We recently spent three weeks in Australia to attend the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network. It was a week of meetings and visits to wineries in South Australia.
The second reason for the trip was to visit Western Australia, especially Margaret River, to experience the wine tourism offer there.
It wasn’t our first trip to the Australian wine country. In 2005 we spent a week in and around Melbourne visiting the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. Our feeling however was that wine tourism had evolved in 13 years and we wanted to check it out.
While in Perth we were fortunate to attend an open air Western Australian wine fair where we tasted wines from most of the wineries in the region. It was a fast, efficient overview of their wine offer. Our friends from Perth made lots of recommendations and pointed us to Howard Park in Margaret River, which had not been on our radar but turned out to be one of the highlights of our tour.
We visited the Swan Valley, Perth Hills and Margaret River in Western Australia; Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia and the Bellarine peninsula in Victoria.
Coonawara in South Australia was also on the list but our flight was unexpectedly cancelled. We were disappointed but we’ll go next time.
Wineries we visited:
Swan Valley: Sandalford and Houghton
Perth Hills: Brookside Vineyards
Margaret River: Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Xanadu, Vasse Felix, and Howard Park.
Adelaide Hills: Penfolds Magill Estate, Pike and Joyce, Longwood
Barossa: Yalumba, Hentley Farm, Seppeltsfield
McLaren Vale: Beresford Estate
Bellarine Peninsula: Jackrabbit Winery
The cellar door and café at Jackrabbit Winery in the Bellarine Peninsula (the restaurant was closed for a wedding reception)
I don’t consider these wineries to be a representative sample of Australian wine tourism experiences. In fact, several friends in the wine business (from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia) and our friends in Perth and Melbourne recommended them to us specifically for their excellent wines and wineries.
That said, our main conclusions from these visits were:
- A cellar door (Australian for ‘tasting room’) with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, several tasting options and the possibility for visitors to purchase wine and have it shipped, was a constant in all the wineries.
Most of the wineries we visited only sell their brands in a few Asian markets. For us and other foreign visitors, visiting cellar doors was a great exposure to some fantastic pours that we could not purchase at home.
The cellar door at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River
Cellar doors are not just an employee, a few bottles, a spittoon and a price list. They’re the centerpiece of the winery and are designed with utmost care. It surprised us to read in the James Halliday Wine Companion that the cellar door at Howard Park had been designed following the principles of feng shui. I’m sure this fact was not lost on the Chinese wine tourists who visit Australia.
Beyond the cellar door, the public exhibition areas at Penfold’s and Seppeltsfield were spectacular, as would be expected at these iconic properties. But they were the exception, not the rule.
2. The wineries’ main objective was to encourage tasting and purchase. The option to join the winery’s club, providing opportunities to receive the newsletter, take advantage of special offers and members-only tastings are means to facilitate loyalty to the winery and its brands.
3. Winery restaurants are popular, with great menu options. We were surprised to discover that these restaurants were packed, even in the middle of the week in Margaret River, a three hour drive from Perth. The food was without exception very good. In fact, at Voyager Estate, the head chef, Santiago Fernández (from Galicia in northwestern Spain) won the 2018 award for the top regional chef in the latest Western Australia Good Food Guide.
The restaurant at Voyager Estate
In spite of its distance from Perth, Margaret River has done a great job marketing itself as a wine tourism destination. This accomplishment is even more amazing when you consider that Perth itself is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world and that the first wine estate in Margaret River – Vasse Felix – was only founded in 1967.
4. The transportation infrastructure is well developed and caters to a wide range of consumers, especially in the Swan Valley near Perth. You can join a party bus – great for bachelor and hen parties, organize a chauffeured van or a limo with your friends, take a gourmet tour that includes visits to wineries, breweries and chocolate factories or even take a winery cruise down the Swan River from Perth City.
You can drive to Margaret River, but the area is also accessible by bus, train or a combination of the two. Once you arrive, numerous tour companies compete to take you on a standard, deluxe or customized tour.
Our first day of winery visits in Margaret River was with a tour company. We told them where we wanted to go and they called in advance to make the appointments for us. Our driver, the owner of the company, was a treasure trove of knowledge about the region. We were able to visit four cellar doors and enjoyed a great meal at Voyager Estate.
On our second day of touring Margaret River, we drove ourselves, around visiting two wineries, with lunch at one (Vasse Felix). Even though you have more freedom driving yourself, I don’t recommend driving and tasting unless you have a designated driver. We could have tasted more, especially at Howard Park, so having a driver is essential.
5. Wineries don’t always show the entire winery, although it’s an option for premium visitors.
What messages can we offer Rioja after our Australian wine tourism experience?
From the winery’s point of view, winery tourism is meant to create loyalty to the company and its brands. The Australian emphasis on the cellar door and direct purchase of wine leads me to believe that this could be given a higher priority at Rioja wineries. A typical Rioja winery tour takes you through the whole winemaking process – crush, destemming, fermentation, tank ageing, barrel ageing and bottle ageing. The tasting, often a bottle of red and one of white sitting on an upturned barrel, with little or no introduction from a greeter is at the end of the visit. In Australia, the order is taste first, then visit the winery if the consumer is interested in a tour and one is available (Australian industry statistics indicate that tours are not popular). In my view, Rioja wineries invest a lot of time and money showing tourists the winery with no idea if the investment will pay off in terms of sales.
Currently in Rioja there are more than 600 wineries, many recently founded with little history and an unspectacular physical plant. This discourages them from opening to wine tourists. But many of them, to paraphrase the rock group Three Dog Night, “have some mighty fine wine”. These wineries could open a tasting room even if they can’t offer a tour. It will undoubtedly get them visibility and some extra income.
Another important weakness in Rioja is transportation infrastructure, not necessarily how to get here, but how to get around once you’re here. The Rioja region is a similar distance from Madrid as Margaret River is from Perth (4 hours by car), by bus or train, with more or less the same intensity of public transportation. And Haro is only an hour from Bilbao, so getting here is not that much of a problem.
I always have trouble finding, much less recommending, a good Rioja tour operator.
Private enterprise here seems to be hesitant about taking the risk to start a wine tour business. Maybe it’s because individuals find it hard to compete with regional governments that offer wine tourism services at bargain prices. But the fact that over 800,000 tourists visited La Rioja in 2017 is a powerful incentive for entrepreneurs to start wine tour companies. But until then, the best option for wine tourists in Rioja will be to drive themselves around.
Winery restaurants? We have a few, but in my opinion, we don’t need many more to attract wine tourists. Rioja offers a wide choice of affordable restaurants serving delicious food throughout our wine country.