Wine tourism is no longer about just selling wine. Wineries understand that it is a way to build or strengthen a brand and to create brand ambassadors. The United Nations World Tourism Organization Wine Tourism initiative goes further . The UNWTO proposes that wine tourism is or can be a set of rich experiences that use wine to connect history, culture, tradition, and cuisine in a way that links the global tourism market to distinctive local environments.
The best wine tourism experiences, like the best tourism experiences generally, surprise, delight, inform and sometimes inspire and transform. That’s a powerful force. I guess that’s why wine tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the wine industry.
Sue and I encountered several state-of-the-art wine tourism programs during our recent FEV-sponsored visit to Spain. Here are sketches of three of the most memorable to give you a sense of what’s on offer in this dynamic wine nation. Come back next week for three more case studies.
More than a Museum
You travel to Morales de Toro by passing through acre after acre of century-old goblet-trained Tinto de Toro (the local variety of Tempranillo) vines. What a sight! When you get there you are drawn to the Pagos Del Rey Wine Museum, which is located in the building that once housed the local cooperative winery and radiates the sense of its utilitarian origins.
Most of the wine museums I have experienced are built around collections of old equipment, and this is true here as well. Both the garden and the museum itself have these displays. What gets your attention, however, is the main hall, which features the double row of concrete tanks (see photo above) that was the hard-working part of the winery. Interactive exhibits stand between the rows, but the real fun begins when you round the corner and enter the first tank.
A video kicks on a you quickly realize that you are actually in the tank as the grapes are loaded in and fermentation takes place over and around you (interrupted by periodic pump-overs). Each of the other tanks presents its own video that explains the vineyard and winery process until you reach the end, which immerses you in the local harvest festival.
This might be the most interesting wine museum we’ve ever visited in the way that all the senses are engaged and linked to both the wines but also local culture and tradition. No wonder so many wine tourists make there way here each year (click here to take a virtual tour right now). Congratulations to the Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine companies, for creating this small treasure, which seems to tick all the UNWTO boxes so well.
A Monastery with a Michelin Star
A completely different experience at Abadia Retuerta and its associated hotel LeDomaine, which are located just outside the Ribera del Duero zone (Vega Sicilia is just down the road, so it is a good neighborhood). This is a very ambitious luxury wine tourism project of Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis. The hotel, with its Michelin-rated Refectorio restaurant, is housed in a restored 12th century monastery, which Spanish friends tell me was in ruins before the project began.
The careful restoration preserved a sense of the place while upgrading amenities (including a spa) to appeal to luxury wine tourists. The chapel feels like what it once was and the cloisters have that quiet sensibility that makes them special. The restaurant is in the old refectory and makes dining there an experience that is about more than food.
Sue and I enjoyed one of the set dinner menus that sought inspiration in local ingredients and traditions. We got very lucky on the wine as the Novartis board had met there the day before and we helped finish off some of the magnums that they had enjoyed with their meal.
It is hard to stop thinking about the hotel and restaurant, but the wine side is special too. The wine tourism experiences are mainly organized around the various old vineyards with e-bike, horseback and 4×4 transportation modes all available.
The total package — vineyards, winery, hotel, restaurant, and spa — is quite spectacular. A tip of the hat to Novartis for seeing the potential of this place making such an important investment in the wine tourism future of this region.
Compare and Contrast
We left Abadia del Retuerta and set our gps for Elciego in the Rioja region, stopping along the way in Burgos for lunch and a tour of the famous cathedral. Our destination was Marqués de Riscal, the oldest wine producer in Rioja, and its famous hotel, which rises above the winery at the top of the hill.
The main hotel structure was designed by architect Frank Gehry, all bright colors and unexpected angles. Most of the hotel rooms and the spa are found in a more conventional building adjacent to the Ghery structure and over-looking a vineyard block. It is quite a place and, in a funny way, its sharp contrast with Spanish tradition serves to bring out some of the features of the small village on the other side of the road (especially the church, I think).
Down the hill from the hotel you find the historic winery, which produces 10 million bottles of wine a year (65% for export) and receives about 80,000 visitors. Wine tourism is well organized here with a large public relations staff and an excellent program that takes visitors from the original 1858 building on through the winery ending at bright and colorful tasting room and gift shop area. The brief video that summarizes the main messages of the winery and tour was one of the best of its type we have seen.
We got a real sense of Rioja wine history at Marqués de Riscal, a winery that lives up very well to the goals of the UNWTO wine tourism initiative. It promotes wine, but does much more, creating jobs in the hospitality industry, drawing attention to the region, its culture and history. That’s what wine tourism today is all about.
Thanks to Susana and FEV for inviting us to Spain and to everyone who welcomed us to Pago del Rey, Abadia del Retuerta, and Marqués de Riscal. Come back next week for three more case studies of wine tourism in Spain.