When it comes to boutique wineries, it’s out with the old, off-the-shelf tastings, and in with the new: a greater emphasis on experiential visits. Whether it’s camping overnight among the vines, open-air cinema nights or a variety of gourmet dining experiences, we’ve found that winery visits are no longer just about the wine.
Our specialists shine a spotlight on the more unusual experiences they’ve enjoyed, many focusing on less obvious wine-growing areas, which we think are just as enticing (not to mention less crowded).
Private dining in the wine cellar at Bodegas RE, Chile
By Chile specialist Chloe
In the morning, the neat rows of vines that lace the valley floor are often blanched in fog, which burns off as the heat rises. It’s a climate that results in a longer-than-average growing season, helping to create ideal conditions for intense sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.
Chile’s a relatively new kid on the block when it comes to wines (production only started in the mid 1980s), and Bodegas RE is one of the newest of the lot. Like many a boutique winery in the Casablanca Valley — which usually plays second fiddle to the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys — it’s a tech-savvy, sleek outfit that creates its own fusions such as ‘chardonnoires’
The tasting room is airy, smart and contemporary, decked in natural woods. You could opt, as I did, for a tasting of all RE’s various fusions, accompanied by a platter of local meats and cheeses, as well as the estate’s homemade balsamic vinegar. But on my next visit, I plan to indulge in the four-course tasting lunch. You eat at a private table in the blissfully cool cellar, surrounded by wine fermenting in a jumble of terracotta amphora.
Farm-to-table dining and ice wine in the Okanagan Valley, Canada
By Canada specialist Alice
Lounging on a cacti-dotted hillside above the town of Osoyoos, with views over its lake to the mountains opposite, is Nk’Mip Cellars. Pronounced inkameep, it’s of the first few First-Nations-owned wineries in North America. And, as of last year, it’s one of my go-to places in Canada.
If you have never heard of the Okanagan Valley, you’re not alone. Osoyoos, five hours’ drive south of Vancouver, is technically desert — perhaps the last place you’d expect vineyards to sprout up. But as you travel north by the side of Lake Okanagan, the valley floor becomes a crosshatch of cherry, apple and peach orchards, interspersed with vines.
The wines produced here are rarely exported, making them largely unknown outside Canada (and even within other provinces in Canada). You could stay in one of the area’s characterful B&Bs or boutique hotels based in their own vineyards, and spend a happy day moseying around the many family-affair wineries.
I suggest stopping for lunch at one of the wineries’ excellent farm-to-table restaurants. If you’re a fan of dessert wine — and even if you’re not — I recommend the region’s signature crisp ice wine.
As well as the patio at Nk’Mip (watch out for wild deer padding among the vines), I loved the glass-box-style restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Winery, which gives you the sensation of being suspended above the valley floor.
Camping at Rymill and Lake Breeze wineries, South Australia
By Australia specialist Tom
‘Well,’ I thought, as I parked up for the night, ‘campervanning has changed a bit’. My stopping place was right between the bushy green vines of Rymill Coonawarra, a family-owned winery that sprawls on the rich, loamy, red-clay soil (terra rossa) of South Australia’s Limestone Coast. I’d been driving the long road between Port Fairy and Adelaide, and I chose to break my journey here, staying for the night in the vineyard.
It was a good decision. The owners set me up with a hamper of local cheeses, meats, breads, pâté and a fine cabernet sauvignon, their star wine (and one I’m particularly fond of). Then I sat in total privacy among the vines — only one campervan is permitted per night — munching and sipping away as I watched the sunset.
And the best bit? I got to repeat the experience all over again, the following night, when I stopped at Lake Breeze Winery in Langhorne Creek. It enjoys a balmy riverbank setting, its grounds full of eucalypts as well as vines. Here, they presented me with wines and a bountiful charcuterie board that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any top restaurant in the south of France.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that both of these wineries will tailor your stay to your interests. If you have time, they’ll even let you have a go at making your own wine.
State-of-the-art eco-winery in Uruguay
By Uruguay specialist Fiona
Just getting there was pleasant. Heading inland from the sophisticate beach town of José Ignacio, I drove for a relaxed 90 minutes through tiny villages on a road that followed the rise and fall of low-lying, rolling hills.
As I approached my destination, the hillsides started to resemble a neat mosaic of vines bisected by white roads. But nothing really prepared me for my visit to the winery that owned them all.
Bodega Gárzon is an understated winery that secretly wants to make a statement: the tone is set by the entrance, which takes the form of a walkway over an ornamental pool. Meanwhile, an enormous metal-mesh chandelier hangs in the restaurant. But the estate is actually fairly small.
The buildings themselves are unobtrusive against the surrounding landscape. Everything is made out of natural materials: the stonework a shade of light dun, and desks made out of salvaged trees. Its vineyards make use of wind power, rainwater collection, and other sustainability initiatives, and no external wine additives are used in the production process.
Controversially, I don’t particularly like tannat, the traditional wine of Uruguay — I find it too bitter. But this is still easily one of the best boutique wineries I’ve ever visited (my tip: try their white, the Albariño Reserva, instead).
There are showier touches — you can tour the winery’s nearby olive groves by hot air balloon. Or you can simply sample their olive oil over a wine-pairing lunch in the restaurant or its outdoor terrace, overlooking more pools and the vineyards.
Outdoor cinema nights at Cape Mentelle, Western Australia
By Sophie from our Australia team
Admittedly, by the time I reached the breezy vineyard of Cape Mentelle, I was already feeling pretty relaxed after a day of wine tasting in the Margaret River region. But this initially modest-looking winery, I soon discovered, had its own particular highlight.
Each summer evening, big reclining beanbags and warm blankets are laid out on the lawns, just in front of the vines. The latest movie releases are projected onto a screen erected amid the native karri trees, while an open-air bar serves beer and Cape Mentelle wines.
Cabernet sauvignon is their bestseller, but you could also sample their zinfandel, semillon, cabernet franc and shiraz varieties. You can bring your own picnic, or order a cheese and meat platter (as well as more substantial dishes) from a gourmet food van.
As darkness fell, everyone started to snuggle into their beanbags, and the film began. Every now and again, I tried to remember to look up at the star-studded sky (there’s little light pollution around here) and was rewarded with glimpses of several shooting stars.
New Zealand’s oldest winery, near Hawke’s Bay, Napier, North Island
By New Zealand specialist Leon
A stately white house on a hill. That’s your first sight of Mission Estate, a winery ensconced in the Taradale Hills with views stretching all the way to Hawke’s Bay and over the farmland surrounding the city of Napier.
Founded by French Marist missionaries in 1851 to produce Eucharistic wines, the estate is still owned by the Catholic Church. The main building is a restored seminary (a cross stands over the entrance) with immaculately clipped lawns outside. Inside, it’s all vaulted ceilings and French doors.
You can learn more about Mission Estate’s storied history on a tour, or visit it as part of a wider circuit of local wineries. It produces almost every kind of wine grown in New Zealand, including an award-winning chardonnay, Mission Huchet, named after Brother Cyprian Huchet, one of the estate’s pioneering winemakers.
During a meal at the winery’s gourmet restaurant, I also enjoyed their dessert wine, which is particularly tricky to perfect in New Zealand due to the climate.
Mission Estate offers accommodation, but I prefer to stay nearby in Kanuka Cliffs. This highly artistic, homestay-style property is located in the middle of a natural bush reserve, close to many of the area’s wineries.
A sophisticated vineyard stay at Leeu Estates, Franschhoek, South Africa
By South Africa specialist Amelia
Just an hour east of Cape Town, the Cape Winelands is an area of rolling hills quilted in vineyards, surrounded by great fists of mountains. Here, the French-influenced town and valley of Franschhoek is home to more than 50 wineries.
While many of these can be visited on a whim, to throw yourself into the winemaking culture I recommend staying at Leeu Estates. Set on the town’s outskirts, this boutique winery is owned by Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and forms part of the Leeu Collection (along with nearby Leeu House and Le Quartier Français).
The estate’s 19th-century manor house offers six spacious guest rooms and suites. A further 11 are housed in cottages scattered among the grounds. Guests can make use of the spa, infinity pool, and various walking trails that lead through vineyards and manicured gardens. Meanwhile, the Dining Room serves local dishes using ingredients from the estate’s vegetable garden, accompanied by its own fine South African wines.
While there, I made sure to visit the Wine Studio. Here, you can take part in wine tastings hosted by the Mullineux & Leeu team, who tell you more about the wines, the winemaking process and the estate itself.
There are three tasting experiences to choose from, but the Mullineux Signature Tasting is complimentary to guests. I sipped my way through four different vintages covering Mullineux white and syrah blends, as well as the estate’s refreshing red and white Kloof Street wines.
A classic Tuscan vineyard experience, Italy
By Italy specialist Carolyn
Spanning both the Chianti Hills and the Ombrone Valley, the Fèlsina estate was once part of the farmlands directly owned by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
It’s a picturebook Tuscan winery: long drives lined with towering cypresses, views to ramshackle hilltop farms, and cavernous cellars with row after row of barrels, pungent with the scent of maturing wine.
The estate tour takes you by 4x4 through the grounds, and you might have a chance to stroll among the bedecked sangiovese vines. After exploring the cellars you’ll head to a private tasting room to sample some of their renowned Chianti classicos and extra virgin olive oil which is also produced on the estate.
Afterward, it’s on to Villa Vignamaggio, an aristocratic home surrounded by immaculate formal gardens, with wine cellars dating back over 600 years. After touring the grounds, you’ll head to the restaurant for a four-course lunch, based around fresh seasonal produce from the estate and paired with four of their wines.
Cycle between wineries in Sonoma Valley, California, USA
By USA specialist Victoria
Less showy than Napa, the Sonoma Valley has the same landscape of green, gently rippling hills and pockets of wildflowers: irises, lupins and California poppies, to name just a few. And, because the boutique wineries are more spaced out, it doesn’t feel overcrowded.
A great way to get a feel for the area, and to visit some of the smaller winemakers, is by bicycle, on a wine and cycling tour. You simply meet in Sonoma (a former Mexican army outpost), get matched to a suitable steed, and follow your wine aficionado guide on a relaxed 5 to 8 km (3 to 5 mile) pedal between a couple of his or her selected wineries.
En route, you pass by grand ranches and down quieter back-roads. It’s flat, distinctly non-strenuous cycling, and the bicycle seats are well padded. And, if the various heady bouquets leave you feeling a little too drowsed, you can opt to travel in the accompanying van. It also transports any purchases you decide to make.
The wineries you visit vary from tour to tour, but I really enjoyed stopping at Bartholomew Park, an organic winery set at the end of a long residential road among leafy grounds and parkland. The hosts are incredibly friendly and the tastings here are generous. You might sample cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, and chardonnay, along with various snacks.
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