15 epic wine regions to visit before you die
1. Mendoza, Argentina
This is where I got into wine beyond the $5 table red. They had my number, mixing biking with tastings, and prices are low enough that backpackers can get a bottle of the good stuff to take home.
The highness and dryness of Mendoza province combine with snowmelt irrigation tapped from the nearby Andes to create ideal growing conditions. Malbec — a grape originally produced (rather unsuccessfully) in France — is the signature varietal, while the lesser-known but also nationally iconic Torrontés is grown in provinces to the north.
Maipú, just southeast of the city of Mendoza, gets most of the tourists (and cyclists), but Luján de Cuyo, Valle de Uco, and Tupungato aren’t much farther out and are also major producers. Head there to avoid the crowds.
2. Burgundy, France
Burgundy packs a high concentration of great wines into a small area, while subtle differences in the micro-climates of each vineyard allow in-depth study of how growing conditions affect output. It’s a complicated region in terms of tracing the ownership structure of the vineyards, which “makes seeing the storied vineyards in person so interesting and important to understanding them.”
Burgundy’s size means it’s possible to cover most of the region in a few days. Best to concentrate on the Cote d’Or (which includes the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits), sleeping in Dijon and going by train to the medieval town of Beaune rather than paying much more to stay onsite.
Side trip: Find out how to work the Dijon mustard fields in 5 WWOOFing Opportunities in France.
3. Willamette Valley, Oregon
Many of my favorite domestic wines come from the Willamette Valley. The people there are very passionate about their wines…and work hard to improve the output of their vineyards and find the best spot to grow the most appropriate clones — my favorites here being Pinot Noir and Riesling, though there are also great Chardonnays and Pinot Gris.
There are [many] excellent wineries within a few hours of Portland in the Northern Willamette (from Portland south to Salem), and the entire Willamette Valley is 175 miles from end to end…. Great food wines poured alongside great local meals, full of individualistic young wineries. I try to visit as often as possible.
Side trip: Here’s our Green Guide to Portland for when you’re there.
4. Wellington/Wairarapa, New Zealand
This is one of the smaller of New Zealand’s 10 primary grape growing regions, but the quality of its wine surpasses the others’.
The most important varietals are Sauvignon Blanc, which put the country on the world wine map in the 1980s, and Pinot Noir, each accounting for a little over a third of the region’s production.
The subregion of Martinborough, focused on the village of the same name, has the oldest vines and is said to make the best product.
Side trip: I’d just rent a car and tour the whole country, having been inspired recently by Photo Gallery: 22 Natural Destinations in New Zealand.
5. La Rioja, Spain
Pretty much the whole of Spain is planted with grapes, but this is the classic Spanish wine-producing region, situated in the north of the country with its capital at Logroño. Its position, sheltered by the Cantabrian Mountains, gives it a more moderate climate than the rest of northern Spain.
Winemaking here is over 1,000 years old. Today the region is best known for its blends, with the primary red varietal used being Tempranillo and Viura the white. Traditionally, Rioja wines underwent extensive aging, with several years in oak barrels. This is slowly changing to meet increased demand, but you can expect strong vanilla flavors from a typical glass of Rioja.
6. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany
Thought of more as a beer country, this seems to have made the wine production that does go on in Germany more serious, with a much higher percentage of it being quality wine. Great acidity and lower alcohols make Riesling one of the darlings of sommeliers for food pairing, and it’s often their personal mission to get patrons to appreciate the great wines and values of Germany.
Small amounts of red are produced…, but slate driven mineral whites from the Riesling grape in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer are a great place to start. Don’t neglect the off dry styles in favor of the bone dry earlier harvest wines — these are unique and characterful wines.
Branch out into the Pfalz and Nahe later for other regions of note.
Side trip: Across the border, nearby Strasbourg is a Place to Experience La Belle France.
7. Northern California, USA
Napa is probably the best-known name among American drinkers, and at just an hour north of San Francisco is worth a visit — if you have specific wineries you want to hit. When I went, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of options and the bumper-to-bumper along much of Highway 29 (they were working to widen this to four lanes, so hopefully traffic will improve).
Instead, I’d recommend driving another ~80 miles up 128 to check out the much mellower offerings of Anderson Valley, where only a dozen or so mostly newcomer operations compete for visitors and Pinot Noir is the big dog. I stopped into Foursight Wines and was invited back to watch the punchdown underway on one of their two fermenting vats. You won’t get that in Napa.
Side trip: Up the coast in Fort Bragg is one beautifully bizarre beach, covered with perfectly smooth, multicolored glass.
8. Tuscany, Italy
Home of the “dry Chianti,” Tuscany is a hilly region on Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast. The hills both moderate the summertime heat and give the elevated vineyards more exposure to the sun, something that benefits the region’s signature Sangiovese grape.
Florence makes a good base of operations for tours of the different subregions, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Carmignano. Make sure to try the Vin Santo, Tuscany’s world-famous dessert wine.
Side trip: Just up the coast are the five villages of Cinque Terre and the national park of the same name.
9. Maipo, Chile
On the other side of the Andes from Mendoza is Chile’s Maipo Valley, a subregion of the larger Valle Central.
Cabernet is the big thing in Maipo, and the area is widely cultivated, helping Chile earn its spot as the fifth largest wine exporter in the world. Irrigation comes from the Maipo River, which flows straight from the mountains.
Side trip: Not far from the vines, and also close to Santiago, is Cajón del Maipo.
10. Champagne, France
Chalky soils at the northern edge of where grapes can be grown give us sparkling wines that define the standards for the category but remain a mystery to too many.
Big Champagne houses do their best to make a product that varies little from year to year, defeating some of the magic of wine, so I look for the RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) code on the label for grower Champagnes that are more tied to vintage and place…. If you think that Champagne is only for celebrating, then celebrate more things.
Side trip: Paris is just an hour or so west by train.
Centuries of Ottoman rule did a lot to set back winemaking in a region that historically had been quite serious about it. But today, you can find wines made from indigenous Greek grapes that are unlike anything else out there.
Joining the EU was one of the best things that could have happened to the Greek wine industry, and now much more clean and zippy wines are emerging, with lots of my favorites coming from the island of Santorini.
Samos and the Peloponnese are two other spots to check out, the former focusing strongly on the Muscat grape.
Side trip: A tour of Santorini wineries is likely to be the side trip, not the other way around. Here’s some advice when visiting the island: What NOT to do in Santorini.
12. Texas Hill Country
Warning: this list was made by a Texan.
Our long, hot summers limit what Texas winemakers can produce, but there’s surprising variety coming out of the Hill Country, and a lot of it (to my tastes, at least) is damn good.
I’m a member of the wine club at Becker Vineyards and adore their Malbec; anything marked “Reserve” is also kick-ass without fail.
Most of the action happens on Highway 290 between Stonewall and the old German town of Fredericksburg. Lots of B&Bs in the latter, which make for a great weekend basecamp for wine tours.
13. Sicily, Italy
Choosing a region to tour in Italy is a bit like picking a winery in Napa — the options are so numerous that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Sicily has two things going for it: being an island its land area is limited, and in the Italian wine world it’s most definitely an “up and coming” destination — get there to see it arrive.
In the past, Sicily was mainly known for its fortified Marsala wine, but recently local winemakers have had international success producing Nero d’Avola, a varietal unique to the island.
Side trip: Get tips on seeing the whole island in Roadtripping the Sicilian Coast.
14. Stellenbosch, South Africa
Red varietals are the focus here, led by Cabernet and including Merlot and Shiraz. A number of Port-style fortified wines are also produced.
For information on how to put together a trip that hits all the region’s major players, check the website of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes.
Side trip: Down on the coast, you can get Face to Face with South Africa’s Great Whites.
15. McLaren Vale, Australia
The Shiraz grape is the region’s mainstay, while Cabernet, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, and others are grown as well. McLaren Vale is a short drive south of Adelaide and in close proximity to beaches and Coorong National Park.
Side trip: Drive down the coast and cross into Victoria province to find the Great Ocean Walk.
You’ll find lots more booze-based content over at Matador Nights.
[Editor’s note: The expertise in this article comes from Sam Hovland, wine buyer at East End Wines in Austin, TX. I’ve been shopping East End since they opened last year; I typically pop in once a week for one of their free tastings. All quotes in article are Sam’s.]