When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me that a tall glass of wine was the best reward for the end of a long day’s work. But what about actually working with wine? In a vineyard or winery? Say, on your gap year as a WWOOF volunteer?
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a network of organizations that set up volunteers on organic farms across the planet – it’s a great way to spend part of a gap year learning about the world outside of your planned vacation. 99 countries currently take part, though there is no centralized governance keeping absolute track.
It’s a great way to spend part of a gap year learning about the world outside of your planned vacation.
As volunteers, WWOOFers don’t receive financial payment for their work, but they are given short workdays, food, accommodation, and the invaluable niche knowledge of the operations of their chosen farm jobs. These farm jobs could be anything from harvesting honey from beehives to herding sheep.
But when you’re not being paid anyway, a tall glass of wine is the best reward for a hard day’s work. And there’s only one type of WWOOF placement where that’s pretty much a guarantee: vineyards and wineries. Most countries have them. But when that glass of wine is all you’re getting, it had better be a good one. Here are the top 5 wine-growing countries for your gap year WWOOFing experience.
Pro Tip: Most vineyards will need the most help around harvest season with grape picking (it's hard work!), but will also require assistance with other tasks year round, like vine thinning, weeding, cleaning, and various repairs.
- Top Region: Bordeaux
- Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
- Harvest Season: August - October
Ah France. Rhymes with Romance. The biggest producer of wine on the planet. And the Bordeaux region, a swampy river basin in the southwest of the country, is home to some of the most expensive and prestigious wines of them all.
Landing a vineyard WWOOFing gig here would be like landing an internship writing Obama’s speeches, if Obama didn’t pay you and you got really dirty and sweaty doing it. Most of the vineyards won’t even accept the program, requiring instead trained, full-time workers. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
You’ll have plenty of time to make it up to Paris and show off your newfound connoisseur skills.
The Bordeaux itself is divided into dozens of different regions, each with their own climate and soil types, and thus with their own specialty grapes. The one you choose really shouldn’t matter all that much (in fact, it will probably be largely based on who chooses you), because they will all offer an extremely great experience.
Vineyards like Chateau Brandeau, in Côtes de Castillion, are good places to start looking for a spot.
How to Spend Your Free Time
But, as always, choosing where to do vineyard work is about more than the vineyard. WWOOFing in France is always a good choice because, beyond wine, it’s a cultural hotspot. The Bordeaux region itself offers a great chance to enjoy the south of France, from hiking in the Pyrenees to taking in the smaller villages. And you’ll have plenty of time to make it up to Paris and show off your newfound connoisseur skills.
Read our full guide to gap years abroad in France.
- Top Region: Tuscany
- Grape: Sangiovese
- Harvest Season: October
The Romans knew how to party. Hell, they had a God dedicated to it. So while the French vineyards definitely know what they’re doing, there’s a reason “bacchanal” isn’t a French word.
Italians know their wine, and while they spread the wealth all over the world, they kept a little something back home in Italy. Wine is grown all over the country, but the best is grown on the Tyrrhenian coast, in Tuscany.
You’ve probably heard of the wines grown in Tuscany. Chianti might be the most famous, if only because it goes so well with liver, but they’re all grown with the same Sangiovese grapes, and the vineyards love to experiment.
And as the birthplace of the Renaissance, there’s much more in Tuscany than just vineyards.
So while there are strict guidelines for wine coming out of the region, some vineyards like to create “Super Tuscans” by blending grapes into high quality (and high alcohol content) wines. It’s experimental and fun and thus a great place to get some vineyard experience.
How to Spend Your Free Time
And as the birthplace of the Renaissance, there’s much more in Tuscany than just vineyards. Florence is probably the most culturally relevant city within a quick drive’s distance from your workplace, the artistic heart of Italy.
Pisa is also contained within the Tuscan borders, and while pretending to hold up the leaning tower isn’t quite as culturally fulfilling, we all know you’ll be putting that picture up on Facebook all the same. Luckily, it won’t be the best thing you’ve done by the time your contract is finished.
Read our full guide to gap years abroad in Italy.
- Top Region: Barossa Valley
- Grape: Shiraz
- Harvest Season: January - April
Until recently, Australian wines didn’t garner a lot of respect. Its best wine growing region, the Barossa Valley near Adeleide, has a hot continental climate that gives it the perfect conditions for the vine, but its chief grape, shiraz, had a reputation for being low quality and destined for blending.
But, like all things, tastes are cyclical. Now the demand for Australian wines is higher than ever, and while even France and Italy are reducing their production, Australia has begun to seek new markets in China and Hong Kong. Opportunities for work in the industry are aplenty.
Now the demand for Australian wines is higher than ever.
The isolation of the country means that the wines it produces are unlike anything else on Earth. Its Semillon, for example, was taken directly from Bordeaux and since then has evolved a distinctly pink skin.
The non-Mediterranean climate means that the techniques in growing and harvesting have also had to evolve, making the Barossa Valley a great place to work, especially if you’ve already had some experience on a vineyard and want to expand your knowledge. There’s always something more to learn.
How to Spend Your Free Time
South Australia is a bit isolated from the cultural centers of Melbourne and Sydney, but it has its charms. Adelaide, less than an hour away from the Barossa Valley, is the launching point for many of the more off-the-path tours through the inland desert, making it a good opportunity to visit the Flinders Range and the opal mines.
Nearby Port Lincoln is one of the only places in the world that offers cage diving with Great White Sharks. And if you really want to get to Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road takes a direct route and is considered one of the best road trips in the world. But there’s plenty of rason to stay in the valley – every two years, they host a giant wine festival. Time your WWOOFing right and you’ll get to celebrate the literal fruits of your labor.
If you're up for a road trip (or flight), one of our top global music festivals to see on your gap year coincides with the end of harvest season in this region. Time things right and you could be bringing a bottle of Barossa Valley blend to the Byron Bay Blues Fest.
Read our full guide to gap years abroad in Australia.
Chile & Argentina
- Top Regions: Mendoza (Argentina), Colchagua Valley (Chile)
- Grape: Malbec
- Harvest Season: February - May
The Andean foothills aren’t normally considered the height of wine-growing climes. It goes against every image of a classical vineyard with that warm Mediterranean breeze. But vines do grow here, in Chile and Argentina, the highest vineyards in the world (up to 3,000 feet above sea level).
Like Australia, this South American market is quickly growing in sharp contrast to the traditional vinelands of France and Italy. Mendoza produces 90% of Argentina’s wine and its value per hectare has grown 13% in the last year. Meanwhile, the Colchagua Valley in Chile has been called the new Napa, a testament to its quality.
If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic than the tried-and-true fields of Europe or the hidden first world of Australia, then look no further.
The principal grape in these South American vineyards is the Malbec. It’s a lesser known wine, in line with the lesser known wine regions it comes from, but obscurity is never indicative of quality. If anything, it increases it. The shadow of the Andes is a big one, but it means that the work is more plentiful (especially due to the increasing demand). If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic than the tried-and-true fields of Europe or the hidden first world of Australia, then look no further.
How to Spend Your Free Time
If you’re WWOOFing as a way to see the world (and not to, say, become a professional viticulturalist), then Argentina or Chile is a good place to start. It provides a good jumping off point to see the rest of South America.
Mendoza is in the northwestern segment of the country which makes it a little more ideal for ground travel to the northern half of the continent while also providing plenty of options for mountaineering (which, let’s face it, will be a serious interest if you actually want to work there).
In fact, it’s the location of the Transandine Railway, the only rail between Chile and Argentina. It’s currently defunct, but there are discussions of bringing it back. So really, the whole area is up-and-coming.
Read our full guide to gap years abroad in Chile and Argentina.
- Top Regions: Western Cape
- Grape: Sauvignon Blanc
- Harvest Season: February - April
South Africa has been transforming itself from a troubled state into a world-class destination since the ‘90s. Much of that, obviously, has to do with the wilds of Africa. Everybody wants to see an elephant up close. But when that jeep pulls up to the tent and you’re relaxing on your little flashpacking porch, it’s Western Cape wine you’ll be sipping while watching the sunset.
The country actually has a rich history of wine -- the first bottle was produced by the founder of Cape Town way back in 1659. Its sauvignon blancs are some of the best in the world (because we need a little diversity – white wine can be fantastic), partially due to the rich grassy terrain and partly due to the warm coastal climate.
When that jeep pulls up to the tent and you’re relaxing on your little flashpacking porch, it’s Western Cape wine you’ll be sipping while watching the sunset.
The winelands were actually named to UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list in 2004 as a culturally significant site. So while nearby Cape Town is the shining jewel of the state, and Kruger Park brings most of the tourists, the vineyards are recognized as some of the best places to be (and work at!) in the country.
How to Spend Your Free Time
But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck there. Cape Town is the obvious choice of weekend visits from your vineyard home, being a larger city (and home to some of the best shark diving in the world -- if that’s your thing, apparently wine and sharks get along very well) while avoiding some of the problems that plague Johannesburg.
Since it’s South Africa, you’ll also be in the perfect position to go and see some of the wild animals the continent is famous for and perhaps make your way north to Tanzania and Kenya post-vineyard work.
Read our full guide to gap years abroad in South Africa.
While my dad never did give me any wine as a reward for my hard work as a kid, it always intrigued me how people could be so passionate about a simple, hangover-inducing drink. How somebody could turn into a connoisseur or sommelier, able to taste the difference between two similar wines based on the soil content of the grapelands.
But those differences are indeed there, and just like those Pinots, no two vineyards will give the same gap year experience. And that’s the real reason you should be picking a vineyard to WWOOF with -- the experience you’ll be getting out of it beyond the bottom of a wineglass.
Look for work exchange gap year programs.Photo Credits: Katherine Knecht, France, Italy, Australia, Chile/Argentina, and South Africa.