The harvest season is here for many of the world’s viticultural centers, tempting visitors to tastings of tried-and-true vintages and more innovative wines.
Our favorite wine regions to visit at this time of year range from the classic castle country of France’s scenic Loire Valley and the sun-kissed vineyards of Tuscany, to the Western U.S., where America’s wine contributions emerge from soils stretching from California to Oregon.
But we're also keen on lesser-known wine-producing areas, like Canada’s Niagara region, which touts scenic wonders and ice wine, to boot, and European centers that specialize in sherry and port.
Even if you're too late to catch this year's bounty, you can plan ahead for a visit to three top grape-growing destinations in the Southern Hemisphere, whose coveted harvest season will spring forth when our northerly winter ends.
1. Andalucía, Spain
Flamenco and tapas are best when accompanied by a savory glass of Andalucía’s own famous sherry. With Spain touting more vineyard acreage than anywhere in the world, this southwestern Spanish province accordingly produces an array of fine wines, but is most renowned for its dry to sweet amber sherry. Most tours in the region start off in Seville and head to Jerez de Frontera (the sherry capital of the world) where you’ll learn the ins and outs of winemaking and how varietals like vinegar and Jerez brandy are produced, and, of course, get to taste some quality selections. After exploring the vineyards, sample Spain’s finest at a traditional wine bar, better known as a bodega, where barrels of wine are stacked on multicolored tile floors and links of sausage and herbs hang from wooden beams. Here, you can spend afternoons nibbling on salty olives, snacking on delicious tapas, all the while sampling glass after glass of the fragrant sherry that puts Andalucía in the same league as other top wine regions.
2. Cape Winelands, South Africa
The Cape’s striking wine country, set just 45 minutes northeast of Cape Town, South Africa, comprises close to 400 square miles of vineyards. In addition to world-class wineries such as Bergkelder (www.bergkelder.co.za), famous for its subterranean “cellar in the mountain,” you can indulge your palate at world-class restaurants like Bosman’s at the Grande Roche Hotel (www.granderoche.com), in Paarl. Tour organizers can plan day trips from Cape Town into the heart of of one of the Southern Hemisphere's most impressive wine regions, taking in the craggy mountain ranges, lush vineyards and Cape Dutch homesteads, and perhaps a visit to the historic town of Stellenbosch, the second-oldest European settlement in South Africa. Go in February and March to witness the wine harvest — and note that South Africa’s seasons are opposite those in North America.
An astounding array of microclimates — influenced by blanketing fog, sloping mountains, breezy coastline and rich afternoon sunshine — give California a terroir and grape selection that is truly second-to-none in the U.S. In the north, neighboring Napa and Sonoma valleys produce more vintages than anywhere else in the nation (at least 850 wineries are based in the two counties, set about 50 miles north of San Francisco), and the regions’ rolling vineyards, boutique wineries and constellation of quaint towns offer quintessential wine country charm. Napa, the home to well-known bottles like Robert Mondavi and Beringer, draws a heavy tourist crowd, but just next door, Sonoma produces rival vintages amidst towering redwood forests, the lush Mayacama Mountains and lazily grazing cows. Don’t miss either California’s Central Coast (and one of its lesser-known wine regions), where more than 100 wineries cluster around Santa Barbara’s five viticultural areas, each dotted with small, family-run vineyards that turn out everything from chardonnay to petit verdot.
4. Hunter Valley, Australia
As harvest season unfolds in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is in full swing Down Under —marking the start of a new winemaking season in these spectacular rolling vineyards, set just two hours north of Sydney, Australia. Thriving with first-rate vintages and some 120 wineries, this South Wales valley offers an incredible variety of shops and restaurants, many of them overlooking verdant vineyards, to make it one of the most attractive and visited wine regions in Australia. Many tours depart from Sydney and include horse-drawn carriage rides, boutique wine tastings, and picnic lunch, making for the perfect interlude in one of the world's premier wine regions. You can also sample local cheeses churned out by area cheese makers and frothier beverages, like popular ginger beer, also produced by local breweries.
5. Loire Valley, France
A fairytale vin-tasting adventure awaits in the vineyard-bordered castle country of France’s Loire Valley — arguably the most beautiful wine region in the world. For lovers of fine wine and all finer things in life, one would be hard-pressed to uncover a setting as exquisite as the famed, fertile valley of the sinuous Loire River, a place seeped in rich history from regal chateaux to its long viticultural tradition. Situated just on the western boundaries of Paris, the area is blessed with a gentle climate and rich soil, allowing for the production of diverse appellations with vast degrees of character. While the Loire’s numerous vineyards are most famous for their production of white varietals (accounting for about 60 percent of the production here) such as sauvignon blanc, muscadet and chenin blanc, some delightful, fruity and pleasant reds such as cabernet franc can be enjoyed here, as well. The excitement of the senses stretches far beyond the palate, too, as tours of one of the world's most storied wine regions can be combined with hiking, bicycling or hot air ballooning through the scenic countryside, and visits to some of the area’s most awe-inspiring chateaux, of which two particular jaw-droppers are Chambord (www.chambord.org) and Chenonceau (www.chenonceau.com).
6. Mendoza, Argentina
As Argentina’s wines increase in popularity, so does travel to the country’s wine-producing provinces, and particularly that of Mendoza, where, in addition to flourishing vineyards nestled in the foothills of the snow-capped Andes (the highest peaks on the continent), this northwestern region also touts nature reserves, alpine ski resorts and a picturesque city. Surprisingly, the sweet grapes that grow here come from harsh desert land that flourishes thanks to extensive, centuries-old irrigation canals created by the Incas. Various bodegas are scattered throughout and many offer free tours and tastings (note that there are only a few exceptions to the normal weekday openings; and some wineries have begun charging). Visit during Vendimia, the annual harvest festival, which kicks off in January and boasts folkloric celebrations, grape-blessing ceremonies and plenty of other merry events — all of which culminate on the first Saturday in March. Wine aficionados should follow the Ruta de los Vinos (Route of the Wines) where you can vineyard hop, visit ancient cellars, browse museums and sip the excellent selections in one of the world's top wine regions.
7. Niagara, New York and Canada
The Niagara Region (in Ontario) and the Niagara Frontier (in New York) together compose a picturesque wine-producing area whose geologic features from the Great Lakes of Ontario and Erie to the Niagara Escarpment (a 1675-foot high ridge) make not only for wondrous scenery, but have helped foster superb conditions for year-round grape growing. Moderate temperatures and rich soils allow dozens of wineries to turn out an excellent variety of vinefera grape harvests each year, from chardonnay to riesling to pinot noir and cabernet franc. The region’s biggest claim to fame, however, is its ice wine, a delicious, intensely flavored wine created from grapes harvested after the first winter frost — the region is one of the only wine-producing regions in the world to produce the coveted product with such consistency and quality. Ontario’s Wine Route (www.winesofontario.org) on the Canadian side of the region, or the Niagara Wine Trail (www.niagarawinetrail.org), on the U.S. side, each offer an excellent opportunity to tour the vineyards and taste the region’s award-winning wines. We recommend basing a Niagara wine country trip in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where charming bed and breakfasts, boutiques, restaurants and shops will keep you happily occupied when not tasting the grapes of one of North America's renowned wine regions — plus, it’s only a half-hour drive from Niagara Falls.
While Oregon’s southerly California neighbor may get all of the glory when it comes to winemaking, that’s not to say that Oregon doesn’t produce equally glorious wines in its own right. In fact, many speculate that, if it weren’t for the state’s more longstanding stint with Prohibition, the region today would be the de facto forerunner in the U.S. industry! All the same, Oregon presently lays claim to close to 390 wineries, which turn out more than 40 varieties including pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot, riesling, syrah and many others. The Willamette Valley is the state’s thriving center (and the largest region), luring connoisseurs with its internationally acclaimed pinot noir and plethora of charming wineries that occupy some 150 scenic miles from its northern to southern fringes. This picturesque valley is a great place to ponder the pioneers who were lured this way via the Oregon Trail, while enjoying some fantastic local wine on an impromptu picnic lunch or a hot air balloon ride over one of the West Coast's most impressive wine regions. We recommend basing your stay in Dundee or McMinnville, where good restaurants and quality inns abound.
9. Porto, Portugal
Portugal’s newest must-visit destination, Porto’s biggest claim to fame is the sweet fortified wine that bears its name and gave it an international reputation (and lasting export). The stuff has been aged here for centuries, in nearby Vila Nova de Gaia – an area easily reachable by a 10-minute walk across Ponte Dom Luis I — where some 50 traditional port lodges offer intoxicating samplings and tours. Set aside an afternoon for some sampling of the renowned Sandeman label’s wares —the distillery (www.sandeman.eu) was founded back in 1790 and housed in a former convent — or, for a less touristy experience, head to Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman (www.taylor.pt), a wonderfully atmospheric lodge that has been around since 1692 and features some top-notch vintage brands. If you still want to know more about port and the country's wine regions, and have the time to spare, you can also take a day-long cruise to the Douro Valley — Porto’s equivalent of Napa — where the vineyards that produce Porto grapes are found.
10. Tuscany, Italy
Rolling hillsides swathed in rows upon rows of emerald vines, idyllic farmhouses flanked by tall cypress trees and hilltop medieval castles — the Tuscan countryside is always a spectacular sight, never mind the source of plenty of premium vino! For a romantic rendezvous or an enlightening vineyard tour, Italy’s best-known wine region is divine, especially during the autumn harvest season when you can really get in on the grape-stomping action and taste the fruits of your labor. The highlight of the area is no doubt Chianti, the most famous and arguably most beautiful of Italy’s wine regions. Bordered by the suburbs of Florence to the north and by the city of Siena to the south, Chianti is decked out in gothic bastions, olive groves and seemingly countless acres of sprawling vineyards, all in the shadow of protective mountains.
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This story, "Top 10 Wine Regions," originally appeared on ShermansTravel.com