Image: Chateau Yquem
Tim Graham  /  Tim Graham/Getty Images
Bordeaux, France, is one of the largest wine regions in the world and home to cabernets, merlots and sauvignons.
updated 7/30/2007 11:54:32 AM ET 2007-07-30T15:54:32

No longer are oenophiles content with just buying wine and drinking it at home. They're traveling around the world to taste it at its source.

"People who are interested in wine want to travel to spots where they can learn more about it," says Amanda Densmore, a luxury travel specialist at Admiral Travel Gallery in Sarasota, Fla., who plans wine vacations. "This means visiting wineries and getting a hands-on educational experience about the area where it is produced."

It's about the wine — and it's not. That's because travelers who visit wineries not only get to sample vintages, but also get to enjoy uncommonly scenic surroundings.

Visitors to the Stellenbosch wine region near Cape Town, South Africa, for example, will see original Dutch houses which date to the early 17th century. And travelers to the Maipo wine region near Santiago, Chile, will visit wineries with several-hundred-year-old estancias.

They're definitely not your typical wine-tasting trips. And that's the point. While your first instinct might be to book a tour of Tuscany or Napa Valley, Stephen Tanzer, publisher of the bimonthly newsletter International Wine Cellar, recommends going some place less touristy. That way, you're more likely to get personalized attention.

"If you visit smaller wineries or regions that aren't overrun, chances are you'll get to meet the owner of the winery, who can take the time to walk you through everything about the wine," he says. "In crowded areas, it's rare that this would happen."

West Coast's winning wineries
California is the top U.S. destination for wine travel, according to a 2006 Culinary Travel Study compiled by the Travel Industry Association with the International Culinary Tourism Association and Gourmet magazine.

That could mean drunken crowds.

Image: Paso Robles
The Paso Robles, Calif. region has the third-largest concentration of wineries in the U.S. and is known for its cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.
Avoid the throngs in Napa and head instead to the up-and-coming Paso Robles region, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This region, with about 200 wineries, has the third-largest concentration in the country. It's known for its cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. You can reach many wineries easily by bike, as well as by car.

While there, visit Justin Vineyards, famous for its cult wine, Isoceles (a cabernet and bordeaux blend), Vina Robles for its 2002 syrah and J. Lohr for its cuvees.

Stay at the Just Inn, on the grounds of Justin Vineyards. The property has a swimming pool and the four suites have tapestry-covered furniture, frescoed ceilings and marble baths. The inn provides bikes to explore the region.

Down-under drinking
If you're willing to travel far to fulfill your love of wine, visit Marlborough, New Zealand, on the South Island, an area Densmore says is becoming a hot spot for tourists.

This region is famous for its sauvignon blancs, most of which are produced on a small scale. Wineries, spread along the Wairau River and surrounded by green hills, have views of Mount Tapuaenuku. Notable vineyards include Cloudy Bay and Wairau River.

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Rieslings are also becoming prominent in the area. To sample these, visit Fromm Winery-La Strada. Since the distances between the wineries can be several miles, it's best to visit them by car. Stay at Old St. Mary's Convent, a former convent situated in the heart of the region. It has five rooms that look out onto the vineyards.

Tippling in Italia
If you can't imagine a wine trip that doesn't include Italy, skip Tuscany and head north to Piedmont. This hilly area is home to the ancestral grape Nebbiolo, which produces the red wines Barolo and Barbaresco, both rich with overtones of truffles, cherries and plums. The wines are produced on a small scale, and the wineries are perched on the Langhe hills.

Gaja, which boasts such pricey vintages as Sperss Nebbiolo Langhe, is a major producer. Visit Bruno Giacosa, situated 1,300 feet above sea level, to taste Barberesco Santo Stefano, one of the most coveted wines in the country. To sample wines from a winery that dates back to the 19th century, check out Pio Cesare.

Stay at the Turin Palace Hotel when you're in the area. This 18th-century property is on Piazza San Carlo; its suites are furnished with antiques.

Money matters
Since visiting wineries to sample wine is free, a wine lover's vacation can be done on a budget.

"The biggest cost on a wine vacation is the kind of hotel you stay in and the kind of restaurants you dine at," says Densmore. Stay and eat at the best, and costs can climb to $5,000 a week, excluding airfare.

But when you're drinking fine wine, and in quantities that would make Bacchus blush, money becomes no object.

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