Wine Club: Quick detour to the cellars?

Visit the cellars in Champagne, not just a wine visit, but culture too
Visit the cellars in Champagne, not just a wine visit, but culture too
  • Christine Austin advocates indulging in a spot of wine tourism on your way to the beach this summer.
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Mention “wine” on some family holidays and you are likely to get the kind of look that will make you wish you had stayed at home. I’m not talking about the occasional bottle or two that might be in the fridge ready to be enjoyed while lazing by the pool. This is the suggestion, often made while driving through France, that, just maybe, you could call in at a few wine producers as you head south.

Astonishing as it seems, not all family members have the same fervent enthusiasm for wandering around vineyards, talking to wine producers and spending several hours in cellars, tasting wine. It seems that some would far rather get where they are going and head to the beach.

So if you do want to take in a wine region you may have to resort to subterfuge and the latest additions to the Unesco World Heritage list give you a perfect excuse. Now that several wine regions are preserved and valued as unique places, visiting them can hardly count as just following up on your hobby – it is culture.

New on the Unesco list are the hills, houses and cellars of Champagne. Effectively the heart of the champagne region has become a World Heritage site which means that it is worth at least a quick stop and maybe an overnight stay.

You can visit vast historic cellars dug deep in the chalk, some dating back to Roman times. There are elegant streets to walk down, lined with large elegant houses where the famous champagne brands have their headquarters, and then you can head out to the vineyards and see the way the regimented close-packed rows of vines are divided between those great houses, with discreet small stones marking each plot.

Champagne is a very easy region to visit. If you take the short ferry crossing to Calais then it is a straight run down to Reims (pronounced Rance, not Reams). There are trips and tours you can take around the Champagne Houses, with a tasting at the end and the inevitable visit to a shop where you can buy all kinds of wine accessories and bottles to take home. Some houses, such as Mumm and Mercier, welcome guests without appointments, but the most spectacular visits require a little planning. Veuve Clicquot’s deep Gallo-Roman cellars are part of the World Heritage listing and you can book a visit to their cellars on their website (www.veuve-clicquot.com). There are 27 miles of these cellars and they have street signs, carvings and of course they are packed with row upon row of champagne gently maturing in the constant cool temperature.

From Champagne it is an easy drive down to the next stage of your cultural tour to the Climats and Terroirs of Burgundy which have just been listed by Unesco. Here there are no sightseeing trains, pre-arranged tours or corporate gift shops to visit. This is the magnificent Cote d’Or slope running from Dijon to just south of Chagny and it is just like travelling through a wine list. Drive down the D974 rather than the autoroute and make sure you head off down the little roads that wind through the vineyards. A detailed map of the vineyards (available in Beaune) comes in handy so you know exactly which piece of hallowed ground you are standing on. Beaune is also the best place to start any bike ride through the region, since there is a cycle path all the way through the region down to Santenay. Make sure you start off with a visit to the Hospices de Beaune, a magnificent 15th century building which was once a charitable alms-house but now is a museum. The patterned roof of this building is beautiful.

Those heading down the west coast of France should call in at St Emilion on the outskirts of Bordeaux, which gained its Unesco World Heritage status some years ago. Since then it seems to have become even more picturesque and delightful with its steep, cobbled streets and honey-coloured stone monuments. There is an underground monolithic church, with just the spire sticking out into the town square. Nearby is the tourist office where you can pick up maps and find out which properties you can visit each day. Alternatively just drive around the region looking for “degustation” signs at the end of the driveways. You will probably be shown around by the proprietor and allowed to taste his or her wine, although it is polite to buy a bottle or two as you leave.

If you can tear yourself away from St Emilion, a 45-minute drive takes you to Bordeaux which gained its Unesco World Heritage status some years ago. Now the old warehouses which used to clutter the riverside have been cleared away and the view along the riverside is terrific. This is now a chic, historic city and is well worth a visit. From here you can drive up the Médoc and admire the imposing chateaux that line the route. Bordeaux is at last waking up to wine tourism so make sure you call in at the Tourist Office in the centre of Bordeaux to find out which properties can be visited each day.

For those on holiday in Portugal, and with a few days to spare the city of Porto and the Douro wine region are well worth a visit. Porto attracts around 800,000 visitors a year and the Port Houses in Vila Nova de Gaia are very well set up for visitors. But the real experience of port is to escape from the city and visit the vineyard region 100km away. The Upper Douro region, with its terraced vineyards and stark beauty, has been listed by Unesco for a few years, but this is still new territory for tourists, so make sure you visit before everyone else discovers it. You can drive there or get the train from Porto. The line hugs the river, and is one of the best railway journeys in the world.

The new visitor centre at Quinta de Bomfim in Pinhão is the place to visit to 
see some of the history of the region through a series of rare old photographs. You can visit the lodge where there are huge oak vats used for maturing port since the 19th century and at vintage time you will also be able to see the grapes being crushed and fermented in the lagars. The tasting room has dozens of ports available and a terrace where you can while away several hours, drinking in the scenery.