Ten of the world’s most intriguing wine regions
We’ve all experienced it on our travels – whether watching a sunset in Italy with a glass of chilled Prosecco or at a barbeque in Australia with a beefy Shiraz – when a local wine could not be more perfectly suited to the moment.
Lonely Planet’s new book Wine Trails plots a course through 52 of the world’s greatest wine regions, with weekend-long itineraries in each designed by expert writers, including wine buyers and sommeliers.
And we’ve picked out 10 of the most intriguing regions to show why tasting wine in the place it was made can be a revelation.
Central Otago, New Zealand
Central Otago is famed for sublime alpine scenery, the energetic resort town of Queenstown and, since the 1990s, some world-class winemaking. Its wild landscapes make up the world’s southernmost wine region with vineyards spread throughout the deep valleys and basins of six sub-regions – Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell Basin, Wanaka, Bendigo and Alexandra.
The local soils have proved excellent for Pinot Noir and Central Otago is lauded as one of the best places outside Burgundy for cultivating this notoriously fickle grape. It would take a good two days’ touring to get a comprehensive taste of the place, with around 30 wineries regularly open to visitors, and many more by appointment (the scene remains largely in the hands of friendly boutique enterprises). Visitors short on time could focus on the Gibbston Valley (with cycle touring a possibility).
The Jura, France
Wine has been made in the mountainous Jura for over a thousand years. But only recently have the unusual wines produced in this corner of France come to the attention of the wider world. The majority of grapes cultivated are indigenous varieties and a new generation of vignerons are using them to make their mark, using modern techniques alongside the Jura’s traditional method.
Nothing prepares you for a tasting of the Jura’s extraordinary vin jaune (yellow wine). The aroma is distinctive – a mix of walnuts, hazelnut and exotic spices – but the flavour is altogether something else, dry yet fruity and nutty. Vin jaune is barrel-aged but with a pocket of air left open, much as Spanish sherry is produced.
Wine tourism is in its early days here, but that makes for an even more refreshing welcome when travellers turn up for a wine-tasting in a backwoods domaine.
Rioja is Spain’s rockstar region, the Jagger to Ribera del Duero’s Richards. It’s flamboyant, and fantastic fun for a wild weekend in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains, beyond which lies the Basque country and such delights as foodie hotspot San Sebastián. Rioja hit the big-time as wealthy investors splashed out on star architects and state-of-the-art wineries. The result is that there are now 540 wineries in Rioja. Not all are open for tastings, but those that do offer some of the most fascinating visitor experiences in the wine world.
Laguardia, just north of Logroño, makes a good base for exploration. From here it’s easy to reach Haro, where Rioja’s original winemakers set up shop in the 1800s. Tradition is still at the heart of Rioja’s wine but its wineries range from fascinating time-warps to modern engineering marvels.
Wellington, Swartland and Tulbagh, South Africa
Cape winemaking has long been symbolised by the grand old established estates in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Constantia, where the first vines were planted on the African continent as far back as 1659. But today there is a host of regions further afield in the Cape and for sheer variety, and for smaller family-run wineries who offer a friendly welcome, the adjoining regions of Wellington, Swartland and Tulbagh offer a refreshing alternative.
Winery tastings are more likely to be free here, and, you may well have a face-to-face encounter with the winemaker. Swartland, especially, is home to a band of cutting-edge vintners with small, manageable estates, many of whom are experimenting with biodynamic production.
Rain is welcome in Rutherglen. For the region, deep in northern Victoria, can suffer from searingly hot summers, with grapes having to be harvested in a mad rush before they cook into a jam. But rain cools things down and prolongs the ripening time of the region’s unique Muscat and Tokay vines. And the longer on the vine, the better for Rutherglen’s remarkable butterscotch-flavoured, raisin-rich dessert wines.
Of course, in the age of the calorie-conscious diner, who orders a ‘sticky’ wine (in Aussie lingo)? But Rutherglen’s Muscats and Tokays earn their place at the table, by being idiosyncratic and indulgent. Another reason to visit is the Rutherglen’s history. Several wineries started in the mid-19th century and their stories are entwined with that of Australia, featuring colonial pioneers and gold miners, set to a backdrop of the broad Murray River.
Chances are you’ve noticed that right now Argentina is hot on the international wine scene. You can’t glance at a wine list without seeing the word ‘Malbec’, or turn on the radio without hearing a chef talk about the best-value Argentinian bottles for your summer barbecue. Even Argentinian people didn’t realise how fantastic their wine could be until fairly recently, though it’s safe to say they were always fully aware of the natural beauty of Mendoza.
The nation’s wine-producing capital occupies a spectacular stretch of sun-drenched landscape at the foot of the snowcapped Andes. It’s a South American playground for innovation, the meeting point between tradition and new technology. Raise your glass: here in Mendoza, it’s a brave new world.
The Georgian wine experience is like no other. The story of wine here is so old, so real, that it can make what we know of ancient Greece and Rome seem like recent history. Georgia is widely recognised as the land where man first learned to tame the wild grapevine, around 6000BC. In most of the country, winemaking technology has changed little since then. Grapes are still harvested by hand, and foot-pressed in the hollowed-out trunks of ancient trees. The juice flows into underground clay amphoras, where it ferments and matures without additives or manipulation.
Kakheti is the most important Georgian wine region. The small city of Sighnaghi is Kakheti’s cultural capital, and it’s the gateway to any visit. As you’re touring, remember that Kakheti’s greatest wines tend not to be found in the open, but in villagers’ backyards, buried underground, awaiting release.
A young and exciting wine region, and Canada’s largest, Niagara sits on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, two hours south of Toronto, and is home to more than just nice wine. The Niagara Escarpment, a long ridge formed by ancient erosion, is responsible not only for the mesmerising waterfall, but also for a diversity of soil types. Add that to a latitude equivalent to Avignon in the Rhône and big shifts between day and night temperatures, and there is potential here for a panoply of different grapes: whites, reds, even sparkling wines are made in Niagara with equal success.
Nearly 100 wineries are located in this youthful zone; the feeling on the ground is like that of starting over. It will be exciting to see what the future will bring for this rising region.
Columbia Valley, USA
Driving out of the weather-beaten city of Seattle, first time visitors to Washington State will have no idea what awaits them on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. Within a couple of hours, the forests and persistent rain give way to the desert terrain of the Columbia Valley. It’s an unforgiving place that happens to be one of the USA’s most exciting wine regions.
There is a frontier spirit about Columbia Valley’s best wineries that is impossible not to admire. The last thing that was in the mind of the region’s original settlers was viticulture, but once they had figured out how to survive they quickly got to thinking about how to thrive. In the bottom-right corner of the state is the charming town of Walla Walla, which bursts with winery tasting rooms and places to eat, making it an ideal base.
South Downs, England
Overhead a skylark sings in the blue sky. Green fields sweep down from a chalk ridge laced with white tracks. To the south lies the sea, to the north the counties of Hampshire and Sussex. These are England’s South Downs in summer, a place of pretty villages, hiking trails and - incredibly to some - vineyards. For the spine of chalk hills that run southeast all the way from Winchester, an ancient capital of England, to Eastbourne, re-emerges on the other side of the Channel in Champagne country.
English wine was long a laughing stock. But in the last ten years, the South Downs region has been the source of some excellent Champagne-style white sparkling wines. Its wineries are spread out over quite a distance, but a few are concentrated in tranquil Hampshire to make a weekend’s exploration something of a revelation.