Wine tasting ranks among my favorite activities when I travel. It frequently introduces me to fascinating people, and I almost always have the chance to sample something I would have a hard time finding elsewhere. Nor does it hurt that wineries and tasting rooms are often set in some of the world’s loveliest landscapes. In 2020, we discovered several wonderful wineries in off-the-beaten-track locations as well as a unique and stylish wine bar.
Prague, Czech Republic
Even dedicated oenophiles may be surprised to learn that the Czech Republic makes excellent wines nowadays. A number of wine bars have sprung up in Prague, and my favorite was Bokovka, hidden away in an old courtyard. Occupying a vaulted space, this bar has an industrial-chic sensibility, emphasized by its disconcerting chandeliers, each composed of three fluorescent tubes sticking out from giant clumps of wax. We tasted several compelling local wines, but it was two Burgundian varietals that truly seduced me. The complex 2015 Piálek & Jäger Chardonnay had rich aroma of buttered popcorn, refined acidity and gingery spiciness, keeping it balanced. And the elegant 2017 Jaroslav Springer/Tomáš Springer Čtvrtě Vineyard Pinot Noir was cherry-vanilla pie in a glass. Yet it was a serious wine, with juicy acidity and notes of earth. I bought bottles of both to take home. For the wine lover who is young at heart, this atmospheric bar offers exciting choices in a setting that could only be in Prague.
Dlouhá 37, Prague, Czech Republic. Tel. (420) 731-492-046
Austria’s most famous wine region isn’t very large, but what the Wachau Valley lacks in size it makes up for in scenic grandeur and the superlative quality of its products. It is here that Grüner Veltliner reaches its peak, and Wachau Rieslings can stand toe-to-toe with top examples from Germany. One afternoon, we strolled through the vineyards just outside Dürnstein to Domäne Wachau, which has a bustling tasting room at which no appointment is required. In spite of the many customers, we received excellent service. A knowledgeable English-speaking employee sat us down on a sofa and conducted a delightful private tasting. Noting our enthusiasm for the vivacious but refined wines, she eventually presented us with no fewer than 11 examples to try! I came away with single-vineyard bottlings of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, as well as an unusual amphora-aged Riesling. And I was smitten with a Grüner Veltliner made in the vin doux naturel style, its sweetness balanced by minerality and racy acidity.
Dürnstein 107, Austria. Tel. (43) 2711-371
Moraitis Winery, Naoussa, Paros, Greece
“The special character of our wines comes from the unique terroir of Paros,” explained the amiable guide before a tasting at the Moraitis family winery in Naoussa by the beach of Agioi Anargyroi. “These coastal vineyards have sandy mineral-rich soil on marble bedrock and a temperate microclimate with a constant humidity. This creates grapes of exceptionally concentrated flavor that express the personalities of the local cepages, including Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Monemvasia and several red varieties.” All of this might have sounded like just so much charming wine poetry until we actually began our tasting. From Moraitis Estate Malagousia, which is a crisp and fresh varietal white, to the lush red Paros Reserve made with Mandilaria and Monemvasia grapes, these are distinctive and well-structured wines. The two rare Moraitis wines that should find a place in your suitcase are the Malvasia Paros 4 Years Aged, and the Amma, a sweet red; both are ideal dessert wines with which to conclude a festive meal.
Tel. (30) 228-405-1350
Salina, Aeolian Islands, Italy
During a vacation on Salina in 1963, the late artist and designer Carlo Hauner first discovered Passito, the sensual pale-caramel-colored wine once known as “the nectar of the Gods.” He became fascinated by the way it was produced according to methods dating back centuries. First the grapes are harvested in mid-September, then they are dried on bamboo mats on outdoor racks for several weeks, a process that concentrates their sugars. The grapes — Passito is made from 95 percent Malvasia di Lipari and up to 5 percent Corinto Nero — are then pressed and allowed to ferment slowly in casks. The resulting wine has just enough acidity to temper its sweetness. Hauner eventually decided to make his own Passito and bought 50 acres, which he replanted with vineyard terraces overlooking the sea. His project relaunched winemaking on Salina, and the estimable Italian guidebook Gambero Rosso has described his Passito as “flaunting nuances of Mediterranean scrubland and delicious echoes of candied citrus.”
Tel. (39) 090-984-3141
I felt suspicious that the wineries near San Miguel de Allende might exist merely to help slake tourists’ thirst; the Guanajuato region is not historically known for high-quality wine. But as evidenced by our visit to Cuna de Tierra, Guanajuato’s history of fine winemaking has begun. After a tour of the vineyards and contemporary winery, we sat down to a Michelin-star-quality lunch. A course of spaghettoni with pesto and shrimp could have been prepared no better in Genoa. It came with a glass of 2018 Torre de Tierra, a blend of Tempranillo with a little Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved its ripe cherry fruit, zippy acidity and sweetly woodsy tannins. The local rib-eye had a caramelized crust on the outside but was rare in the middle and came with a deep mole sauce. The pairing of rich and lively 2017 Cuna de Tierra Vino Tinto, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, was a joy. The dark fruit and spiciness mirrored the mole, and a sultry tobacco note highlighted the beef. An elegant Sémillon and a zesty dessert wine were also delicious.
Cuna de Tierra
Tel. (415) 152-6060