Featured Hotels Destinations Move Work Events Videos

The New World of wine tourism

While wine tourism has emerged as a popular niche, the world’s oldest and most famous wine regions have been slow to capitalise on it. But now, the Old World is catching up to the New

The New World of wine tourism
A vineyard in Napa Valley, California  

The traditional vineyards of Europe command a reverence from wine aficionados that has few parallels. Violinists say the sound of an original Stradivarius is unmatched, while gearheads treat classic cars, such as the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, with sheer devotion. Similarly, certain vintage wines from Bordeaux have also been propelled to legendary status, such as those produced in August 1978, when a late warm snap saved the harvest from a three-month patch of cold, wet weather.

Still, despite the respect that traditional winemaking regions command, they have not lived up to their tourism potential over the years. While the end product is undoubtedly stunning, wine regions in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal have not held the same sway with tourists as those in the New World. In California, Australia and South Africa, wine tourism has become a tremendous force, and in some specific cases now accounts for greater profit than the retail sale of the wine itself.

However, the Old World is finally catching up to the benefits of wine tourism. The sightseeing empires that have been built up in places like the Barossa Valley, Australia and Sonoma County, California have proved to be tremendously beneficial, with the Old World beginning to find ways to emulate the current status quo.

However, catching up to other parts of the world is not as simple as building new facilities; much of the Old World is built around a traditional charm that is substantially tethered to its ongoing appeal. Growing wine tourism in an authentic way is a challenge – although it is one that many classic regions are now beginning to tackle.

Welcoming wine tasters
Enotourism – or, more simply, wine tourism – is a relatively recent development in the broader trend of agritourism, or experiences that centre around farming, produce and agriculture. A desire to experience food in the very location where it was produced has existed for some time but, until now, Old World vineyards have had few incentives to jump on the trend.

However, wine tourists have since provided a much-needed boost to both profit and attention in California – particularly in the state’s most famous winemaking region, Napa Valley. California has a history of winemaking that dates back as far as the late-18th century, before French settler Jean-Louis Vignes opened the region’s first commercial winery in 1833. Winemaking in the region grew over the years, thanks to the state’s favourable conditions and proximity to shipping services in nearby San Francisco.

Prohibition decimated the industry in the 1920s, however, and the Great Depression hindered rebuilding efforts. Nonetheless, wine districts such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County underwent a remarkable transformation in the following years. A 1944 report from the University of California, Davis titled Composition and Quality of Musts and Wines of California Grapes determined that Napa Valley’s climate, which bears similarities to that of Bordeaux, made the region suitable for growing cabernet sauvignon grapes, while Sonoma was a prime destination for producing pinot noir and chardonnay.

Despite the respect that traditional winemaking regions command, they have not lived up to their tourism potential

The 1960s saw a surge of winemakers setting up shop in the region, using the study’s conclusions to begin producing wines that would be capable of competing on the world stage.

Even then, tourism was integral to the success of Californian wineries. Initially, the new wineries lacked the clout and international connections to export all they could produce. Tourism then filled a gap in their market, with wineries including tasting rooms, kitchens, galleries and classrooms as part of their facilities. Additionally, they sold wines directly to the public from the cellar door – a bottle or two is a very difficult thing to refuse at the end of a tour.

A true pioneer of this movement was Robert Mondavi, whose constant promotion of his winery and Napa Valley more broadly helped form a lifestyle around wine. Tourists visiting the region would not only be able to see the vineyards, manufacturing processes and final product, but attend concerts, dinner parties and festivals held right there in the vineyards.

In 1976, the necessity to prop up and promote the new wave of Californian wineries became largely redundant with the Judgement of Paris, a blind tasting competition held in Paris. This contest was designed to pit French and Californian wines against one another under the judgement of France’s most renowned tasters. At the time, the wine establishment was dismissive of any drop that wasn’t French, and so the victory of the Californian wines sent shockwaves through the industry. This win ultimately flipped the status quo, establishing that premium wines could come from anywhere in the world, given the right conditions. This only served to boost the tourism industry further, but by this point, Californian wine had little left to prove. Regions in Australia and South Africa have since equally established themselves among oenophiles as tourism hotspots capable of producing world-leading wines.

Old World
The Old World of wine has a very different history. After growing over hundreds of years and establishing reputations as premier producers, destinations like Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have not experienced the same dependence on tourism as the New World. Instead, these Old World locations developed extensive networks of wine dealers to sell their wines to, many of which still persist today.

Speaking to Business Destinations, Catherine Leparmentier Dayot, Managing Director of Great Wine Capitals Global Network, said well-established distribution through both local and international networks meant that tourism was never treated as a necessary income source for Old World winemakers: “We did not have to have people come and buy the wines because it was sold on the local market, on the national market and domestic markets and expert markets, because the business has been organised for so many years.”

The Great Wine Capitals Global Network is a network of 10 major wine destination centres across both the Old and New Worlds that is working to promote both wine and wine tourism. Leparmentier Dayot said that her first experience of the differences between the Old and New Worlds was remarkable: “For me it was such a shock, maybe 15 to 18 years ago, to see how the experience has been offered there, compared to Bordeaux where it was like there was nothing to do.”

The differences between the two worlds even go as far as meaning that, until quite recently, a visitor to Bordeaux could not purchase wine directly from the winery where it was made. “So until 20 years ago, you could not go to a winery or chateau in Bordeaux and buy wines, because it would all go through those wine merchants,” Leparmentier Dayot said. “Today, we have the Grand cru classé, the big names of Bordeaux wine… They still don’t sell wines at the chateau.”

The challenge for Old World wineries is more to sound modern, to sound contemporary, but not
to look modern or contemporary

This set-up starkly contrasts with that of the New World wineries. According to a survey conducted by Wine Australia, cellar door sales contributed 27 percent of revenue to small Australian winemakers between 2015 and 2016. Such sales aside, the Old World has also lagged behind by failing to package or promote its tourism potential.

According to Italy Magazine, in 2008 the Italian wine tourism sector was only operating at 20 percent of its potential. As the potential benefits that wine tourism can bring are highlighted, the region is finally beginning to transform. However, doing so in a way that keeps everyone happy is a steep challenge.

New harvests
As tourism in general continues to post seemingly unstoppable growth, the economic benefits of encouraging and providing for tourists have become too big to ignore for almost every industry. While wine tourism products in Europe have only just begun to organise, they already tend to outstrip New World competitors in terms of experience.

In an interview with Business Destinations, Anthony Swift, General Manager for Wine Pleasures and Director of the International Wine Tourism Conference, said the priority for wineries in Europe is not to bolster sales at the cellar door, but instead offer something that the New World cannot. “On one hand, in the New World we have the Americas, like Napa Valley, streets ahead of Europe. But on the other hand, the wine tourism product – the winery visit – is poor compared with a winery visit in Europe.”

The wine tourism experience in the New World has become extremely well organised and packaged – arguably to its detriment, according to Swift. Visitors book in a specific time slot in a location, receive a presentation from a public relations professional, enjoy an organised and well-rehearsed tasting, and leave approximately an hour later. “The wine tourist that visits somewhere in Spain, Italy or Portugal, if they can find somewhere open for a winery [tour], will receive a very different visit,” Swift said.

Swift said this unfiltered, personal and authentic experience is what sets the Old World apart from the New: “They get everything from the mouth of the owner or the winemaker. They learn about the vineyard, they go into the vineyard, they go around the winery, taste from the barrels. They may go to the family house and meet the family. They’ll see the passion, understand the work going into the wine and understand why it’s priced so high, or not.”

This more personal touch and the longer visiting windows are a major point of difference. Swift said the wine tasting tours he runs in Europe receive tremendous responses: “Americans who come over to us, who have probably visited Napa Valley, when asked the question ‘which winery visit did you prefer?’, 100 percent always say that a winery visit in the Old World is much better than a winery visit in the New World because of the reason that the owner, or some family member, has taken them around.”

There is still work to be done on the Old World’s wine tourism offerings, however. Swift said this progress largely depends on the size of the winery: smaller producers could potentially save money by selling their product at the cellar door instead of attempting to find an export partner through trade fairs, while larger producers have a promotion opportunity, giving visitors a reason to pick their wine on a menu should they come across it in the future.

“There are a lot of wineries that don’t really see how wine tourism can benefit them and their sales of wine,” Swift said. “The next generation of winery owners, I think they would be on par with other wine producing regions of the world, be them New World or Old World.”

New World wineries took advantage of the growth in tourism by selling wines directly to the public from the cellar door

Seeds of growth
Growing in popularity while still maintaining an Old World charm is a delicate balancing act. Leparmentier Dayot, who is based in Bordeaux, said the region is still improving, but is already doing well thanks to efforts to professionalise and package tourism experiences. Bordeaux currently receives around six million visitors annually, with four million of them taking part in some form of wine tourism activity. Of the total number of visitors, approximately 30 percent travel to Bordeaux specifically because it is a wine destination.

One primary challenge is logistics: tourists who travel by plane to a wine region can’t take much, if any, of the product back with them. Leparmentier Dayot said that, while this is obviously still a barrier to growth, services have been set up that make shipping purchases back to a visitor’s home country reasonably straightforward.

For the wineries that do not have a cellar door sales operation, the future brand recognition that comes after a positive visit is becoming a greater priority. “It’s a strategic marketing tool for their final consumers to come and visit us, remember the experience, and… be likely to buy our wines in the shop or in a restaurant next time [they] see it,” Leparmentier Dayot said.

Another option is expanding the ancillary experiences that can happen around a winery, beyond just tours, tastings and sales – for example, by offering accommodation and restaurants. Leparmentier Dayot said: “Now you have many wineries and chateaus open to public [offering] their own food services, bed and breakfast, and of course… everything that’s linked to business. Seminars, conferences, rooms that are equipped with all the modern Wi-Fi, etc., to welcome seminars and business tourism.”

What’s more, all of the destinations represented by the Great Wine Capitals are very accessible and have plenty of transport options. This year, a new high-speed rail service opened between Paris and Bordeaux, cutting the journey down to less than two hours.

Sustainable future
Of course, for Old World wineries to maintain the charm that makes the experience of visiting them so special, they need to balance modern development with the overwhelming history in the region.

“So in Bordeaux, for example – or in Italy, it is very strong as well – we have our chateaus, we have the old heritage monuments, and actually tourists are looking for this,” Leparmentier Dayot said. She added that some chateaus’ attempts to build modern buildings have not been as successful as they had hoped: “The visitors, they don’t feel like they are in Bordeaux. Actually, they don’t like it. So the challenge for us is more to sound modern, to sound contemporary, but not to look modern or contemporary.”


of small Australian winemakers’ revenue stemmed from cellar door sales in 2015-16


In 2008, the Italian wine tourism sector was only operating at this fraction of its potential


people visit Bordeaux annually


of these take part in a wine tourism-related activity


of tourists visit Bordeaux specifically because it is a wine destination

Instead, traditional chateaus have become adept at including elements of modern design into their historic grounds, maintaining the original character of the region while making sure the facilities that are needed for a modern wine destination are still available. This has made any major project a delicate undertaking. “We have contemporary art and sculptures, these kind of things, in the gardens and in the vineyards and the environment,” Leparmentier Dayot said. “And then we have a lot of the Grand cru classé, a lot of wineries and chateaus, that have really hypermodern cellars – but it’s inside. So you both enjoy the heritage outside, and
the modernity inside.”

Still, modern yet thoughtful amenities are emerging across the traditional winemaking regions. The most notable is La Cité du Vin, located in central Bordeaux, which opened in June 2016. In essence a museum of wine, La Cité du Vin examines the beverage, its history and its cultural impact. The museum also looks at Bordeaux and its history more specifically, using the latest interactive technology to connect with visitors in innovative ways. Since opening, it has already welcomed 425,000 visitors.

Old World wineries will continue to add modern elements to supplement their tourist experiences in ways that fit logically with the surrounding area, and don’t negatively impact the winery experience.

Leparmentier Dayot said she predicts the next big trend in Old World wine tourism will be gastronomy to accompany wine: “We know that tourists will be looking for both, and if you offer a restaurant in the vineyard, it’s better than a restaurant anywhere else. So you double the experience for the visitor. At least in Bordeaux this is very strong for us – we are really seeing future developments and there [are] several restaurants… being built at the moment.”

Though wine tourism is still a niche within the larger global tourism industry, its growth has become a force that is no longer being ignored by the winemakers of the Old World. While Europe has been playing catch up for many years now, the world’s oldest winemaking regions are continuing their ascent to the forefront of wine tourism. Through New and Old World experiences alike, wine tourism will continue its ascent while keeping its history in mind.

Current issue