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Sidetracks to Great Wine: Ten Top Destinations
By Michael Franz
May 3, 2023
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Summer travel season is now nearly underway for most people, with the end of school on the horizon, and travel industry experts predict a boom in international travel due to pent-up demand because of Covid and overdue resumption of business travel. Regardless of whether your summer travels will include kids (from whom you might…um…desire a brief break) or boring business meetings that drive you to drink, wine lovers should be aware of a fortuitous fact:  If you travel internationally, many of the world's most storied vineyards are only a few minutes away from common routes and destinations. 

For example, if your European travels include a stop at the aviation hub in Frankfurt, a rented car and 45 minutes of bat-out-of-hell fun on the autobahn will deliver you to one of the greatest wine estates in Germany.  Or, if you can carve out a couple of hours between business meetings in Adelaide, you can be sipping Shiraz in McLaren Vale in less than an hour.

Why aren't more travelers aware of this?  Perhaps they haven't gotten so far into wine geekdom that their sense of world geography is signposted solely by reference to great wine--as I confess mine is.  Or maybe because wineries that are aspiring to greatness and attentive to atmospherics don't wish to advertise that they're just 45 minutes from an airport.

Why should you devote a day of your trip to wine touring?  Because wine is uniquely a beverage of place, deriving its nuances from the lay of the land, the savor of the soil and the character of the climate.  Painters and photographers know that sunlight differs everywhere across the world.  Grapevines know this too, and they translate it into subtlety where the sun is stingy and dramatic ripeness where the sun is searing.

To see and taste in the same place is to understand this.  As a bonus, the seeing side of the equation is enhanced by the fact that fine wine tends overwhelmingly to come from beautiful places.  On the tasting side, great wine demands great food and always gets its way, either by inspiring local cuisines over centuries as in Europe, or in the New World by luring taste-conscious visitors who are in turn an irresistible lure for ambitious chefs.

So, here are some suggestions for how to take advantage of these happy facts.  Based on 1,600+ site visits to wineries around the world, here's my top ten list of favorite regions making wicked wine within easy reach of major destinations.  If your travels will take you to one of the 10 cities on the list, you'll find it easy to make arrangements by simply running a keyword seach for recommended producers to learn when they are open and to get contact information for arranging visits.  Cities and nearby wine regions are listed in alphabetical order:

Champagne from Paris:  Champagne may be the most magical beverage ever conjured from the vine by human beings, and it can only be made in one place in the world.  The region is so far north and so cool that the grapes barely get ripe by conventional standards, and still wines from Champagne are almost undrinkably hard and angular.  But Champagne's harsh climatic conditions and chalky, limestone soils are absolutely ideal for making sparkling wines.  Hundreds of attempts to duplicate the magic have been made around the world, resulting in some very nice sparklers…that invariably fall short of the original.

The region's countryside is lovely, but you'll find most of the prime attractions for a brief visit concentrated in Epernay or Reims.  Almost all of the big Champagne houses have beautiful buildings and astonishing cellars, and are roughly evenly divided between the two cities.  Epernay has an edge in being smaller and more easily navigated, but Reims is home to one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe, which can be missed only at the risk of having one's passport revoked by the Travel Police.

McLaren Vale from Adelaide:  Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, is a wonderful attraction in its own right.  Beautifully situated and ingeniously designed, it has an urban interior of a perfect square mile rimmed with gorgeous parkland.  Adelaide is also a culinary wonderland (don't miss the Central Market) and a great center for the arts, but for our purposes what is most important is that it is the (virtually official) capital of Australian wine.

Home to the beautiful National Wine Centre of Australia, Adelaide has water to the west but great wine in every other direction.  Regions to the north and west include the Adelaide Plains and Adelaide Hills as well the Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys.  To the South you'll find Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale, which is my top pick if you've got just one day for wine touring.  A superb Visitor Center will give you all the information you'll need for an efficiently full and hassle-free day of tasting.  If you hit enough producers, you'll find good renditions of almost every type of wine made in Australia, but the top dog here is rich, robust Shiraz.  Try to visit Clarendon Hills, Coriole, d'Arenberg, Hardys Reynella, Geoff Merrill, Mitolo, Tatachilla, and Wirra Wirra.

Rheingau from Frankfurt:  Wine just doesn't get any better than great German Riesling, and nowhere is wine country more dramatically beautiful.  If you had time for a week of touring, I'd be paralyzed with indecision on where to send you, but for a single day from Frankfurt, this is a no-brainer.  The Rheingau is Germany's most aristocratic growing region, with the country's highest concentration of the supremely noble Riesling grape and well more than its share of large traditional estates.

The big estates offer great vistas of the Rhein, very good tours, and pretty good wines, but the best juice is flowing from smaller houses like Georg Breuer (Rüdesheim), Johannishof (Johannisberg), Franz Künstler (Hochheim), Hans Lang (Eltville-Hattenheim), Josef Leitz (Rüdesheim),  Wegeler Erben (Oestrich-Winkel) and Robert Weil (Kiedrich).  Don't fail to take a quick drive up from the river at Eltville, Erbach or Hattenheim to the Cistercian monastery of Eberbach, one of the best preserved medieval monastic sites in Germany.

Ribera del Duero from Madrid:  The robust reds of Ribera del Duero are probably the hottest things in the very hot world of Spanish wine, and once you've beheld the blinding intensity of the sunlight here, you'll know why.  Tempranillo is the star grape here, and though this variety produces amazing wines all across northern Spain, Ribera's renditions may be the most balanced, beautiful and satisfying of all.

Producers range from the single most elite winery in Spain, Vega Sicilia, to the much less fussy but exceptionally strong Bodegas of Alejandro Fernández (Pesquera and Condado de Haza) to cooperatives and big wineries like Arzuaga Navarro.  Don't bother trying an impromptu visit at Vega Sicilia (they reject most requests even from the trade and press), but you'll find a warm welcome at many Bodegas.  Save time for a long lunch centered on the region's trademark baby lamb (best I've ever tasted), which can be walked off at the extraordinary Castillo de Peñafiel, which also houses a cool wine museum.

Santa Cruz Mountains from San Francisco:  Wine lovers headed to the Bay Area almost always assume that the way to wine paradise runs north into Napa and Sonoma, with the result that they often end up climbing all over one another both en route and in tasting rooms.  Napa and Sonoma are best visited over several days including an overnight stay, whereas a single day can yield a fantastic experience in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Producers are notably smaller on average here than in Napa or Sonoma, which is no disadvantage where touring is concerned, and vine yields are usually dramatically lower, which is a huge advantage for those seeking concentrated, intense wines.  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet all excel in the region, which is relatively rustic and relaxed-even by California standards.  Exemplary wineries include David Bruce, Mount Eden and Ridge.  Both the wines and the panoramas at these last two are extraordinary, and no visitor has ever needed to ask how they their got their names.

Stellenbosch from Cape Town:  It won't be easy to tear yourself away from the physical beauty and cosmopolitan charms of Cape Town, but you won't regret doing so for an instant once you've seen the peerless beauty and tasted the wonderful results of the vineyards around Stellenbosch.  Great wine is made in every direction from this lovely university town, which offers an endearing mix of classic old Cape Dutch architecture and youthful, un-fussy fun.

The Cape region is hardly an upstart in winemaking terms, with a history extending back more than 350 years.  Reds have an edge over whites, but both can be superb, with fresh fruit recalling New World wines but also a measure of restraint more closely akin to European ones.  Make a point of checking out Pinotage, a South African specialty resulting from a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  Favorite Producers:  De Trafford, Ernie Els (yes, that Ernie Els), Jacobsdal, Jordan, Le Bonheur, Raats Family, Rust en Vrede, and Thelema.

Veneto from Venice:  Sure, you could spend day after day in Venice being paddled about by Gondola or sipping Prosecco along the Grand Canal, but we'll all respect you more if you venture out of town for at least one day of touring in the broader region beyond the city.  We can give you a couple of vinous options:  First, if you'd like to see a couple of lovely towns along your wine route, head due west to the area around Vicenza and Verona.  White wine lovers can taste excellent Soave (not to be confused with the plonk typically sold in supermarkets) from producers such as Anselmi, Gini and/or Pra (all located in Monteforte d'Alpone).  The reds to try are mostly Valpolicella and Amarone, with excellent producers clustered in the towns of Negrar (Bussola, Quintarelli, and Viviani) or S. Pietro in Cariano (Accordini, Brunelli, Speri, and Venturini).
If you'd prefer to stay off the Autostrada and get into the countryside more immediately, head northwest to Treviso and up into the gorgeous hills beyond for a look at Prosecco.  Producers around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene use the Prosecco grape to make delicious, not-too-serious bubbly in all sorts of styles ranging from dry to sweet and from gently effervescent to fully frothy.  Top producers include Merotto, Bortlomiol, Canella, Nino Franco, Mionetto, and Zardetto.

Wachau from Vienna:  You don't need to leave Vienna at all to see vineyards, as roughly 1,500 acres of vines still exist right in the city.  Vintners thrive in the suburbs of Grinzig, Kahlenberg, Neustift, Nussdorf, and Sievering, with many doing double duty as proprietors of Heurigen, taverns that serve up ultra-fresh wine to accompany hearty food and non-stop, accordion-driven merriment.

Nevertheless, if you want to see the heights of Austrian viticulture--which are very high indeed--you'll need to make the trip to the Wachau.  This small, visually striking region's vines are perched on very steep slopes running up from the Danube, and roughly half of the sites are so steep that growers must terrace the hillsides to work them at all.  Austria's own Grüner Veltliner makes excellent wine here, as does Riesling, for which the finest, highest vineyard plots are often reserved.  Wines are classified by the ripeness of the grapes (and the resulting alcohol after fermentation), starting with Steinfelder on the light end and running up to Federspiel and ultimately to the imposing Smaragd level (named after a local green lizard; ask for help with pronounciation assistance on this one before you start tasting).  Top producers include Hirtzberger, Jamek (with a fine restaurant), Knoll, Nikolaihof, Pichler, and Prager.

Willamette Valley from Portland:  Many wine professionals believe that the world's finest most complex reds are made from the Pinot Noir grape, and many maintain that America's best renditions of Pinot come from Oregon's Willamette Valley.  Though much larger than the Napa Valley (which can be driven from end to end in well under an hour), the Willamette Valley begins just outside of the Portland city limits.

An initial tasting at Ponzi Vineyards will immediately confirm that your journey was a good idea, and after just a bit more driving you'll be within reach of some extraordinary wineries clustered around Newberg and McMinnville.  Some personal favorites include Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin, Archery Summit, Adelsheim and Eyrie.  With so many great producers so close to the city, I'd rather chomp on baguettes in the car than stop for lunch, but fellow hammerheads who are out to taste everything that time permits are strongly advised to use the spittoons in the tasting rooms.

Yarra Valley from Melbourne:  I arrived for my first visit to Melbourne after flying straight through from D.C. with several long layovers but no break.  After just four hours in my hotel, and in a condition properly described not as jet lag but jet coma, I was obliged to head into the Yarra to start tasting.  I note this not to elicit sympathy (fat chance of that), but to provide some context:  If I could get excited about the wines and develop a fondness for the place under these conditions, you're sure to be absolutely smitten.

The Yarra is cool by Australian standards, and sparkling wines, leaner styles of Chardonnay, relatively Burgundian Pinot Noir are the ticket here.  You'll also find some very nice Sauvignon Blanc and some excellent sparklers.  Top producers include Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli, Domaine Chandon (yep, as in Napa, and there's another one in Mendoza, Argentina as well), TarraWarra Estate, and Yering Station.