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Planning a wine vacation (what we tend to call a wine tasting trip) is not without its challenges. Plotting the right course for your wine vacation is not only time consuming, but with so many resources at your fingertips online, it can be quite overwhelming simply determining where to start.
How to Plan the Perfect Wine Tasting Trip in Any Region
To simplify both the planning process and your experience while you’re out wine tasting, we’ve compiled a solid list of “do’s and don’ts.” Essentially, this article offers some of the best tips for planning a successful wine tourism vacation — based on our editorial staff’s experience in planning and partaking in wine tasting tours around the world.
Figure Out How Much Time You Have for a Wine Trip
Before setting a budget or picking a region, you must figure out how much time you have available for the perfect wine travel experience. If you’re working full time, you may only have a week or two of vacation. Determining the length of your trip will also be a contributing factor when determining your budget, which we cover next.
Set Your Maximum, All-Inclusive Budget
Deciding how much you’re willing to spend on your wine vacation is a quick way to narrow down your options.
If you’re strapped for cash, you might consider a domestic experience and visit an up and coming wine region like the Texas Hill Country, where travel, accommodation and tasting costs are relatively low.
If you have a little more money to burn, and still want to stay domestic, you could head over to one of the more pricey regions in California, such as Napa Valley.
Or perhaps you’re looking for a more authentic and exotic experience, such as wine tasting in Piedmont, Italy, Rioja, Spain or Bordeaux, France. Maybe you want to go as far as New Zealand! All of these are fantastic choices for venturing out and exploring the world through wine, but traveling abroad also tends to cost a bit more.
This is why it’s best to set a budget before you pick a destination, so you’re not disappointed in case you can’t afford your dream trip (yet). Be sure to consider location, timing, flight, transport, tasting, food and accommodation costs. If I’m flying to a new wine destination, I always search for flights on Google Flights first and then use that cost as a baseline for wrapping my head around what ultimately the complete experience may cost. Then, I use Airfarewatchdog to send me flight deal alerts when a deal goes on sale immediately. Searching for hotels on TripAdvisor also helps to source the best price by comparing multiple travel sites.
Narrow Down Your Region
It kind of goes without saying, but an essential step when planning a wine tourism experience is to decide where you want to go. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of “broad” wine regions, within which thousands of sub-appellations exist. One could spend his or her entire life traveling and tasting wine and likely not be able to hit every sub-appellation around the world.
That being said, don’t be too ambitious in choosing your region.
First, start by picking a country. From there, narrow it down to a broad wine region within that country. From there, you can further narrow your trip to specific sub-appellations. Then, within those sub-appellations, you can begin to research individual wineries that suit yours and your fellow travelers’ personal preferences. Let me explain by using Spain as an example:
I’ve decided that I want to visit Spain for a wine vacation. I know that “La Rioja” is a famous wine-growing region within North Central Spain. After doing my research, I now know that there are three sub-appellations within La Rioja — Rioja Baja, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta. Now, let’s assume that I have one week allotted for my trip. Again, after doing my research, I know that that’s plenty of time to visit all three sub-appellations in some way shape or form. I may not be able to visit every winery within each sub-appellation, but I should be able to have a pretty immersive experience in each, given the amount of time I would have available to me.
You get the idea. If you have more than one week for a wine vacation, you might also consider visiting multiple “broad” regions within one or two countries. It’s dependent upon your individual situation.
Narrow Down The Kind of Experience You Want – Tips for Planning a Wine Trip
This is another great tip for planning the perfect wine tasting trip. Another way to further narrow down your options and cut through the exorbitant amount of red tape often involved with planning a vacation.
What are you looking to get out of this trip? Are you going by yourself, with a group, with a significant other or spouse? Are you trying to just get drunk? Are you looking for something romantic? Are you looking to integrate an active itinerary with adventure mixed in between tastings?
All of the above are great questions, and each should be answered before you move further on with planning your trip and deciding on individual wineries.
Select the Time of Year for Your Wine Tasting Vacation
For wine professionals, this is a common-sense thing to consider when planning a wine vacation. But as wine tourism in recent years has sky-rocketed to becoming one of the preferred styles of experiential travel, a lot of people are unaware that time of year can have a huge impact on your ultimate experience. Why? Well, for starters, depending on what hemisphere you’re looking to travel to, you might unknowingly arrive in the middle of winter.
The Northern Hemisphere experiences Summer generally between June, July, and August. Conversely, the Southern Hemisphere experiences their Summer between December, January, and February. Also note that grape harvests in the Northern Hemisphere typically occur between September and October, while grape harvesting in the Southern Hemisphere generally occurs between March and April.
The above being said, consider what you’re looking to see in any given wine region and the kind of experience you want. If you want to experience a winery at harvest time, plan accordingly. If you don’t want to be cold, avoid the winter months. If Spring is more your thing and you want to see the vines just starting to bud, you’ll need to consider timing appropriately. You get the idea.
Consider Proximity (Airport, Hotels, Distance Between Wineries)
So now you’ve narrowed down your travel time, budget and general location. It’s time to get more specific.
First, depending on your preferred style of travel, it makes sense to plot a course in relation to how you travel. At this point, you should have a general idea of what flight(s) you’re taking and what airport you’ll be flying into. From there, you can begin to research wineries within whatever sub-appellations are closest to the airport. It’s best to begin selecting wineries, before booking hotels, as many wineries even offer accommodation options, such as Marques de Riscal in La Rioja.
Proximity, in general, is critical to having a good experience. Maybe you’re looking to spread out your wine tastings to explore a landscape. Maybe you’re planning on drinking a lot so you’d rather not have to drive far. Or, maybe you’ve decided to have someone drive you around the entire time, which offers more flexibility and less worry. You also don’t want to end up dozens of miles from the nearest restaurant or hotel at the end of the day, so think about logistics throughout every step of your planning.
Consider Transportation Options
Taking proximity a step further, deciding on how you want to get around is critical to planning the perfect trip.
I prefer to drive myself and simply be cautious about how much I’ve been drinking when I’m winery touring. Others prefer to avoid this entirely and opt to use buses or pre-planned chauffeur services within whichever region they’re visiting. Additionally, some regions and specific wineries have dedicated guides, who will pick you up from your hotel, take you to lunch and a series of wineries within your preferred region.
It’s best to explore all of these options and be sure not to burn yourself out in one day. You can also mix it up, as we mentioned earlier. Drive yourself one day, use a guide the second day, etc. In any case, remember that ultimately you’ll need to eat, get back safely to your hotel and ultimately leave the region at the end of your trip. So again, think through logistics on a micro-level.
Tours vs. Tastings
Deciding on or mixing up Wine Tours vs. Wine Tastings is also a great way to narrow down your wine vacation experience. First, let’s define a wine tour vs. a wine tasting.
Wine Tours: Generally, a guided tour by a winery employee or owner who takes you through their grounds and or vineyard property, which also includes tastings at the end.
Wine Tasting: Generally, flights of wine are poured by bar staff at individual wineries (typically about 1 ounce), which allows the consumer to taste the varying styles of wine produced by the Vintner.
First of all, some wineries don’t offer tours, so if you run into that you may already be able to knock some off your list. Secondly, wine tastings can be great, but they usually don’t provide a more emotional connection to the winery since you aren’t also visiting the grounds and learning about the winemaking process. Of course, there are many wineries out there that have excellent bar staff and can still offer a phenomenal experience.
A general rule for me on deciding on tours vs. tastings is two-fold. First, I look for wine tours at wineries that have exceptional grounds. A beautiful property is typically worth a tour as long as it isn’t too overpriced. Wineries that have smaller grounds and or unimpressive scenery may make more sense for simply tasting. Keep in mind, just because a winery may not have the most beautiful architecture, landscape or views doesn’t mean that they aren’t producing fantastic wine.
Second, I think it’s critical to try both tours and tastings. Based on the criteria I mentioned above, do your wine tours at fancy or well-known properties, and simply taste at the less impressive ones. This allows for a flexible, more immersive experience.
So now you know the difference between a winery tour and a wine tasting. Keep in mind that as you continue planning your trip, you’re also going to need to figure out whether or not reservations are required for a visit in general. Many corporate and mom-and-pop wineries only allow visiting when a reservation is made. Conversely, many allow you to simply show up and say “I’m Here, Let me drink.”
Depending on the research you’re doing into visiting a region, you’re probably going to find both. You’ll need to decide whether or not you feel the wineries that require reservations are worth the visit or not. Once you’ve conceded yourself to a reservation, you’re going to need to try your best to make it. For some, this can be stressful having to rush from appointment to appointment. Others prefer the structure. Figure out what kind of experience you want and then book accordingly. I tend to interchange reservations and non-reservation required wineries on most of my trips.
For instance, on the first day, I may just want the freedom to roam with no time constraints. The second day, perhaps there’s an epic winery I want to visit which requires a reservation, so I stick to a more structured schedule.
Know Your Favorite Style(s) of Wine
Another way to further narrow down the best wine vacation experience is to plan your tours and tastings around your favorite grapes! Consider researching individual wineries, and if possible, buy some of their wines at your local liquor store to get a sense of what they craft. More often than not, wineries will have styles of wine that they’re known for, and you can potentially plan your wine trip based around grape varieties and or blends that you prefer. A good way to figure this out is to use a wine rating application, like Vivino, to scan for wines by a particular winery and see what other consumers have rated them as. If you know you love a good Cabernet Sauvignon, and a winery you’re considering makes a Cabernet but you’re not sure if the quality — look the brand up on Vivino and search for the Cabernet to see where it stands.
Conversely, you may be a very open-minded traveler and taster, like myself. If that’s the case, it’s still good to know what kind of wine styles are your favorite. When you get to any given region, you can tell your guide or winery staff the style of taste preference you have, and they can attempt to match that flavor preference with a grape variety perhaps you didn’t even know about! It’s this sort of open-mindedness that makes both wine and travel fun.
Familiarize Yourself with What the Region is Known For
At this point in your wine vacation planning, you’ve probably learned a decent amount about whatever region it is you’re visiting. Below, we’ll quickly list off a few other things you should familiarize yourself with before your visit.
What grape(s) is the region best known for?
When does the region harvest their grapes?
Have I done my research on the general history of the wine region?
Should I familiarize myself with local winemaking practices so I can appreciate the region more?
What is the average cost for a bottle of wine in the region?
What is the average cost of a tour in the region?
What is the average cost of a tasting in the region?
Generally, how does ‘tipping’ work in the region?
Consider the Climate, Pack Accordingly
Again, touching on what we mentioned earlier regarding the time of year when planning a wine vacation — be conscious of the general climate and weather conditions. Make sure you pack appropriate seasonal clothing and also take into account driving conditions if you are renting a car.
Also, it makes sense to get a free Travel Insurance quote from a trusted provider to protect yourself from any “What If’s” that may arise on your trip. It could save a lot of money.
Using a Guide to Plan it For You
There are several companies out there that offer all-inclusive, guided packages for wine tours all over the world. Additionally, many of the appellations themselves are essentially marketing hubs and can offer recommendations or pre-packed itineraries you can simply follow along with.
Having your wine vacation planned for you comes with both its ups and downs. On one hand, the logistics are largely taken care of. On the other hand, you may be sacrificing your freedom. This comes down to the kind of traveler you are. Make sure to research your preferred region extensively and search around for possible package options. Many regions also have their own website, which often mention guides, travel agents or wineries you can contact ahead of time to book your trip for you.
Know Where You’re Eating Ahead of Time
At this point, there’s a good chance you’ve got your general itinerary down. You know where you’re flying into and out of, what wineries you’re visiting and where you’re staying. But did you select restaurants ahead of time? Many wine travelers are guilty of omitting or completely forgetting about eating. Trust me, when you’re out on the road in the middle of a beautiful landscape, it’s easy to forget. At the same time, you don’t want to be stranded and have no idea where to go eat. Locating a restaurant on the spot can be incredibly time-consuming. Be sure to research restaurants in the area and have them marked down on your itinerary, with addresses and phone numbers so you can quickly navigate and pull an audible if necessary.
Additionally, be sure to pack some snacks that aren’t too light. If you’re on a tight schedule, you may not have time to have as big a meal as you’d like. As you’ll be drinking, it’s important to keep a base of food in your stomach to slow the absorption of alcohol.
Bringing Wine Home with You
Many wine tourists stumble (literally) across a beautiful style of wine they tried at a tasting or on a wine tour. It’s very common for these consumers to want to bring a few bottles home with them. Consider this ahead of time, and either bring a suitcase that allows for wine storage while traveling or set some money aside in your over-all budget to account for purchasing wine and potentially having it shipped home. If you’re looking for a good suitcase to transport wine back home with you, check out this highly-rated 12 bottle case.
Some people are going to disagree with me on this. Many travelers prefer to be “unplugged” from their digital lives that they’re so consumed by at home. If that’s you, ignore this tip. However, I do advise having some form of connectivity when traveling, especially abroad. Having a GPS and or a general, interactive map can be invaluable to saving you both time and money as you navigate a foreign region. Also, you may get to a point where you don’t know where to eat, or you get a flat tire, or you run out of gas (which happened to me in British Columbia recently). Save yourself that hassle and have some form of an emergency contact. Many carriers, such as Verizon, now offer pretty great deals on getting service abroad. For as little as $10 a day in Europe ($2 / day in Canada), I was able to have access to 8 Gigs of data throughout my entire trip.
At this point, your trip should be pretty much booked and you should be pretty excited. However, if you’re still unsure about certain aspects, don’t be afraid to look up reviews! Whether it’s of the wineries, hotels, restaurants, whatever you may be unsure about — reviews are incredibly helpful. We frequently review itineraries, wines and individual wineries here at Winetraveler, so keep an eye on our app — which integrates reviews from multiple sources.
You can also browse our database of wineries around the world and filter down to wineries in certain regions that fit your travel preferences.
Questions? Ask away in the comment section below! We’re here to help make your wine tasting vacation experience the best it can be.