How lucky can we get?

Wednesday, 14 July, 2004
Lew Elias for Wine Tourism News
Spain is the world's fourth largest wine producer and the second most popular European tourist destination. The thought that combining the two would be a cinch ... not so. Lew Elias was there...

The Andulusian town of Jerez owes all it has to sherry and the wineries there seem to welcome tourists, but a trip through the large sherry houses like Gonzalez Byass, producers of Tio Pepe, and Sandeman had us thinking that although they catered for tourists - 1,4 milion a year though Gonzalez Byass - it was a little Disneyfied with groups taken on electric trains around the wineries.

A trip to the Rioja region, from where Spain's benchmark reds come, made us realise just how hard it is to get to taste the wine or find out more about the grapes and the production process.

Visitors are put into a Catch 22 situation with most places only offering tastings 'by arrangement' and no one who speaks English to make those arrangements. Many of the larger establishments were closed to the public and the smaller producers had a bottle or two and a couple of glasses as part of their despatch area. The tastings were hit and miss affairs and little information was passed on. Even wine shops offer little in the way of help to the foreigner wanting to increase their knowledge of Spanish wine.

The really small producers, guys who make a barrel or two a year, have a tasting facility set up in a corner of their garden, and are more accommodating than the mainstream producers but the quality of their wares might explain their friendliness.

Spain is the most prolific producer of sparkling wine (cava) in the world no matter what the French may have you believe.

The cava producing area of Penedes has a regional tourism office with no English speakers and the English world is responsible for around 10 to 13 million tourists a year. It was of no help.   Of the fifteen e-mails sent off ahead of the trip, two of the three replies came from this region. One from a large producer and another from a medium sized winery that is taking on the old guard by adding non-traditional cultivars like Chardonnay to their bubbly.

Freixenet, who sells more than 100 million bottles of bubbly a year, also had a Disney tour of the 15 kilometres of limestone caves and offered a taste only of their most popular product at the end of the tour. The second largest producer, Cordonui, also has an underground train trip but limited tasting and a Spanish audiovisual presentation.

The smaller producers were also not open to tours or tasting. Again it was the garagistas, even though bubbly is not a garage science, who were a little more accommodating and their product offered more character.

British wine tourist Philip Dalrymple of Surry near London summed it up while on a tour of Freixenet when he said that South Africa offered a wine experience better than the United States or even Australia: 'It is the whole outing that stands out in your mind from the great places to stay in the winelands, the knowledgeable staff and the fact that every producer seems to want you there to taste their wines.'

Complaints about tasting charges and the fact that some of the top wines are not available for tasting pale when stacked up against the sort of difficulty experienced in one of the old world's leading producers with centuries of experience of wine making and marketing.

This article was commissioned by Wine Tourism News
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Spanish vineyards destined for Cava production
Spanish vineyards destined for Cava production

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