Stunning vineyard settings, award-winning wines and excellent cuisine. For a wine lover, there are many a good reason to visit a wine region.
And what better place to tour vineyards and taste excellent wines than right where the history of wine production begun: Europe is the largest wine growing area globally and renowned to be home to some of the best wine regions in the world like Bordeaux, Champagne, Tuscany, Piedmont or Rioja.
In addition to wine and food, there are many more reasons to visit Europe’s wine regions. Just think of the breathtaking chateau of the Loire Valley, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Rhine Valley or the rolling green hills and historic cities of Tuscany.
If you are a wine lover and want to explore the European wine regions, you are in for a treat. Before you head out, there are however a couple of important things to consider to make your visit one you will remember for a long time.
Below, I am listing 8 essential things to know before visiting a wine region in Europe to make sure you will truly enjoy your trip.
What are the best wine regions in Europe
France, Germany, Italy and Spain are the most renowned historic wine growing countries in Europe and not surprisingly attract the highest numbers of wine tourists.
But they are by no means the only wine producing countries in Europe well worth a visit. There are many other areas looking at a long wine growing history whilst others have been added only more recently.
In fact, the European wine producing map is expanding rapidly.
Many of the ‘new’ regions are by no means new to wine making though. The reason they are getting increasingly noticed by wine loving travelers is a huge improvement in the quality of their wines.
Especially many eastern European countries like Croatia, Hungary, Moldova and Slovenia but also as Austria, Switzerland and Greece in recent years have become known for producing excellent wines.
Also new on the wine tourism map is Georgia although it is indeed one of the earliest destinations in Europe to make wine; looking back at 8,000 years of cultivating vines.
In addition, due to a combination of improving techniques, innovation and climate change, wine growing has taken off in areas that not too long ago were considered not adequate to wine production.
Today you will find wine making in countries like Belgium, the UK or Denmark are now also growing and producing their own wines, achieving surprising quality levels.
So while the major wine regions are always worth a trip, going to the lesser known ones can have some great advantages: Significant lower visitor numbers, lower prices and winery staff able to dedicate more of their time engaging with you.
When is the best time visiting a wine region in Europe
Harvest time is a common answer to this question. Which depending where you go in Europe can be from early August to end early October.
However, keep in mind that for wineries harvest time is one of the busiest times of the year. Meaning most of the staff will be busy in the vineyards or cellar. Unless a winery employs dedicated staff for their tasting rooms (which many in Europe don’t as you will discover in the next section), you will find engaging with a winemaker or knowledgeable staff might be cut short.
Therefore, I would recommend to visit outside of the harvesting season. Unless you are able to get the occasion to take part in the harvest itself through wine-related stays at a winery.
In theory, you can visit a winery and vineyard year-round. Even in winter, when vines are covered in snow, you can make some excellent experiences visiting. That said, not all wineries will be open to visitors during the winter months. Especially if they do not have a dedicated tasting room and staff.
Spring will see vineyards slowly starting to get greener and it is the time of the year where the festival season starts, with lots of wine and food themed events happening throughout most of Europe. It is also still shoulder season so visitor numbers will be somewhat lower and prices more favourable.
Summer can still be a good season, especially if you visit around June. Meanwhile, July and August could mean pretty high temperatures. Whilst this is good for many grape varieties, helping their ripening process and improving the quality of wine, it can make travelling and especially wine tasting quite challenging.
European wine regions are not yet very organized welcoming tourists
That might come as a surprise but it is actually true. Whilst many of Europe’s wine growing nations are looking at a long wine growing history, many of them are not very well organized when it comes to wine tourism.
The magnificent chateau (wineries) in Bordeaux for example have only recently started to welcome visitors. Just a few years back, if you wanted to visit one of these chateau you had to either work in the wine business or either have really good connections to arrange a visit.
Wineries in other regions, especially Germany and Italy, have for a long time encouraged those interested in their wines to come and taste wine on-site. However, the experience was in large parts geared towards selling wine; offering the interested buyer to take a sip to determine which wine to take home. Almost no dedicated tasting rooms existed and very limited additional wine-related experiences were offered.
Even though this is now changing and more and more wineries are building tasting rooms and implement wider ranging wine experiences like offering food, vineyard tours and sometimes even add accommodation, visiting a winery in Europe in many cases still requires to make arrangements prior to your visit. Just showing up at a winery could easily mean you are standing in front of closed doors.
In fact, tasting rooms with regular opening hours are still the exception in many wine regions across Europe.
How to get around Europe’s wine regions
Europe is a continent that you can travel fairly easily by train and bus; and this includes many of the smaller cities and towns.
But once you arrive at one of these smaller places and want to explore the surrounding areas, it is becoming significantly more difficult using public transport.
For example, you can take a train from Turin to the smaller towns of Alba and Asti in the Piedmont area. However, if you want to venture further into the smaller wine growing towns public transport is no longer a viable solution.
You can also take a train from Frankfurt to Bingen in Rheinhessen, Germany’s largest wine growing region. But from there touring the wine growing towns of the area will only be possible with a car.
I could probably continue this list forever. So the bottom line is, if you want to visit a wine region in Europe, you will either need a car and drive yourself or otherwise book a tour with a (wine) tour operator.
Which are the best wine tour operators in Europe
If you do not want to drive yourself, which would mean you need to point out a designated driver, the best option to visit a wine region in Europe is to book a tour with a tour operator.
There are various organizations offering wine tours across Europe’s wine regions, from local tourist offices to local tour operators specialised in a particular wine region, dedicated international wine tour operators and tour operators running a large range of trips including next to any sort of tours also wine tours.
If you are looking for a special wine-related experience, some of the dedicated wine tour operators are likely your best option even though many are focused on the major regions including France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Below, I am listing some of the larger European or international wine tour operators. However, I would also strongly suggest you check for local tour operators when going to a specific wine region.
Grape Tours offers both day trips and multi-day wine tours in France, Italy and yes, Denmark.
Wine Path, an internationally operating wine tour operator, offers a large range of wine experiences throughout France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Smooth Red offers multi-day tours along with bespoke wine tours in a large range of European countries.
Cellar Tours offers tours in the major European wine regions of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
I have also made some good experiences with Get your Guide in the past, a wide ranging tour operator who works with knowledgeable staff leading wine tours in several major European wine regions.
The downside of visiting with a tour operator?
Unless you arrange a bespoke tour, which can turn out to be quite expensive, there is often not much space for individual experiences like staying longer at a specific winery you like, spontaneously head out to the vineyards or have a longer conversation with the winemaker or other winery experts.
What languages are spoken in European wineries
This could indeed be one of the most difficult parts. Whilst English is a widely spoken language across Europe, when you visit the smaller and lesser know wine regions, there might not always be staff at hand with advanced language skills that allow engaging in a deeper conversation.
Some wineries, especially the larger ones, will likely have English-speaking staff running cellar tours and wine tastings. However, in many cases you will have to arrange your visit around dedicated times when these people will be available.
I definitely recommend to check ahead if a winery offers English-speaking tours if you want to avoid communication mishaps, especially if you are looking for more engagement than tasting a flight of wines.
What are the major wine classifications in Europe
Many of Europe’s major wine growing countries are part of the European Union, which now requires them to follow unified regulations in wine production.
These overarching regulations have resulted in two major wine classifications: The PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) labels.
According to the EU definition, PDO products are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how. Their quality and properties are significantly or exclusively determined by their environment, in both natural and human factors.
Meanwhile, the EU definition of PGI products is based on the geographical area in which it is produced, processed or prepared, and which has specific qualities attributable to that geographical area.
However, that is as far as the similarities go. In fact, each country has its own quality categories which correspond to PDO and PGI wines. In addition, the various categories of origin not necessarily provide an indication which of these wines are of higher quality. What is further complicating things is that wine labels are typically in local language.
Quality categories of PDO wines:
- Austria: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein
- France: AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée)
- Germany: QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmterAnbaugebiete) and Prädikatswein
- Italy: DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)
- Portugal: IPR (Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada) and DOC (Denominacão de Origem Controlada)
- Spain: DO (Denominación de Origen) and DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada)
Quality categories of PGI wines:
- Austria: Landwein
- France: VDP (Vin de Pays)
- Germany: Landwein
- Italy: IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)
- Portugal: VR (Vinho Regional)
- Spain: VT (Vino de la Tierra)
There is a huge degree of versatility in European wines
Riesling in Germany, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in Bordeaux, Sangiovese in Tuscany or Tempranillo in Spain?
Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Wine literature claims there are more than 10,000 different grape varieties globally. Whilst these include grapes not used for wine production as well as alternative names for the same grape variety, the number of different varieties used to produce wine is huge.
Though it is difficult to pinpoint how many different varieties exist across Europe, it’s safe to say they reach into the thousands.
Many wine regions across Europe are currently re-discovering their autochthonous varieties and returning to the historic wines made in a specific area. This means moving away from the major globally grown grape varieties or at least increasing the production of specific local wines.
Thus if you are travelling to a wine region in Europe, make sure you find out more about native local grape varieties before your visit and taste those wines that you will struggle to find in any other region of the world.
Have you been to a wine region in Europe? Which one? Let me know about your experiences.