Wine and spirits tastings rank among our favorite activities when we travel. They frequently introduce us to fascinating people, and we almost always have the chance to sample something we would have a hard time finding elsewhere. Nor does it hurt that wineries and distilleries are often set in some of the world’s loveliest landscapes and most vibrant cities, respectively. In 2021, our most memorable experiences included a superlative wine-pairing lunch in Sonoma, tastings in Tuscany, a visit to a unique distillery in Texas and magical dinner in Portugal at harvest time.
Located along a picturesque winding road in California’s tranquil Dry Creek Valley, Cāpo Creek opened to visitors in 2018. Its shady hillside patio overlooks a plot of old Zinfandel vines stretching to the opposite side of the valley, and on the day we visited, we had that splendid view entirely to ourselves. Owner Mary Roy creates the delicious lunches served here, paired with her superb wines. A full-bodied blend of Grenache Blanc and Viognier, for example, both mirrored and cut through the fattiness of squash gratin with fontina. A mozzarella-stuffed piquillo pepper with a balsamic reduction brought out the peppery side of some surprisingly tannic Grenache Noir. And the superlative, well-integrated “Eva’s Vineyard” Old Vine Zinfandel had dark fruit enhanced by a note of sweet tobacco. It was an ideal foil for a savory fontina-filled kolacky. The warm welcome, fine wines, idyllic views and exclusivity of the experience made this my favorite winery lunch on my trip to Sonoma.
Greve in Chianti, Italy
I don’t know of anywhere else in Tuscany that has as broad a selection of Italian wines to taste as Enoteca Falorni, an atmospheric bar and shop in Greve in Chianti. Beneath its brick vaults are no fewer than 13 “tasting islands,” cylindrical Enomatic machines presenting numerous top-quality bottlings available to taste at the touch of a button (selections are recorded on a card, which you present to the cashier when you’re finished). The problem is narrowing down the dozens and dozens of tempting options. Memorable sips included Gaja’s full-bodied 2020 Ca’ Marcanda “Vistamare,” a white blend redolent of tropical fruit and orangy acidity. Elsewhere, I homed in on the big and brooding 2017 Querciabella Chianti Classico Riserva. And I splurged on both the luscious and highly polished 2014 Sassicaia and the simply gorgeous 2015 Ornellaia, which could serve as the definition of structure. I would happily come here daily to compare and contrast various wines.
Castiglion Fibocchi, Italy
At Tenuta Canto alla Moraia, a biodynamic winery in northeastern Chianti near Il Borro, we had an unforgettable private tour of the vineyards. A beautiful old horse-drawn carriage pulled up to the winery entrance, and owners Rodolfo and Silvia Banci hopped in with us. On the ride, they pointed out plots of vines named for various family members and explained the benefits of their biodynamic processes. But we also learned a great deal about the history of the surrounding valley and the Banci family (Rodolfo’s father, it turns out, knew Frank Lloyd Wright). Back in the tasting room, the quality of the wines was impressive. The finesse of the 2016 San Sereno blend of Sangiovese and lesser-known Tuscan grapes was almost startling. The 2015 Gianetto, named for Silvia’s father, was so fragrant it practically leapt from the glass. And the 2014 Granwalter had sumptuous richness, depth and length. These wines were world class, and the visit felt both upscale and intimate.
To try the relatively unknown spirit sotol, head to Desert Door, the only distillery of its kind in the United States. The bartenders were nothing but charming as they led us to leather couches set beside a roaring fireplace and described the process of producing this artisanal spirit, which has a long tradition in Mexico. Only the bulbs of the sotol plant, which resemble bowling-ball-size artichokes with a tall flower stalk, are used. First steamed and then machine-shredded, they are fermented for five days before being distilled. For those new to sotol, it can best be described as a somewhat spicy cross between tequila and bourbon. We tasted the original and the oak-aged versions and especially enjoyed the latter, which is creamier, with a more herbaceous taste and stronger notes of caramel and cedar. Our old-fashioned, using sotol as a stand-in for bourbon, was a highlight, as was the “Swish of a Tail,” a mix of sotol, lemon, mint and agave.
Dão Region, Portugal
In the evening, the vineyards surrounding Quinta de Lemos looked as if they had been invaded by ranks of giant fireflies. It might have been an alarming sight if winemaker Hugo Chaves hadn’t told us the harvest would be starting that night. The grapes are picked by the light of miners’ helmets because, he said, “A lower temperature preserves the aromas and, most importantly, the yeast for fermentation.” Sitting down to dinner at the estate’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Mesa de Lemos, our first wine was a vivacious sparkler named Geraldine, after the daughter of the owner, Celso de Lemos. Its tight bubbles and buttery aromas paired perfectly with chef Diogo Rocha’s rustic appetizers of bread, charcuterie and cheese. The suavest pairing of the meal was a lush Dona Santana, an intriguingly deep and nuanced red made with the four emblematic red grape varieties of the Dão region — Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Alfrocheiro — with succulent braised pork. And the most unexpected was a varietal Alfrocheiro served with codfish in a light parsley sauce. We sat watching the grape pickers long into the night.