By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 4/1/2008 1:25:27 PM ET 2008-04-01T17:25:27

Just as Napa Valley in the U.S. has become a haven for expensive restaurants, chic hotels and one-upsmanship, the best-known wine regions of France and Italy have become increasingly costly in recent years. With the dollar hitting new lows against the euro every month, a week in a rental villa in Tuscany can now cost you as much as several monthly mortgage payments at home, and you need a last name like Rothschild or Petrus to be able to sample all that the Bordeaux or Alsace regions have to offer.

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Fortunately, it’s still easy to find lesser-known wine regions where the scenery is beautiful and the grapes are tended with care, where you can eat and drink with abandon without draining your wallet. Here are four off-the-radar spots with interesting wine and thin crowds.

The Vinho Verde and Dão regions of Portugal
Portugal is best known for the fortified wine called “port,” but it also produces some unique “regular” wines as well. Vinho Verde is a fresh, green-tinted white wine produced in a region full of stone villages and UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Dão Wine Route winds through a river valley where grapes for hearty red wines line both sides of the road; there are plenty of spas to relax in after a day of hiking or biking. Many of the wineries are situated in grand estate manor houses that have been producing wine for centuries. On top of all that, Portugal is hands-down the best travel deal in Western Europe these days.

Lower Austria’s wine route
The wines of Austria are not as well known as those of Germany, but their names are just as incomprehensible to most of us: names like Grüner Veltliner, Gelber Muskateller and Rotgipflerlately. Those wines are all tastier than they sound, though, and Austrian wines have been getting a lot of attention lately on tasting menus and innovative wine lists. Lower Austria’s wine route is easy to access from Vienna and includes eight distinct wine-growing areas. A biking greenway system connects this area to the wine region of Moravia (and onward to Prague or Krakow if you have the time).

The Moravia wine region of the Czech Republic
Thanks to the Czech Greenways Travel Club, the southern Czech countryside is bisected with well-marked, well-maintained cycling trails that weave through vineyards and castle-topped hills. Very little Czech wine gets exported, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a treat. The range from this one area is impressive, from dry red wines to excellent late-harvest dessert wines such as Slámové Víno — pressed from grapes plucked at the last possible moment and left to dry on top of straw. You can sample the 100 best wines in the country at the Wine Salon in Valtice, and it’s hard to spend more than $100 a night for a double room with breakfast.

The Villany, Eger and Balaton regions of Hungary
Hungary is known for its grand sweet wine Tokaji Aszú, but the country also produces mineral-rich dry wine that can hold its own on an international stage. With a climate similar to that of France, the sleepy Villany region is a great place for exploring by foot or bike, sipping fine Cabernet Franc along the way. The 16th-century town of Eger is a wine center with a group of public cellars on the outskirts in the “Valley of the Beautiful Women.” The banks of Lake Balaton are planted with vines growing grapes for many of Hungary’s top white wines and it’s a prime recreation area for swimming, sailing and taking in the hot spring mineral baths. In all three regions, it’s easy to find a nice independent hotel room for $40 to $100 a night, complete with glasses and a corkscrew.

A vacation in one of Europe’s lesser-known wine regions may not sound as impressive as a visit to Tuscany or the hills of France. You will surely come away dazzled by your new wine discoveries, however, and filled with memories of a spot on the globe you haven’t seen in every magazine and newspaper already. Besides, you’ll have a lot more money available to spend on fine food and a few bottles to take back home!

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.


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