Some Famous International Wine Regions – and why you should go next door

Many wine regions around the world have become bucket-list destinations. Nearly every wine producing country has at least one region where the wines are very special, or the area is very beautiful, or the culture is unique or all three. They are usually the ones most visited. They are not always the best to visit, however, if you are a true wine lover. Consider the following vinous pilgrimages.

Firstly, if it is the USA then it is California, and if it California it is the Napa Valley. Top class Cabernets, iconic cult wines, and winery names that echo around the world.  Also huge crowds, queueing for tastings and ridiculous prices. The scenery is nice, but not that nice, many mountains around are but hills and the traffic is frustrating. Far better to drive to Sonoma and then to Dry Creek River. Now you have ditched the gloss and are in natural countryside. Lovely wines, friendly people and a slower pace. Horses roam, rustic lanes beckon and much nicer to sip your Pinot Noir gazing at a babbling brook than a car park full of Ferraris.

If you yearn for the Latin romance of ochre Tuscan villas, vistas of Olive groves and oceans of Chianti, then slip through Siena (it has to be seen) and southward to the quaint village of Montalcino, where a glass of Brunello di Montalcino will make you forget the road tolls everywhere. Rather than crowding into towns in Chianti Classico, climb the cobbled streets to the hilltop village of Montalcino, duck the washing strung between the tumbling ancient homes and park under an oak to savour how Italy was two hundred years ago.

Sonoma view I Montalcino Village

Perhaps New Zealand is your choice. Marlborough, no doubt, for its world class Sauvignons. Great wines, yes, though I preferred the Riesling and Gewurztraminer, but the vista is not up to much around Marlborough. Pretty vineyards, welcoming wineries, but Franschhoek it is not. Stay on the North Island longer (presumably Wellington is your starting point) and head North East, to Hawkes Bay. Fewer tourists and prettier scenery as well as gorgeously different wines including crunchy Chenins and smooth Bordeaux blends. Take in Hastings as well and this Art Deco oddity will melt your heart and you won’t miss Marlborough.

You might include a stop in Australia if you are suffering the journey to NZ, and if you are, maybe it is to the Yarra Valley. Cool climate Chardonnays, Pinots and rolling hills. Also, tasting fees (R200 at some) selections of ordinary wines (many top cuvees are not for public consumption) and coached weekenders from Melbourne intent on imbibing fully. Head instead to Rutherglen, 250k away yes, but another world. Quaint, dishevelled, rural and the home of quirky brown liqueur dessert wines that will change your view of sweet wines forever.

For Centuries, the wines of Rioja have echoed through every restaurant and bistro on the planet. Rich, overt and faintly oak sweet, if you are headed to Haro for Flamenco, paella and a Gran Reserva, then don’t get too excited. Some wineries are evocative (Muga) and others are startling (Marques de Riscal) but otherwise…. Instead, head for Penedes. Not only is there Barcelona to delight, but Priorat and Cava. Priorat is weirdly lovely – you have to drive at night when the llicorella soil twinkles in the headlights, rustic, slow and genuine. Then there is Cava, cheap, sumptuous and refreshing, and even the two big producers offer a worthwhile visit.

Further afield, for the really adventurous, there is Chile and the Chardonnay famed area of Casablanca or the magnet that is Concho y Toro near Santiago. Fine if you want a tour in six languages, a designated football pitch for coaches alone, and the most dispassionate tasting I have ever done. Get back in the car and drive south to Colchagua (provided the fires have abated). Gentle hills, verdant pastures and Cabernet to die for. Go to Clos Apalta or Montes and take a glass to wander through the vines, I swear I saw no one else around while I was meandering.

Oporto, Portugal, is pretty enough to captivate anyone, and with the Port houses on the Left Bank offering all the brands you could wish for, many will not venture further. But the home of Port is 80 kilometres away, up in the Douro and the drive is worth it. Narrow roads, slower pace, hot dry scrub, ancient estates and disintegrating houses; lovely. Here you will not only drink Port, you will feel Port.

Francophiles, of course Bordeaux and Champagne are on your list, maybe Burgundy, but why not buck the trend and head for Beaujolais. My last minute decision to drive through turned into the highlight of my stay. The most beautiful unspoilt scenery, winding roads, large gents on old bikes, juicy fruity wine and fresh baguettes – and a two hour lunch to enjoy it. Beaujolais is not the quaffer of old – at least not all of it – find a bench overlooking a pretty village, break the bread, smear with Camembert, open a rich Gamay Chiroubles Cru and drift away.

Using the same theory, there are pockets of South Africa that deserve greater exploration and offer another side to the commercial face of winery progression. How nice to borrow an old bike, load up on baguettes and do the same through Elim, or Calitzdorp, or McGregor, or Darling or…

Montalcino Village

Sonoma view

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