The last 20 years have seen a transformation in the drinking habits of the British public. Wine has moved centre stage, and shed its elitist, snobbish image. With more people enjoying a daily, indeed regular, glass or two of wine, there has also been a growing thirst for knowledge about the subject.

There is no better way to get to understand wine and the people who make it than by joining one of the increasing number of wine tour holidays. Several travel companies specialise in wine tours, offering something to suit all tastes, whether you fancy a light-hearted look at the Champagne region or an in-depth course in the intricacies of Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Tours currently on offer range from weekends in Champagne to longer tours of the winelands of various New World producers.

Old World

The majority of tours focus on the wine regions of Europe, especially France. Among the most popular tours are those to Champagne. The ultimate celebratory drink offers a great introduction to the world of wine tours.

A Champagne cellar  © Champagne/Ardenne Tourism

Typically, these trips include travel to Reims, tours of a range of Champagne houses and a number of meals, including one in the cellars of a producer. When I took such a trip with Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours, in early March, it included two tutored tastings, which served as an informative and enjoyable introduction to the mysteries of Champagne.

During the weekend we visited the striking cellars of Taittinger, plus those of small and medium-sized producers, where we were hosted by the owner and/or winemaker. In all cases, the atmosphere was jovial and relaxed, yet at the same time the visits were hugely informative.

A trip to Champagne is a great aperitif for those wanting to learn more about wine in a relaxed but fun atmosphere, but it can become the start of an addiction. Lynette Arblaster, managing director of Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours, explains: “We get a tremendous amount of repeat business. Clients treat the Champagne tours as a taster, and a great many return on longer trips, going further afield”.

Grape Escapes is another specialist in the world of wine touring. Its trips are ideal to be used as a “bolt on” to a longer holiday. You make your own way to the wine region, where you will be met by one of their guides who will take you through a comprehensive two-day tour of the chateaux of your chosen region. It offers tours to some of the classic French wine regions, including Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.

Cox and Kings also offers a range of four-day wine tours. These include the usual French destinations, but it also takes tours out to Tuscany and Rioja. Both of these are wonderful destinations for wine tourism, with great scenery and cultural aspects that complement the days spent tasting wine.

Tasting Places is a company which concentrates as much on food as wine. It offers gourmet tours to some of Europe’s most attractive wine regions. The wines of most regions have an affinity with the local cuisine, and Tasting Places explores this relationship in Tuscany, Piedmont, Rioja and Gascony. Accommodation is generally in beautiful country house hotels and the holidays include cookery demonstrations in addition to tours of vineyards and wineries.

A more individual approach is offered by 3D Wines. This company operates by renting rows of vines in some of France’s classic wine regions. Clients who have rented a row of vines then have the option to buy wine from their producer. The company organises weekend breaks to most French wine regions, where clients can meet their winemaker and taste a wide range of wines. These include breaks in the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne.

The Universite du Vin, Chateau Souze-la-Rousse © Peter Ellegard

Those interested in getting more of an understanding about Rhone Valley wines can undertake day-long classes at the Université du Vin, which is based in the magnificent Chateau de Suze la Rousse. Morning and evening lectures covering aspects such as terroir, grape varieties and wine-making methods also include wine-tasting. There are classes on various dates throughout the summer, costing 130 euros per person. Half-day tasting courses cost 45 euros.

New World

After this year’s interminable winter, I was lucky enough to be able to head off to the sun on an Arblaster & Clarke trip to the winelands of South Africa. Fortunately for us wine tourists, vineyards are invariably set among beautiful scenery, and this is definitely true of South Africa.

Wine tasting in South Africa  © Arblaster & Clarke

The tour involved numerous occasions sitting in the summer sun, sipping great wines in magnificent surroundings. There was also free time to explore Cape Town, visit Robben Island or just chill out and contemplate the weather that the family were enduring back home.

The vineyards of South Africa are mostly concentrated within striking distance of Cape Town, and we explored the region fully, taking in the old university town of Stellenbosch and the delightful area around Franschhoek. The highlight of my tour was a great Pinot Noir tasting followed by lunch with Olive and Anthony Hamilton Russell overlooking their vineyards and olive groves at their beautiful house near Hermanus – the town famous for whale watching.

North America

A number of other long haul destinations are proving popular with wine tourists. California is one obvious destination; both the Napa Valley and Sonoma are incredibly well set up for wine tasting and tours, as are Santa Barbara with its Santa Ynez Valley and Monterey
– which, with 45,000 acres of vineyards, has more land growing grapes than Napa Valley.

However, California is not the only North American area rich in vineyards. Oregon and Washington offer a more laid back approach, with splendid wines and a really warm welcome. Further north still, the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia has a number of
interesting wineries, most of which are open to the public. The Niagara Peninsula, in Ontario, makes another spectacular backdrop for a wine tour. Both of these Canadian provinces are worth visiting, if only for their tremendous ice wines, one of the wine world’s real rarities.

Picnic time © Solvang Conferance & Visitors Bureau

Australia and New Zealand

As might be expected, the wineries of Australia and New Zealand are extremely welcoming to wine tourists. Most of the wine regions are within easy striking distance of major cities. Adelaide serves as a great base from which to discover the winelands of the Barossa and Eden Valleys or the Mornington Peninsula. From Sydney it is possible to take in the vineyards of the Hunter Valley, while Perth serves as a base for exploring the wineries of Western Australia. In New Zealand, wine is produced on both the North and South Islands, and Arblaster & Clarke organises a tour that incorporates the fantastic art deco festival in Napier.

Chile and Argentina are also awakening to the idea of wine tourism, and it is now possible to visit many of the South American wine regions and taste great wines against the dramatic backdrop of the Andes.

Wine tours facts

Sample packages

Cox & Kings’ Bordeaux tour visits top class chateaux in the appellations of the Medoc, St Emilion, the Graves and Sauternes. There is time to visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of St Emilion and to explore the splendour of Bordeaux city. The five-day tour costs £1,575 per person, including flights.

California with Arblaster & Clarke includes time in San Francisco before heading out to the charming Spanish town of Sonoma, and then on to the spa town of Calistoga. The wineries visited include all the leading lights of the California scene. Seven nights cost £2,125 per person, excluding flights.

Tasting Places’ Tuscan retreat offers seven days sampling the delights of Tuscan cuisine and wine. From your base at the Fattoria Montelucci you can explore the regions of Chianti Classico, Rufina and Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Cost: £1,950 per person. Flights are not included.

Other interesting options include vineyard walks, which Arblaster & Clarke leads through Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne. wine tour specialists Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours: 01730 263111, www.arblasterandclarke.com
Grape Escapes: 01763 273373, www.grapeescapes.net
Cox & Kings: 020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk
Tasting Places: 020 8964 5333, www.tastingplaces.com

Other useful contacts

Napa Valley Wine Train: www.winetrain.com
Bordeaux Tourism Office: www.bordeaux-tourisme.com
Université du Vin: www.universite-du-vin.com

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel on a wine tour.