Railways and wine make natural partners. We allude here not to the wine which features over dinner in the restaurant car, although we would have loved to taste the bottle of 1982 Château Angélus which James Bond shared with Vesper Lynd on the train to Montenegro — that’s in Ian Fleming’s novel ‘Casino Royale’. No, here we refer to a more fundamental relationship between wine and trains.
The development of great export markets for Europe’s most venerated wine regions depended critically on transport. In some cases, such as the Bordeaux area or the Moselle Valley, fine wines could be exported by boat. But other wine-producing regions relied primarily on railways.
The Rioja area of northern Spain only shot to prominence in the second half of the 19th century when a new railway was constructed, connecting the wine estates by the Rio Oja and the Rio Ebro with the busy port of Bilbao. Although the Tokaj region of north-east Hungary has an illustrious tradition of wine-making which long predates the advent of the railway, it was the energetic extension of the Habsburg rail network in the late 19th century which made it possible for even smallscale Tokaj wineries to ship their wines to distant cities. In this special feature for hidden europe, the magazine’s editors reveal some of their favourite wine-themed rail excursions.
The Napa to St Helena railway — completed 150 years ago in early 1868 — was never really a money-spinner. At least, not until 1987, when Californian entrepreneur Vincent DeDomenico had the smart idea of creating an upmarket package for those wanting to see Napa’s celebrated vineyards from a train. The idea did not go down well with Napa winemakers.
At McKinstry Street Station, passengers are lining up to board the mid-morning train to nowhere. Although the train will pass through a number of communities during its three-hour journey, nobody will board or alight along the way. The Napa Valley Wine Train is the ultimate tourist experience, one which insulates those on board the train from the places through which they pass. The train cruises slowly north right beside Highway 29, passing through Oakville and Rutherford to reach St Helena, which is 30 km up the valley from the McKinstry Street depot. The train then runs back down the valley to its starting point. Passengers pay between 150 and 250 US dollars (€120 to €200) for the round trip. The fare includes lunch, though the cost of any wines to accompany the meal is extra.
Herb Schmidt, one-time Vice-President of the famous Mondavi winery, captured the local mood in the early days of the Napa Valley Wine Train : “Their insistence that they’re a real train, simply because they have an engine, dining car and caboose, is absurd,” Schmidt said. “This really does not provide public transportation. It’s really, as some people would say, a restaurant on wheels rather than a train. Where’s the public good?”
In this article we shall explore European alternatives to the Napa model for wine-rail tourism, relying on examples from France, Hungary, Portugal and Spain.
Exploring Tokaj by train
The railway platforms at Szerencs are busy with passengers. The morning express to Budapest left about 10 minutes ago, and now there are three more trains due out in as many minutes. One will skirt the southern flank of the Zemplén Hills, pausing at the small station which serves the memorably named village of Mád, and then continuing on past the Pendits Winery where Hungarian vintner Márta Wille-Baumkauff and her son Stefan have brought assertive new style to the age-old traditions of the Tokaj region.