You can try all the wines in the world from the comfort of your home. You can research their stories and find lots of history and mystery and beautiful photos online – which is wonderful and certainly an enhancement of the experience. But there’s nothing like going to the place where the wine you’re drinking is made.
Many if not all of you reading this article have experienced a tasting at a winery, whether it’s one close to home (and there are so many good ones within just a few hours), or one you discovered in different parts of the US or the world. What you learn when you visit a winery or several wineries in a region is that place does matter. Soils and climates and techniques all vary. When you learn about where the grapes are grown and how they’re turned into wine, you learn about the place itself, and the people who are passionate about it, and you get to experience all of that in the wine. That kind of learning is far more in-depth and interesting than what any guidebook can offer.
This holiday season, think beyond the bottle for that special someone in your life who’s a wine enthusiast, and consider a wine vacation (or several!). The other enjoyable part is that you’ll have this experience together. I’ve put together five suggestions – in no particular order.
Pico Island in the Azores
The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. Flying out of JFK in New York, you can be in Ponta Delgada in less than six hours. From there, it’s another hour by plane to Pico Island, the second largest of the Azores, and one of the most unique wine areas in the world. Why? Because of the influence of Punta de Pico, Portugal’s tallest mountain and an active volcano.
The soil of Pico is volcanic basalt. To protect the vines from the strong winds of the Atlantic Ocean, vintners assemble what resembles a patch-work quilt of plots surrounded by five-foot high walls of basalt. They’re called “currais.”
Wine grapes have been planted here since the 15th century, and today there are nearly 2500 acres planted. There are 17 different varietals planted there, everything from more common Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Tinta Roriz and Agronomica on the red side and Pico Terrantez and Gouveio on the white side. The most prevalent varietal is Verdelho, a grape grown throughout Portugal that makes a lovely, crisp dry white and is also used to make Madeira. Not only will you be able to explore a whole new landscape of vineyards, but you’ll get to try new varietals – all on this beautiful island that’s a UNESCO heritage site.
The best way to experience the history of winemaking on Pico is to do the day-long Pico Wine Tour. (www.getyourguide.com/madalena-l127878/azores-wine-tasting-tour-on-pico-island). It goes out of Madalena and includes three wine tastings, a visit to the wine museum, and lunch at local restaurant, all with a professional guide.
Bordeaux. Say no more.
Every wine enthusiast should visit Bordeaux, France, considered the epicenter of all things wine. To celebrate the area’s contribution to the world of wine, the French built the Cite du Vin in the heart of the town of Bordeaux. Architecturally stunning – it’s shaped like a fine decanter – with top-floor views of the surrounding areas, the Cite du Vin is a way to explore wine like no other. Getting to Bordeaux is easy, and once you’re there you won’t want to leave.
It’s easy to spend the better part of a day at the Cite du Vin, and it’s worth it. How can you resist an experience described as: “Through some twenty interactive spaces, you will get to fly like a bird over vineyards all over the world, go back in time in the Gallery of Civilizations, put your senses to the test in the Buffet of the Five Senses, sail across the seas of the world following the wine trade or even learn a more about the fabulous process of wine making…” You can find information about the 20 rooms at La Cite du Vin on its extensive website. I was especially drawn to “The Art of Living: Wine service from the Greeks to modern-day sommeliers;” and “Bacchus and Venus: Lay on sofas and view the wines of love on the ceiling;” and “The Epic Tale of Bordeaux: Follow a time traveler over 2,000 years of winemaking.”
And what would a visit to such a place be without the opportunity to try wines, not just from Bordeaux, but from around the world? No worries there. You can find everything from wine-tasting workshops led by sommeliers to fine dining (and wine drinking) at Restaurant Le 7 with its panoramic views.
Why stop there? You’re in Bordeaux. Get out and explore. There are over 6,000 chateaux in Bordeaux, so getting the most out of your trip can be challenging. I recommend finding a guided tour. There are many of them, each with a unique spin and itinerary. Exploring them through an online search is part of the fun of planning your trip. Do it with a glass of – what else? – Bordeaux. Salut!
Missouri: the Heartland of American Wine
Fine wine in the Midwest? If this sounds like an oxymoron, think again. The Missouri River flows between St. Louis and Kansas City, the state’s major metropolitan areas, and there are some 30 wineries dotted along its banks between these two hubs. It’s a straight shot drive that’s less than four hours between these two cities (both worth exploring on their own), so taking a few days to explore the area is easy and eye-opening (and palate opening!).
There is a deep and rich history of winemaking in Missouri, begun by German immigrants in the mid-1800s. The area was called Rhineland at one time, and these settlers, looking to honor their roots, brought clippings from their vineyards in Germany to plant in the fertile soils along the Missouri.
It was Missouri’s first entomologist, Charles Riley, who was sent to France in the late 1800s to help identify what was eating away at France’s vineyards. It was Riley who identified the phyloxerra louse, and he also found that some Native American rootstock was immune from the pest and could have French vines grafted onto them.
Prohibition decimated wine production along the Missouri and across the country, and it was a slow but steady evolution that resuscitated the area. In 1980, Augusta, Missouri, was recognized as the first US Wine District, or Viticultural Area #1, because of its “unique soil, climate, historical significance, and quality of wines produced from grapes grown in vineyards that date to the 1800’s.” (Augusta Winery) PBS recently launched a documentary called Winemaking in Missouri: A well-cultivated history, as part of its tasteMAKERS series. Watch it before you travel there so you better understand the region.
Many excellent varietals thrive there even if you may have never heard of them. It’s always good to try new wines! They include Norton (a Native American grape that produces big, dry reds); Chambourcin (a French-American hybrid red wine grape); Vidal Blanc (a cold-hardy white wine grape that originated in France); and Vignoles, the state’s most popular white wine grape (another cold-hardy varietal that produces aromatic and succulent wines) – and many more.
Getting to Missouri Wine Country is easy – in or out of St. Louis or Kansas City. There are actually 11 distinct wine trails in Missouri, each with its own collection of wineries. Check them out at www.missouriwine.org. Any number of itineraries is possible, and they’re all a great way to learn more about our country’s viticultural heritage and fabulous wines.
Southern Ontario and Pelee Island Winery
If you want a spring or summer get-away that isn’t going to involve an airport, but is exotic enough that you’ll need your passport, just head west from Albany. Stay north of the Finger Lakes and head to the Lake Erie escarpment near Buffalo. You can be at the beautiful Arrowhead Spring Vineyard in less than five hours from Albany, which is a great first stop. Spend the night in the area or get back on the road, cross into Canada, and it’s another four hours to Leamington, Ontario, where you’ll board a ferry to cross to Pelee Island.
Little Pelee Island, just 16.14 square miles, is at the southernmost point of Canada. In fact, half of America’s 50 states are north of it, and it’s on same latitude as some of the best wine-growing locations in Europe. In addition to Pelee Winery’s over 500 acres of vineyards, the island is home to over 10,000 unique species and is a mini paradise for nature lovers.
The Pelee Island Pavillion is a seasonal visit, April thru December, with late spring through early fall being ideal times to cross over on the ferry and explore the winery and the island. The winery offers a “Vine to Wine” seminar that takes visitors through the winemaking process from growing grapes to making wine, with information on the history of winemaking and also the importance of corks.
Pelee Island Winery makes everything from dry reds and whites to fruit wines, sparkling wines, and ice wines. Its signature varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc.
You’ll want to stay overnight – or even a few days. Pelee.org is chock full of suggestions, enticing visitors to explore everything that makes it one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.
Napa, because it’s Napa
I almost didn’t include the Napa Valley in California in this list because it’s so touristy. But just as Bordeaux is a must-visit place for understanding and appreciating the wines of France, so Napa is the place you have to visit at least once to understand and appreciate exceptional wines from the US.
The truth is that Napa is exceptional not just for the amazing wines produced at its hundreds of wineries, but for its natural beauty and almost fairy-tale atmosphere of fine living, including its food scene. It’s a place to fall in love with and in, no matter how often you go.
Napa Valley is California’s first AVA (American Viticultural Area), established in 1981. (There are over 200 AVAs across the country, of which 146 are in California). While winemaking in the area dates back to the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the area started to come into its own.
Cabernet Sauvignon is its most distinguished varietal, and Napa is world-renowned for producing big, deep, elegant expressions of this grape that loves the sun and the long ripening season there.
A (very short) list of iconic wineries to visit in Napa includes Chateau Montelena (watch the movie Bottle Shock before visiting – or just because); Robert Mondavi; Duckhorn; Caymus; Domain Chandon; and Beringer. If you want to be dazzled, visit Darioush, founded in 1997 to bring the opulent architecture, rich culture, arts, and wines of the famed royal city of Persepolis to Napa. The setting is all royal palace and the wines are equally fabulous. You pay for it, but you won’t forget it. If you want a good story, good experience, and great wines, too, check out Andretti, started by race car driver Mario Andretti. Andretti and Joe Antonini, the former CEO of K-Mart, wanted to bring the old world to the new world with great wines for a laid-back lifestyle. ‘Nuf said.
You probably have some favorite Napa Valley Cabs you’ve tried over the years whose tasting rooms and wineries you’d like to experience. Make a list and do it! There are so many websites with so much information on what to see and do in Napa and the surrounding area. I found californiawineryadvisory.com to be an especially good one.
And so many more
When you start looking into where to go for a wine vacation you’ll find, like I did, that every place looks wonderful. I didn’t even get to Italy, or Spain, or Croatia, or Greece, or Israel, or Chile, or Washington, Oregon, Virginia, even our great state of New York! I discovered what looks like a magical escape just south of Charleston, SC – Deep Water Vineyard on Wadmalaw Island – but I didn’t include it because, well, it’s like eating potato chips. I could go on and on.
What makes a wine vacation special, no matter where you go, is wine’s connection to the earth and to the people who cultivate the grapes and make the wine. It’s easy to forget that EVERY bottle tells a story. Become a part of that experience in your wine education and appreciation. Visit wineries from your backyard to any part of the planet that calls you.
May the gift of wine always be one of passion.