Wines the World Over


In the signature line of his emails, Andrew Harper's wine concierge, Hal Oates, includes a short blurb from the Bible: "Wine to gladden the heart of man." That sentiment is shared not only by Oates, but also by the growing number of travelers who head off in search of great wine destinations year after year.

"In my opinion, there are two main reasons why wine-related travel is so popular," says the Napa-based connoisseur. "First, almost all of the top wine destinations just happen to be located in some of the most scenic regions of the world. Second, serious oenophiles relish the unique nature of personal encounters with many of the leading vintners in our field. Few art lovers ever dined with Picasso, but wine lovers can break bread with and savor the fruits of many of the most talented wine personalities in the world. Come visit us in Napa, for example and, with a little warning, we can arrange personal tastings with some of the most heralded winemakers in America." Personal tastings with noted vintners are but a sip from the glass of wine tourism, however. There are wine classes, cave dinners, grape stomps and more for the traveling wine enthusiast, be it in the viticultural regions in Europe, South America, the United States or points in between.

So, how does one go about choosing the ultimate wine vacation? Pour yourself a glass of your favorite vino, settle into your comfortable armchair, and read on to learn about some of the planet's best spots for worldwide wine-tasting.

A Perennial Favorite: Napa Valley, California

"Napa Valley is by far the most popular U.S. wine destination," says Oates, noting that the region caters to visitors and ranks high in hospitality.

Among the delights drawing wine lovers to this Northern California paradise is a diverse selection of producers, from small, family-owned operations to mega-vintners that produce a million cases or more, where tasting rooms provide a sampling of the area's award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Merlots. "I'm a little biased, of course," says Oates, "but I would posit that Napa wine is the best in the world." Also crowd-pleasers are the area's cozy accommodations, plentiful boutiques, rejuvenating spas and hot springs, and top-notch restaurants, including Thomas Keller's famed French Laundry, consistently voted one of the best in the world. Not to be outdone is the spectacular landscape, a verdurous 35-mile-long valley bordered by mountains and clad almost entirely in grapevines.

The Up-and-Comer: Walla Walla, Washington

The southeast Washington appellation of Walla Walla may not yet have secured a permanent spot on the worldwide wine map, but it's getting there. Its first bonded winery - started by a local machinist - wasn't opened until 1977, but today, there are already more than 100 wineries, 1,800-plus acres of vineyards and an abundance of positive reviews making up the Walla Walla wine scene.

Long a farming community, Walla Walla boasts an arid clime, and sand- and silt-filled soil that combines to create ideal conditions for viticulture. In fact, grapes can stay on the vine here long after they would have to be harvested in other parts of world, which gives the fruit even more layers of flavor.

The region is known primarily for its Cabernets and Syrahs, but there is one wine in particular that stands out not just for its taste, but for its winemaker. Actor Kyle MacLachlan, who grew up in Washington state, has partnered with dunham cellars to create a smallproduction Cabernet Sauvignon sporting the label "Pursued by Bear." "Apart from a little mildew, it's a pretty easy place to grow the stuff," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Pinot Noir Powerhouse: Willamette Valley, Oregon

"There are more than 100 wineries within a 20-minute drive of us," says Karen Utz, one of the owners of the Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard, in dundee, oregon, located smack in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine region.

Home to more than two-thirds of the state's vineyards and wineries, the Willamette Valley, with its long, mild growing season, is one of the world's top producers of Pinot Noirs, some of which have shocked the wine community by beating out their French equivalents. Not bad, considering that the first serious, for-production wine grapes weren't planted here until 1966.

Referring to the 12 acres of grapes being cultivated on Black Walnut's property, Utz says, "Guests do walk our vineyards, and we are always happy to accompany them and tell them about what is happening there at any given time of the year. In addition, at harvest, our guests are usually in the fields with us as we pick - helping, watching and asking questions." Another great way to experience the area's fine wines is at one of the neighborhood restaurants. "We highly recommend The Painted Lady, Tina's, red Hills Provincial dining and The Joel Palmer House," says Utz.

Savory South America: Salta, Argentina

Hovering near the equator in a mountainous region in far north Argentina, is the wine region of Salta. The vineyards here reap the rewards of the higher altitude and lower latitude, which one source wrote, "allows the grapes to develop phenolic ripeness while retaining good acidity," which is really just a fancy way of saying they make a great glass of wine.

Tours of the area's wineries afford the opportunity to experience a host of notable Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbecs, Syrahs and Chardonnays, as well as a variety made from a grape grown only in Argentina, the Torrontes. Frowned upon in some winemaking circles, the Torrontes seems to work quite well here.

What also works wonderfully well here is the fact that the vicinage gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Equally delicious, and what puts Salta on many an oenophile's itinerary, is the setting, a postcard-worthy terrain that ranges from cloud-busting peaks to windswept prairies.

The Bargain of the Bunch: Cape Town, South Africa

"The South African wine region near Cape Town wouldn't make most top five lists, but I encourage all of our members to visit - especially those on the way to a safari - for the amazing scenery, unique cuisine and culture, and engaging local personalities," advises Oates. "Plus, this region still offers the biggest bargains in luxury travel compared to the more discovered wine regions."

Oates' statement doesn't mean the wine here isn't great. "The soils and weather conditions for wines produced in the Cape vary significantly within a seemingly short distance," explains Simon Mandy, marketing and operations manager of the royal Portfolio family of hotels, which includes the stunning La Residence, 45 minutes east of Cape Town. "The hotter region of Franschhoek, for example, where our grapes are planted, produces big, rich, terrior-driven red wines, many of which have scored highly in the international competitions and publications."

Naturally, properties such as La Residence take full advantage of the situation. "The vineyards at La Residence are very small and situated directly in front of the hotel. Guests can be led into the vineyards by one of our staff members or casually stroll through unaccompanied," says Mandy. "We also offer tastings for guests where we sample our two varietals and compare them to other wines from the valley, and we intend on incorporating guests into the harvest and production. Additionally, we offer extensive wine tours to the top cellars in the region, with preferential tastings with winemakers and owners. Franschhoek has other lovely wine activities as well. A sabrage at one of the wineries is regularly enjoyed, as is wine-tasting on horseback."

Understated Excellence: Marlborough, New Zealand

Blair Gibbs, the GM of spy Valley Wines and among New Zealand's winemaking elite, was described in a 2009 article as "one of the most unassuming chaps you could ever wish to meet." That description may well also suit Marlborough's standing as one of the world's top wine destinations—it may not be as in-your-face as places such as Burgundy and Napa, but that doesn't make it any less formidable.

"Marlborough is New Zealand's largest wine-growing region, accounting for more than 60 percent of all New Zealand wine," notes Gibbs. "The main variety grown here is Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough is also New Zealand's largest Pinot Noir-growing region, and produces an array of other varieties to globally acclaimed standards, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer." Its wines are described as having a "distinctive pungency" and "zesty fruit flavors." Spy Valley's own pungent bottles have nabbed awards at events across the globe, and it was named New Zealand Wine Producer of the Year at the 2010 International Wine and Spirit Competition. Visit it, or any of the 100- plus wineries dotting the region, for a taste of what makes Marlborough so special.

Master of the Universe: Burgundy, France

Mention wine tourism and most people immediately think France, the world's leading wine producer. With acclaimed grape-growing territories from Bordeaux to Beaujolais, Champagne to the Côte du Rhône, it's hard to choose just one to shine the spotlight on, but Burgundy won the honor for having the highest number of appellations (geographical entities under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine) than any other region.

Savvy visitors use a hotel such as the castleesque Abbaye de la Bussière as their base of operations and venture out to area wine attractions via car or organized excursion. Julie Steele, who handles public relations and marketing for the Abbaye, has been putting together wine tours since 1996, and that longevity affords a certain exclusivity and opportunity for guests to actually meet the folks behind the wines rather than sitting in a run-ofthe- mill tasting room. "Some of the families with whom we work are at least eighth generation," says Steele. "This gives our guests a wonderfully authentic experience."

In addition to wine-tastings, oenophiles can savor sites such as the château du clos de Vougeot, built by Cistercian monks in the 12th century and still housing the huge presses they used to make the wine. Visitors can also enjoy a bike ride or car trip along the route des grands crus, which Steele says is "like driving through a wine list," or a relaxing grape-based treatment at one of the area's top wine spas.

Home of the Reds: Tuscany, Italy

Gorgeous Tuscany, which encompasses an area of undulating countryside along the western coast of the Mediterranean, is Italy's most important wine region, producing upward of 60 million cases each year. A vast majority of those cases are filled with hearty and delicious reds, particularly Chianti, a rather serious blend that historically came in squatty bottles wrapped in straw baskets.

Winemaking has been a part of the Tuscan civilization for almost 3,000 years, and that storied history is a part of what makes it such a beloved wine destination. Oates cites another reason: "The Italians have embraced the concept of winery hospitality a bit quicker than the French traditionalists."

One of the best things about a wine trip through Tuscany is that in addition to visiting the tasting rooms of top producers, you can also seek out the plentiful small farms that generate a variety of sample and original wines you'll never find on the liquor store aisle. Cheers to that.

The Origin of Port: Douro, Portugal

"Douro is a very important wine destination and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world that is protected as a World Heritage site by UNESCO," says Sofia Brandao, the director of sales and marketing for Aquapura Hotels, with a hint of braggadocio. Adds her PR counterpart, Joana Zeller, "The Douro Valley accounts for more than 100 different varieties of wine that don't exist anywhere else in the world." Which may explain why Douro wines make up 50 percent of the wine list served in the restaurants and bar at Aquapura's exquisite Douro Valley property, a 50-room retreat in a restored 19th-century manor house.

Primary among the Douro Valley wines is Port, so named after Porto, the country's second-largest city. It was here that this rich, red varietal, long considered an ideal after-dinner drink, originated. To this day, Port can still only legally be produced within the boundaries of the Douro designated by the Portuguese government. It is exported around the world, of course, but we can't think of a better place to savor its fine flavors than its fertile Douro birthplace.

By Hal Oates Guest Contributor