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The complete guide to wine harvest season - Learning Holidays

As the northern hemisphere heads into harvest season, some of the best wine-growing countries in the world celebrate. If you fancy joining them, we look at the best places to eat, drink and stay as the grapes start the journey from vine to wine

Words by Ben McCormack


With more land under vine than any other country, the landscapes of Spain vary from the barren plateau of Ribera del Duero in the north, to lush, green Galicia in the far north-west, to raw landscapes of the south-east that could be mistaken for north Africa. Vines are historically planted well apart to conserve water consumption, so grape yields are low but wine quality is high.

Rioja, an hour’s drive from Bilbao, is the easiest introduction to wine country, with its undulating landscape of vineyards gathered on either side of the poplar-lined Ebro river. The week-long Rioja Wine Harvest Festival in Logroño coincides with the feast of St Matthew on 21 September, when the city is filled with wine and food tastings, a bull fair, concerts and dancing. Highlights include the grape treading in Plaza de Espolón and the parade of floats decorated with wine-making paraphernalia.

Spain’s Wine Routes have lots of suggestions for self-guided wine tours. But if you want to leave the car behind, the Cava houses of Penedès are an hour’s train journey from Barcelona; and a tour of Freixenet, next door to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia station, is a terrific introduction to a style of wine made in the same way as champagne. 1.5-hour tour with two Cava tastings, £12pp.

For fortified wines, head to the sherry bodegas around Jerez de la Frontera near Càdiz, which make everything from bone-dry fino to caramel-rich oloroso in some of the world’s hottest vineyards.

The stay The Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal in its own ‘City of Wine’, stands in stark contrast to the medieval walls of the neighbouring town of Elciego, and its Michelin-starred Restaurante Marqués de Riscal serves plates as avant-garde as the surroundings. Famous names in Rioja are a short drive away and a tour of the City of Wine’s winery is included in the room price. Doubles from £572. 00 34 945 180880,

The course The complexities of sherry production and classification are demystified at the Wine Interpretation Centre at Delgado Zuleta in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The region’s oldest bodega, founded in 1744, is now home to cutting-edge, multi-sensory technology that allow visitors to feel, smell and taste wine. Tutored tastings of four sherries are held in the wine cellars; and there’s even a children’s wine-making workshop that includes an alcohol-free juice tasting. Tours with tasting, from £9pp. 00 34 956 360 543,

The restaurant Part of the five-star Abadía Retuerta wine and spa hotel housed in a former abbey, Refectorio is overseen by Michelin-starred chef Marc Segarra and also holds a Michelin green star. Expect the likes of carrot with smoked cream and trout roe followed by tomato, purslane and fig oil, and a local freshwater fish stew. Five-course tasting menu, £116pp. 00 34 983 687 600,

Abadia Retuerta Refectorio III

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The Norsemen who arrived in North America in 1,000AD called their new territory ‘Vinland’ on account of the 20 different species of vine that are native to the craggy Atlantic coast of the north-eastern States and Canada. Today, the USA is the world’s fourth largest wine producer (behind Italy, Spain and France) and around 80 per cent is produced in California, with premium wine production focused on counties north of San Francisco, where inland mountains shield vines from the cool California Ocean Current. New York and Washington are the two other states making significant quantities, and Oregon, although producing less, has an impressive number of wineries.

Napa is home to the most famous Californian wine estates, such as Stag’s Leap, where in late September guests can have a hands-on experience of the harvest with winemaker Marcus Notaro before sitting down to an alfresco lunch paired with the estate’s wines. From £148.

Washington has a similar climate and landscape to California, and Walla Walla, in the south-east corner of the state, is fast becoming the capital of its wine scene, with 150 wineries to explore. Each November, the Walla Walla Fall Weekend allows visitors to sample newly released wines and talk to the people who made them.

New York’s wine production is focused on the Finger Lakes, five hours’ drive north-west of New York City, so-called because the 11 glacier-age lakes look like a pair of hands from above (the Native American Iroquois believed the land bore the handprint of a divine spirit). Each has its own microclimate, with shores lined with woodland that turns every shade of red in autumn, and historic towns and vineyards famous for late-ripening rieslings.

The stay Belhurst Castle and Winery on Seneca Lake, New York, a turret-topped building from the 1880s with sweeping lakeside lawns, houses a winery, brewery and spa. Fourteen rooms in the castle feature four-poster beds and open fires, and guests sample the estate’s wine, craft beer and cider in a tasting room overlooking the lake. Doubles from £165. 00 1 315 781 0201,

The course The Napa Valley Wine Academy offers courses ranging from Monday blind tastings and ‘Hedonistic Wednesdays’ to WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Levels 1-4, and expert-led masterclasses, involving tutored tastings of some of the world’s most prestigious wines. 1-hour blind tasting, £33. 00 1 855 513 9738,

The restaurant Winery-restaurant Valdemar Estates in Walla Walla, close to the Oregon border, serve tapas reflecting the vineyard’s ownership by a fifth-generation Spanish wine-making family. Expect Galician octopus with smoked paprika and stuffed Piquillo pepper, paired with chardonnay, roussanne and cabernet sauvignon. Tapas from £8. 00 1 509 956 4926,

Montinore Winery Rudy Vines 6015

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The World of Wine museum that opened in Porto in 2020 proves there’s more to Portuguese wine than port. The £88m complex is the centrepiece of the city’s new cultural district and features immersive exhibits devoted to each wine-growing region.

Vines are grown almost everywhere and the style of wine is affected by the climate: the damp Vinho Verde region in the north-west produces light, dry whites, while hot and dry Alentejo in the south-east produces full-bodied reds. This area’s most significant contribution to wine is the cork oak tree, however – Portugal is responsible for half of global cork production. See the trees up close at Herdade da Maroteira’s 540ha farm, with the option of adding lunch and a wine tasting. Cork trek, £30pp.

On the wild Setúbal peninsula south of Lisbon, the Adega de Palmela winery offers tasting tours from £4.50 and, on certain mornings in September, the chance to join in the harvest followed by a tapas lunch and wine tasting.

Despite this diversity, the country’s sweet wines are still in a class of their own. Many of the major port houses were founded by English and Scottish families, a cultural exchange established 400 years ago. The grapes are grown in the Upper Douro Valley, 45 miles east of the photogenic city of Oporto, in narrow terraces clinging to steep riverside slopes. The wine is mixed with grape brandy, before being taken to mature in the lodges (warehouses) of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The stay Herdade Malhadinha Nova is not only a working farm and acclaimed wine producer but also a luxury boutique hotel, with 10 rooms surrounded by the olive-and-oak dotted plains of the lower Alentejo. Days can be spent wine tasting, horse riding, or perhaps taking a hot-air balloon trip, and come evening, menus feature the acorn-fed pigs seen roaming the surrounding land as well as produce from the organic garden. Doubles from £340 (minimum two-night stay). 00 351 284 965 432,

The course Wine has been made in the 40ha vineyards of Taboadella in the Dão since the 13th century and they share the knowledge in a ‘Winemaker for the Day’ course. Guests learn the art, from blending, tasting and batch creation to bottling and corking, then take away a bottle of the wine they have created. £430pp. 00 351 232 244 000,

The restaurant Dow’s is part of port producer Symington Family Estates, and at their newly opened Bomfim 1896 restaurant, Michelin-starred chef Pedro Lemos uses wood-burning ovens to create contemporary takes on traditional dishes such as lobster rice. At the Quinta do Bomfim winery next door, guests can see the grapes arrive, with tastings on the terrace overlooking the Douro river as new wines are made below them. Three courses, £47pp. 00 351 254 730360,

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The Greeks who brought their winemaking knowledge to the southern tip of Italy in the 8th century BC were so impressed by how easy it was to grow grapes that they called their new colony ‘Oenotria’, or ‘land of the vine’. Little did they know that the Etruscans were already making wine in the north of the Italian Peninsula. It’s no surprise, then, that with such a long history of viticulture, Italy today makes more wine than any other country.

Every region has its individual charms [as you’ll have seen from our wine trails series on p77], from the light whites of Alpine Alto Adige by the Austrian border to the sun-baked islands of Sicily and Sardinia and their juicy reds. It’s Tuscany, perhaps, that embodies the world’s love of Italian wine, with its deep-red, oak-aged Chianti, produced in the pine tree-studded hills around Arezzo, Florence, Pisa and Siena. Tuscany is the centre of the agriturismo business, with many historic buildings on wine estates converted into holiday accommodation, making the region a great base for the vendemmia or wine harvest. Tenuta Torciano, for example, near the medieval towers of San Gimignano, offers a one-day harvest experience of grape-picking and stamping interspersed with a tour of the cellar, an alfresco meal among the vines and copious tasting of the estate’s wines for £211pp.

The stay Formerly a Cistercian hilltop monastery, with a 400-year history, Relais San Maurizio sits in the heart of Piedmont’s Langhe-Roero region, famous for Barolo and Barbaresco. Accommodation is available either in the former monastery or in suites in an 18th-century farmhouse. Meals of Piedmontese specialities in the Michelin-starred Guido da Costigliole restaurant can be taken on a candlelit terrace with views stretching across to the Alps, while wine therapies are on offer in the spa. Doubles from £389. 00 39 0141 841900,

The course After exploring wine country, head to Florence for a Sunday afternoon class at The Italian Wine Institute, held in English, where you’ll taste six Tuscan wines. For something more immersive, sign up for a four-day Italian Wine Scholar certificate in November, an academic qualification that offers a deep-dive into every Italian wine region, with a multiple-choice exam at the end and the kudos of adding ‘IWS’ after your name. Sunday class, £46pp. 00 39 055 234 4142,

The restaurant Castello di Fonterutoli has been making Chianti Classico for almost 600 years near Siena, and Osteria di Fonterutoli makes good use of the estate’s know-how and sense of place, with wild game from its meadows and woodlands. Don’t be fooled by the rustic appearance: dishes such as pork belly with steamed aubergines and wild mustard leaves are given a refined, modern spin. Three courses from £42pp. 00 39 0577 741125,

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Wine is as French as a Breton top and many regions still provide a benchmark – Bordeaux is a byword for sophisticated cabernet sauvignon, its châteaux surrounded by neat rows of vines on the Gironde estuary that are as likely to be owned by a luxury goods brands like Chanel as a local winemaker. The hills of Burgundy, on the other hand, are covered by thousands of tiny family-owned vineyards producing world-beating pinot noir and chardonnay.

France is a land of contrasts: Champagne can feel bleak on one of its frequent grey days; the vineyards of the Rhône and Loire follow the course of two of Europe’s great rivers; the sun-kissed southern regions of Languedoc and Roussillon are bathed in light reflected off the Mediterranean; and Alsace looks more like the vineyards of neighbouring Germany.

The beginning of the wine harvest is marked all over France by the ban des vendanges, literally ‘lifting the ban of the grape harvest’. And it’s often ceremonial: in the Bordeaux village of Saint-Émilion in mid-September, a group of wine growers dressed in red and white robes take to the top of the King’s Tower as they have done for the past 800 years before parading through streets lined with tables offering wine tastings, local food and crafts.

The stay At Les Sources de Caudalie, amid Château Smith Haut Lafitte vineyards, cookery classes, tours, tastings and a vinotherapy spa with treatments based on grape polyphenols are all on-site, along with the two-Michelin-starred La Grand’ Vigne. Doubles from £174. 00 33 5 57 83 83 83,

Alternatively, book in to a room at the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa and lap up the luxury while your hosts arrange behind-the-scenes visits to small producers and great Champagne houses. Doubles from £750. 00 33 3 2652 8711,

The course As part of Dijon’s Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin, an educational hub overseen by l’École des Vins de Bourgogne offers tasting experiences for all levels. A 45-minute workshop, in English, costs £20pp. 00 33 3 80 23 88 76,

The restaurant In Épernay, twin capital of Champagne along with Reims, good dining options are often off-limits to those outside the wine trade, but Perrier-Jouët offers an exception. Among original Toulouse-Lautrecs in the Maison Belle Époque, a seven-course lunch with wine pairings is served to 12 diners. £279pp. 00 33 6 74 27 05 88,

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If British cuisine was once a laughing stock, the idea of English wine was a bad joke. Over the past 25 years, however, home-grown wines have garnered an international reputation to match the UK’s now world-beating restaurant scene.

Vines were most likely introduced to Britain by the Romans and Christian communities kept up the winemaking tradition, but then the Dissolution of the Monasteries brought it to an abrupt halt, only to be revived after World War ll. Although the UK should, in theory, be too far north for wine production, the Gulf Stream tempers the cool climate, and gentle landscape allows vines to be planted on the south-facing slopes of rolling hills. These are often similar to the chalk ridges found on the other side of the Channel – hence the interest from the Champagne houses that are busy buying up land all over the Home Counties.

Sparkling wines are where England currently excels and the classic champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier are usually picked in October, when sugar and acid levels in the grapes are at the best levels and in balance. Some producers welcome volunteers to help with the harvest – for instance, Sussex vineyards Oastbrook Estate, Ashling Park and Wiston Estate – while The Mount Vineyard in Kent treats its volunteers to a fine lunch of cheese, charcuterie and wine.

The stay England’s largest vineyard, Denbies, is home to a 17-room hotel in Surrey hills planted with vines that produce 16 still and sparkling wines, several of them award-winning. There are walking trails and tours, a farm shop and deli, while treatments and classes (massage, yoga) are available in The Barn next door. Breakfast and dinner can be taken in the glass-walled Vineyard Restaurant and Wine Library, which serves seasonal local produce. Doubles from £145. 01306 876777,

The course Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones kick-started modern commercial wine production in England at Hambledon, Hampshire, in 1951. Today the estate produces some of England’s finest sparkling wines and is a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)-approved partner. WSET Level 1 one-day course in November, £200pp including lunch and a bottle to take home.

The restaurant Michael Caines has worked in some of the finest restaurants in both the UK and France but the chef remains loyal to his native West Country. Views stretching across towards Lyme Bay are best admired with a glass on the veranda at his Georgian country-house hotel, Lympstone Manor, before superlative Michelin-starred dining accompanied, perhaps, by Triassic Pinot Noir 2020, the vineyard’s first wine. Three courses from £155pp. 01395 202040,

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Wine has also been made in southern Germany since Roman times, and you’ll find well preserved remains in Trier, one of the country’s oldest cities, in the Moselle wine region. The Moselle river, like the Ahr, Main, Nahe and Neckar, flows into the Rhine, and the 13 German winemaking regions are scattered across valleys covered in a canopy of forests dotted with castles and interspersed with picturesque villages.

Thanks to a cool, damp climate, wines tend to be lower-alcohol with high acidity – the opposite of what many drinkers in the UK favour, so they haven’t traditionally been popular with Brits. It doesn’t help that German grapes and wine classifications can seem impenetrable to anyone who isn’t an expert. And yet many a sommelier will name riesling, of which the Germans are the masters, as their favourite grape variety. There’s more to German wines than aromatic whites, though: their pinot noir, known as spätburgunder, is a good-value alternative to red Burgundy, for instance. Vineyards tend to be small and many are overseen by young winemakers producing high-quality wines with character. The mineral-rich slopes of the Moselle are some of the steepest vineyards in the world, so many grapes are harvested by hand.

The stay Formerly the home of the estate director, Gut Hermannsberg is a recently renovated guesthouse sitting among six terraces high in the Nahe valley. Hiking and cycling trails abound, or you can simply enjoy the peaceful isolation with a glass of smoky riesling. Doubles from £140. 00 49 67 589 2500,

The restaurant Housed in what used to be a summerhouse at the top of Johannisberg Hill in the Rheingau region, the Burg Schwarzenstein hotel looks over the Rhine to the south and vineyards on all sides. Its Burgrestaurant serves dishes inspired by regional cooking, while sommelier Michel Fouquet runs wine tastings among the vineyards. Three-course meal, from £57pp. 00 49 67 229 9500,

Wine at Amadors Wirthaus Greißlerei

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Best of the rest

Austria From late summer to November, Lower Austria’s eight wine-growing-regions celebrate 4,000 years of wine culture in the country’s north-eastern state, which borders the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Around 800 events are held in 100 wine towns and villages; sturm festivals offer the first tasting of the year’s vintage, vineyard owners set up tables for wine dinners on the cobbles of the kellergassen, the picturesque lanes of wine cellars, while pop-up taverns called heurigen serve the new wine with local food.

Greece The volcanic Aegean island of Santorini is the home of the increasingly fashionable assyrtiko grape, with vines shaped close to the ground to protect them from the relentless wind. The vedema, or wine harvest, began in early August, but the island’s biggest wine party takes place on 22 October, the feast day of St Averkios, patron saint of wine. A priest blesses the barrels of new wine with a sprig of basil ahead of a feast of local dishes, music, dancing and, of course, wine.

Switzerland The Unesco World Heritage site of the Lavaux vineyards, overlooking Lake Geneva, produce the country’s finest wines, only 2 per cent of which are exported. The Wine Growers’ Festival takes place just four times a century (most recently in 2019) but all previous festivals are on show at Vevey’s Musée de la Confrérie des Vignerons. Until the next one rolls around, the ‘Wine Enthusiast’s Stay’ at Lausanne’s Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa (doubles from £706) includes a vineyard tour, wine tasting and four-course dinner with Swiss wines.

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