A vast blue sky, a backdrop of awe-inspiring snow-covered Andes mountains, and a spectacular pyramid shaped adobe building that looked like a Mayan temple surrounded by vines: that was my first impression of Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s most famous wineries, on my first visit almost two decades ago.
Winemaker Nicolas Catena put Argentine malbec on the world map. His charismatic daughter Laura now runs the winery, where you can dine in its brand-new restaurant in the vines, play master blender for a day, pair wine with music, or take the ultimate tour to its dramatic Adrianna vineyard at an elevation of 5,000 feet.
And today, July 12, Catena Zapata was just crowned the number one wine estate in the world to visit at the World’s 50 Best Vineyards awards ceremony, held with much fanfare in Rioja, Spain.
This is the fifth edition of the annual awards, which are organised by UK-based William Reed Media, a family-owned digital data and events business based in London that also releases the mega-important and influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards list.
“The World’s Best Vineyards highlights the very best wine tourism destinations around the globe,” says Andrew Reed, managing director of wine and exhibitions at William Reed. “We understand that there is more to wine than grape juice in a bottle. It’s also the story behind the winery, the visitor experiences you can have there.” In 2023, he says, “there are more new entries than ever.”
One underlying aim, naturally, is to promote wine tourism around the world. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation held its first global conference on wine in 2016. In an email, Sandra Carvao, the UNWTO director of Market Intelligence and Competitiveness said that “there are no global data on wine tourism,” something they hope to address in an upcoming conference. At the same time, Future Market Insights Global and Consulting estimates that the wine tourism market will reach US$85.1 billion in 2023, and projects it will reach US$292.5 billion in 2033.
The growth in oenotourism and the number of wineries over the past two decades are partly why William Reed expanded their portfolio.
How the top vineyards to visit are chosen
The award structure is similar to the way the World’s 50 Best Restaurants are selected. A global voting academy includes chairmen for 22 geographical regions; each of them recruits a panel of about 36 unnamed wine and travel experts. The more than 500 judges nominate up to seven destination vineyards they’ve personally visited in the past two years. The votes are counted and collated, and the vineyard with the most votes becomes number one, and so on for the top 100, though the top 50 get the airtime.
Wineries must be open to the public, but there’s no defined set of criteria, which strikes me as problematic. “Decent wine is a given,” says Reed (my view is that the wine should be great), and judges rank wineries based on their all-around visitor experience— which means stunning architecture, views that wow, perhaps a Michelin-starred restaurant or historic cellars, imaginative hands-on activities, concerts, ambiance, and more. Fair enough.
For example, in the second spot this year (for the second year in a row) is Spain’s historic Marqués de Riscal, with its dramatic Frank Gehry-designed hotel topped by wide, twisted purple, gold, and silver-hued aluminium ribbons. In number three, up one place from its 2022 ranking, is Vik, a self-contained luxury wine destination in Chile created out of 11,000 acres of virgin territory. Besides the winery, it’s home to a contemporary art-stuffed hotel and farm-to-table restaurant and offers horse riding in the vineyards.
But what about climate change?
I’ve visited most of the top 50 wineries on the list, and in this climate change era, I’d argue that sustainability ought to be an essential criterion. I was glad to see that some winners, like those in the fourth, fifth, and sixth spots, are sustainability stars.
South Africa’s Creation Wines (number four) is in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the most biodiverse wine regions in the world. It boasts a solar-powered cottage in the vineyards, walking and cycling trails, and plant-based food and wine pairings.
Bordeaux’s Château Smith Haut Lafitte (number five), a leader in organic and biodynamic viticulture, offers a “forest of the senses” walking trail, horses for ploughing in the vineyard, and a “stealth” winery where C02 from fermentation is transformed into baking soda. Its adjacent Source de Caudalie hotel and spa feature beauty products derived from the winery’s grapes and vines.
The multimillion-dollar Bodega Garzón in Uruguay (number six), owned by billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, was designed for oenotourism from its inception and has achieved silver LEED certification. It includes a luxury hotel, an open-fire restaurant run by celebrity chef Francis Mallman, cooking classes, learning how to press olives, and picnics in the vineyards.
You get the picture.
France and South America dominate the top 50 spots. I was happy to see Maison Ruinart at number 22; its crayères, or chalk cellars, are the most impressive in the region and often the site of brilliant art and sound experiences. And it’s exciting that prestigious Champagne house Bollinger (number 23), has recently expanded into oneoteourism. Oddly, none of the growing number of Provence wineries offering luxurious digs and world-class art has made it into the top 50 this year, though one did last year.
While there’s a nod to newly recognised wine regions, with vineyards in Japan (number 38) and Georgia (number 47), I was surprised that only two US estates (numbers 20 and 28), neither located in the popular Napa Valley, made the top 50. And the list contains only one in scenic, green New Zealand and one in Italy, a favourite destination for many wine lovers.
More adventurous and boutique picks can be found in the 51-100 list, which are revealed on the website, such as China’s Canaan Winery (number 80) an hour from Beijing, and New Zealand’s Man O’ War (number 77) on Waiheke Island, with beachfront tasting spaces. At number number 73 is America’s great Ridge Vineyards high in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California, one of my personal favourites.
How important is winning?
The effect of grabbing the top spot is immediate, according to Sebastián Zuccardi, whose family’s stunning stone winery in the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina, was ranked number one in 2019, 2020, and 2021. It’s now graduated to the Hall of Fame. “There was a big increase in visitors after the first award,” he said in an email, “and it’s continued growing after every one.”
Is wine tourism necessary to a US winery’s bottom line? “The clear answer is yes,” said Rob McMillan, EVP and founder of the Silicon Valley Bank wine division, in an email. He pointed out that all those “visitor experiences” drive consumer interest and attract people to a winery’s tasting room and wine club, which translates into bottle sales that make up about 70 percent of a small premium producer’s revenue.
Adrian Bridge, chief executive officer of the Flagship Partnership in Portugal, which owns several port houses, once shared why he thought oenotourism had become important. “The modern generation is going back to an earlier time when people travelled to explore and understand. Wine has become a way to unlock a region and culture.”
The pick of the bunch
The top 50 list is below. Check the website for numbers 51 to 100.
1. Catena Zapata, Argentina
2. Bodegas de los Herederos del Marqués de Riscal, Spain
3. Vik, Chile
4. Creation Wines, South Africa
5. Château Smith Haut Lafitte, France
6. Bodega Garzón, Uruguay
7. Montes, Chile
8. Domäne Schloss Johannisberg, Germany
9. Bodegas Salentein, Argentina
10. El Enemigo Wines, Argentina
11. Rippon, New Zealand; Australasia
12. Weingut Dr. Loosen, Germany
13. Finca Victoria - Durigutti Family Winemakers, Argentina *Highest new entry*
14. Domäne Wachau, Austria
15. Quinta do Crasto, Portugal
16. Quinta do Noval, Portugal
17. d'Arenberg, Australia
18. Château d'Yquem, France
19. Château Pape Clément, France
20. Jordan Vineyard & Winery, United States
21. González Byass – Bodegas Tio Pepe, Spain
22. Maison Ruinart, France
23. Champagne Bollinger, France *New entry*
24. Bodega Colomé, Argentina
25. Viñedos de Alcohuaz, Chile *New entry*
26. Henschke, Australia
27. Abadía Retuerta, Spain
28. Brooks Wine, United States *New entry*
29. Ceretto, Italy
30. Bodega Bouza, Uruguay *New entry*
31. Champagne Billecart-Salmon, France
32. Klein Constantia Winery, South Africa
33. Château Pichon Baron, France
34. Château de Beaucastel, France *New entry*
35. Szepsy Winery, Hungary *New entry*
36. Delaire Graff Estate, South Africa
37. Viña Casas del Bosque, Chile
38. Château Mercian Mariko Winery, Japan
39. Clos Apalta, Chile
40. Graham's Port Lodge, Portugal
41. Château Kefraya, Lebanon *New entry*
42. Quinta do Seixo (Sandeman), Portugal
43. Viu Manent, Chile
44. Penfolds Magill Estate, Australia
45. Disznókő, Hungary *New entry*
46. Veuve Clicquot, France *New entry*
47. Château Mukhrani, Georgia *New entry*
48. Bodega Diamandes, Argentina *New entry*
49. Bodegas Muga, Spain *New entry*
50. Viña Errázuriz, Chile *New entry*
by Elin McCoy, Bloomberg