetlands and sculpture walk, and 10X Tractor, “one of the most chic cellar doors on the …Peninsula”. Red Hill Estate with its glorious views and wonderful Max’s restaurant and accommodation is in, but where are Port Phillip Estate (architectural gem/statement, great food), the funky T’Gallant, jazz-enlivened Hickenbotham’s, Crittenden’s with their signature wine and food flights and gorgous lakeside villas, Foxey’s Hangout, Moorooduc Estate and other producers that those in the know rave about?
Cape Schank resort isn’t my ideal wine touring accommodation either, overlooking the south coast and more distant from the vines than many others. The Peninsula is awash with gorgeous B&Bs, and for the hotel experience, Lindenderry – with its own spa and vineyard – takes some beating.
Red Hill Brewery scores the only dining recommendation; it’s as if they’re having a bet each way, trying to appeal to the beer market as well (this isn't a beer travel guide) – and what happened to Willow Creek, Salix, Stillwater and many more Mornington vineyards and restaurants offering great food, from breakfasts and casual lunches to fine dining?
Rutherglen in NE Victoria is perhaps better covered; there truly is something for everyone in this region, and with many festivals and walks, there is much to do apart from ‘just’ tasting wine. In Wine Trails are some biggies like Morris, All Saints and Campbells (no Stanton & Killeen or Pfeiffers though), all producers of fortifieds, with Valhalla as a modern counterpoint.
I’d have mentioned more boutique makers and producers of the increasingly popular durif, such as Warrabilla with its authentic country shed and huge reds, plus Scion, Jones Winery and Cofield, the latter with the excellent Pickled Sisters Café for a destination lunch.
However I certainly hope that intending wine visitors from overseas or interstate don’t think that’s all there is to Victoria’s north-east – nearby are the Ovens and King Valleys, and of course the mother of wine tourism destinations, Brown Brothers at Milawa. Again, next time….
Also in Victoria is the Yarra Valley, as must-visit as the Mornington Peninsula, if not quite as easy to reach from the city or airport. It’s touted as a “perfect weekend retreat, moments from Melbourne” and what wine lover can argue, with such a range of quality of wines and experiences on offer?
In are TarraWarra with its magnificent gallery and architecture, oldie-but-goodie Yeringburg and relative newcomer Mandala – but the oh-so-popular Domaine Chandon, the spectacular Yering Station, Levantine Hill Estate with its excellent Ezard Restaurant, De Bortoli’s and Dominique Portet are not, to name but a few significant absentees. As you can see, it’s not a guide, but a book to whet your appetite, after which you need to dig more deeply.
Warramate is a surprise inclusion as low-key hidden gem, next to Coldstream Hills of Halliday fame. Other boutiques are Five Oaks (home of vertical tastings of cabernet) and Morgan Vineyards, with Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander getting a mention in the “where to eat” paragraph for their great pizzas and cheeses. There are of course just too many others to fit in a global guide.
Sorry NSW, you’re off Lonely Planet’s vinous radar completely, which must please the likes of Tyrrell’s, the quintessential Australian winery and an absolute must-visit for any international or interstate wine traveller; the spectacular Audrey Wilkinson, Gundog Estate, Kevin Sobels, Margan’s, Peterson’s, Scarborough and Tamburlaine in the Hunter (and many more), not to mention the entire Central Ranges (Orange and Mudgee region) with Botobolar (Australia’s oldest certified organic vineyard), Lowe Wines, Miramar and 60-odd other producers in this region alone. It’s a lonely planet for them indeed.
Similarly, lovers of the cooler climate wines of the ACT/Capital Country and nearby Hilltops won’t find anything in Wine Trails; ditto the emerging Granite Belt and other SE Queensland wine destinations producing wines of ever-increasing quality.
And so to South Australia, often touted as ‘Australia’s wine state’ (although wine is produced in every state now). It still beats me that Wine Trails omits the Barossa, with biggies like Chateau Tanunda, Jacob’s Creek, Rockford, Peter Lehmann’s, Seppeltsfield and Yalumba, plus smaller producers like Two Hands, Tsharke, Grant Burge and Langmeil. It’s not all about the view, guys. Most wine tourists go to wineries for one very big reason – to taste the wines. For many the rest is a bonus, but not the main game.
An equally large oversight is McLaren Vale, surely a rising star if ever there was one, or any other region on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Sorry, D’Arenberg and Wirra Wirra, Coriole and Fox Creek, Oliver’s Taranga and Samuel’s Gorge – your awesomeness will remain another Lonely Planet secret, at least for now.
And no Penfolds Magill Estate – as home to the iconic Grange, a trove of winemaking history, and with a fabulous restaurant, it’s a must-visit for any international wine/culinary tourist to Adelaide.
There is a selection from the Adelaide Hills, about half an hour from the city and home to producers like Shaw + Smith, Hahndorf Hill, Bird in Hand, Mt Lofty Ranges and Golding Wines. Bad luck The Lanes, with its great views and restaurant, Pike & Joyce and Tapanappa. But to recommend dining in the city, on a day trip to the Hills? What were they thinking? Kangaroo Island isn’t exactly a side trip from Hahndorf for those hoping to see a roo, either. (It’s about now I really start wondering where the research was done, and what criteria they used?)
I love the Clare Valley and am pleased to see a spotlight on riesling gems like Skillogalee and Paulett’s, and Jim Barry’s Armargh, one of my fave reds. But what about the internationally reknown Grosset, Kilikanoon, Taylor's and the stellar Henschke’s? The views from O’Leary Walker? And did they run out of photos – there's a lot of repetition of producers. The excellent Riesling Trail gets good mention though, so as does the Gourmet Weekend in May.
It’s here they slip in Turkey Flats and Gibson’s Wines of the Barossa, in passing as it were. In their words “The [Barossa] region is the source of many of Australia’s famous red wines but it’s not as pretty a place to tour as Clare Valley. Turkey Flats is one of two wineries worth visiting…”. Go tell that to the 160 odd others, or to wine lovers seeking to taste their favourite big reds at the source, and to pick up a few first-hand stories to tell friends back home.
West to Margaret River in WA, whose sun is definitely rising on the international scene. As Lonely Planet rightly quotes “quality is the watchword here: Margaret River produces 3% of Australia’s wine, but a quarter of its premium wines”. It’s beautiful too, friendly, and if you love surfing, beaches and watching the sun setting into the Indian Ocean, you’ll be in heaven.
Here I think the choices are somewhat more reflective of the real cross-section of producers: the iconic Leeuwin Estate, amongst the highest quality wine and food experiences in the country, Vasse Felix, Cullen’s and Voyager are all in. Smaller gems include Knee Deep and Capel Vale, but again there’s repetition of photos, and the art that is signature to many producers in the region is visually overlooked.
Again too, a brewery is touted as the place to eat (sorry Must, Lamont’s and indeed Leeuwin Estate, whose excellent restaurant failed to be mentioned), but the annual Gourmet Escape is in, as are whalewatching and surfing.
Tasmania’s Tamar Valley is perhaps the surprise inclusion in the Australian roundup. Technically, the whole of Tasmania is one wine region, but the Tamar has put itself on the map, literally, by developing the Tamar Valley Wine Route. It’s a lovely region, of course, especially for lovers of pinot noir, sparkling and other cool climate delights.
I wonder about Lonely Planet's geography though: “starting the tour further up the Tamar River (I think they mean inland) means that you finish close to the Southern Ocean, for a contemplative walk along a deserted beach”. As this ocean is 200+ km away to the south, it’s a long drive from the last taste to the sea – or perhaps the editor meant Bass Strait to the north? It’s this sort of lack of accuracy that makes me wonder how much Wine Trails can be relied on for less familiar regions or countries.
Back upstream in the Tamar – first stop is the excellent Josef Chromy, where they describe the immigrant founder’s past in detail, and the inspiration for Jeremy Dineen’s winemaking, but fail to mention the excellent restaurant or the other wines they make. Quite honestly I’d plan to end rather than start my Tamar tour here, to enjoy a leisurely lunch and drinks admiring the view.
But we move on to Velo Wines, and Tamar Ridge, whose history is not accurately described in Wine Trails. Stoney Rise and Iron Pot Bay both further downstream are in, and the tour ends at Bay of Fires vineyard in the north east, with its excellent range of wines including the sparklings of sister brand House of Arras (confusingly for some tourists, the vineyard is nowhere near the actual Bay of Fires, it's just named after it). No Jansz, Pirie, Dalrymple Estate, Goaty Hill, Piper's Brook, Heemskerk, Holm Oak... well, you get the picture. They did recommend dining in one of the State's top restaurants, Stillwater in Launceston, and arguably the State's best food festival, February's Festivale, though.
New Zealand has three featured regions: Central Otago, known for its pinot noir and stunning scenery, Marlborough (also on the South Island) and Hawke's Bay on the North. Having visited the latter, I find the snapshot quite good. But it's tough for Martinborough, arguably where NZ pinot noir began, and omitted vineyards areas around Auckland and Christchurch. Perhaps a map at the end of each national section showing other worthy regions they could not include would have been diplomatic, and useful for intending wine travellers.
Heading further afield, I find myself caught up in the Old World romance of France, Italy and Germany, intrigued by Georgia, and enlighted by the sections on Slovenia, Hungary & Slovakia, and Lebanon, of whose wines I know little. The section on Spain covers six regions, and I found it a tempting intro to someone like me who's dreaming of a wine trip there.
The coverage of Italy I found like the Australian section – again, because I know it somewhat, I feel there's just too much vinous joy and exploration to pack into 30-odd pages. That said, Wine Trails makes me consider adding Alto Adige in the far north to my next Italian wine travel itinerary, and definitely Puglia in the far south east, with those trulli stone cottages that once enchanted me in a book. I'm told that Sardinia is struggling to make its presence felt in the US wine market, so inclusion of their budding wine tourism experiences in Wine Trails may help elevate it on the map.
Tuscany and its chianti country deserves a wine travel volume of its own, as of course does France: you could spend several lifetimes exploring Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, The Jura, Languedoc, the Loire and Rhone regions. If you've never been, this book gives you an idea of what parts of them are like, but I wouldn't use it for travel planning if I wanted to ensure I covered the must-sees or the hidden gems, to work out how to get around (remember those old Lonely Planet guides?) or to taste the quintessential wines. And Thrace in Turkey in three pages? Sums it up, although we shouldn't lose sight ot the subtitle 'perfect weekends', which may well apply if you live in Europe, I guess.
And so to the USA, whose first region is California's Central Coast (south of San Francisco to San Luis Obispo). I'm still none the wiser as to what this region looks like. Is it vineyards amongst cities, or mountains, in dry country, or farmland, or what exactly? Sure, I've heard of Bonny Doon (Randall Grahm is a famed 'eccentric' and social media personality) but 8 pages later I still have no idea about the character of this region, except than one vineyard named Tablas Creek appears to have glorious ocean views, but on closer inspection, the map reveals it to be a lake, inland. So, are they coastal wines, or what? Is there a signature variety? I'd rather know what great wines J.Lohr produces than that they have "the largest solar tracking system of any winery in North America" – it reads like a media release to me. So on this region, I'm still not much wiser, except to learn that most tastings cost US$10-15.
I'm slightly more familiar with the geography and landscapes of the Finger Lakes area in in New York State, and Napa and Sonoma, the latter from my social media friends who post evocative, beautiful photos and wine commentary daily. Some famous names like Mondavi and Stag's Leap are in, and cult producers like Silver Oak and the biodynamic Littorai in Sonoma. It's perhaps in these iconic regions that the wine tour planning deficiencies of Wine Trails come through – it's like a wine with no structure, all up-front taste and no lingering, memorable finish.
The maps have been criticised elsewhere online for being inadequate, most certainly for navigation, although I found them helpful for working out where the regions are located in the countries featured. However, it would have been so easy to link them to online maps and other resources to give you a better idea, not only for your planning and driving, but to locate other vineyards that were by necessity excluded. I check the Lonely Planet website, but they only have a 'Food and Drink' section, with lots of foodie articles but nothing I can find on wine (and not even a link to this book). It makes you wonder how much effort they put into this.
I read that Robin Barton, who is stated as being the author of the Australian, English and Spanish sections (and Commissioning Editor, based in London) is currently "associate publisher of Lonely Planet's trade and reference list, developing and creating bestselling books such as Beautiful World, You Only Live Once and The World... driven by the thought of combining print and digital in an elegant and profitable way". His vision doesn't show.
Overall, I get the feeling that Wine Trails was compiled by a marketer – of the book, not of wine or wine travel – it's big on looks, but when you dig a little, it lacking the real factual information that could have made this so much more useful and indeed perennial. Stitching together what appear to be producers' media releases doesn't cut it, for me.
That all said, Wine Trails is attractive, but definitely in the coffee-table not wine atlas or guide category. Perhaps it's just too costly to do the research properly nowadays. And a golden opportunity was missed: apart from some web URLs, it's like the digital era has yet to occur.
If you want an easy read, to dream, or to brush up on your wine knowledge of a few obscure places to name drop to your friends, it's perfect (and nothing wrong with that). But it's really a big brochure, not the in-depth factual handbook that put Lonely Planet publishing on the world travel map all those decades ago, when $2 really got you something.
Perhaps in the next edition(s) we'll see a real digital nexus and something truly useful to today's mobile-equipped travellers, whether looking for a casual weekend in wine country or to explore a little more in-depth. And some in-depth research, please.
Wine Trails is published by Lonely Planet (October 2015; hb, 320pp, full colour, RRP: A$34.99). It is available at all good bookstores, some department stores or find online with Booko.com.au »
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