If you want to combine travel and exploration with sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat a wine-tasting trip. But what are the best places for a wine vacation?
Happily, there’s no shortage of places where you can combine travel with wine tasting. These days, almost every country grows at least a little wine, and there are major wine-growing regions on five different continents. And luckily, many of them are in southern climes, so you can have a sip or two while getting away from winter. As well, wine makers know that opening their properties to visitors is good for business, so you can find a wine tour to suit your taste in any wine region — or organize your own.
Wine fanciers are a discerning lot, however. So where are the best spots to go if you’re looking to have a wine tasting holiday? Here is my list of the 10 best places for a wine vacation:
If there’s a must-see in the world of wine, it’s Bordeaux. Home to iconic names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux, it’s also a beautiful piece of country. The stately chateaux are great places to visit, and who can resist tasting these legendary crus in the places they’ve been made for hundreds of years?
Bordeaux has lots of wine tours, focusing on different sub-regions such as the Medoc, Pomerol and St. Emilion (pictured here: photo by Colin, courtesy Wikimedia) . You can do day tours or multi-day tours, even see the vineyards by bicycle. But the city of Bordeaux itself is well worth a visit, with historic sights, museums, and of course, lots of good restaurants where you can eat classic French food with the vintage of your choice.
Napa Valley, California
Renowned as the best wine region in the U.S., producing massive cabernets and rich chardonnays, Napa has also become a major vacation spot. Luxury resorts, top-class hotels, gourmet restaurants and spas are scattered throughout the wineries, and legendary estates like Robert Mondavi and Domaine Chandon welcome visitors with an easy-living California style.
Napa’s not the only top wine region in California, either. Sonoma, within hailing distance of San Francisco, boasts more than 400 estates, including big names like the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. There’s a wide range of activities, from winery home stays to nature hikes and hot air balloon rides. And of course, you can enjoy the sights of San Francisco, one of North America’s great tourist cities.
Maipo Valley, Chile
Some of the finest wines in the New World are made in this green valley just outside Santiago. Even better, the wine country is easily accessible from the city: you can even get there on Santiago’s brilliant subway system. The wineries are great places for tours and tastings, and some have good restaurants. Visit popular estates such as Santa Carolina and Santa Rita (whose gardens are pictured here), and don’t miss the iconic Concha Y Toro, where you can set foot in the famous Casillero del Diablo — the devil’s wine cellar.
There are other places to take a wine vacation in Chile, too, such as the Colchagua Valley and the Casablanca Valley, near Valparaiso, where many of the country’s best whites are made. Good wine tours are available, or you can do it yourself. And if you have some time, you can make a great wine tour by hopping a plane next door and combining these regions with the one below.
High in the Andes, the lovely city of Mendoza is a hot spot for skiers, mountain trekkers – and wine. In fact, wines from Mendoza, featuring the region’s famous malbec grapes, have been fan favourites in recent years. You can sample them at major wineries like Kaiken, owned by the Chilean Montes company, or a number of smaller, boutique wineries, many of which grow olives and other crops among the vines.
When you’re not touring the wineries, there’s time to enjoy the tree-lined streets, spacious parks and relaxed atmosphere of Mendoza itself. Dine on the downtown pedestrian mall and enjoy one of the region’s famous steaks along with a bottle of the malbec you watched them make that day. Fun fact: since Mendoza is so high in the Andes, most of the usual pests can’t survive, so the vines need little spraying: that means they’re pretty much organic.
Want more tips on great places to see? Don’t forget to subscribe to The Travelling Boomer
Just use the “subscribe” box at top right
The Loire Valley, France
This famous valley is best known for the glittering chateaux of the French nobility, but it’s also home to some of France’s best wines, from the whites of Vouvray, Touraine and Saumur to the reds of Chinon and Bourgueil. This region is ruled by the sauvignon blanc grape, and the wineries turn out good sparkling wines beside their great whites.
Best of all, the Loire is close enough to visit from Paris on a day trip (though it’s worth staying longer if you can). Either way, you can combine your wine tastings with a visit to one of the spectacular chateaux, like the grand Château de Chenonceau, seen here. The château offers special tastings under the stars amid its beautiful gardens, sometimes with a hot air balloon floating overhead – that’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
If you’re a fan of chianti, a trip to Tuscany is the holiday for you. Drive through a classic landscape of rolling hills and cypress trees to medieval towns where historic castles have been turned into wineries. And after you’ve tasted their full-bodied wines, it’s time to sample some of the region’s famous food, accompanied by locally made olive oil and pecorino cheese.
There are dozens of tour companies offering tours of the Tuscan wineries, many starting in Florence. Or you can drive yourself and make your own holiday under the Tuscan sun. The hotspot is the town of Chianti itself, but there are many ancient towns and villages to visit, including places like Montalcino, known for its deep, intense Brunello wines.
British Columbia, Canada
California wineries get most of the press on the west coast, but wineries from this rowing region north of the border have been winning top prizes at international competitions for years. British Columbia has more than 200 wineries, mostly in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, including well-known names like Mission Hill and the aboriginal-owned NK’Mip Cellars.
There are wineries on Vancouver Island as well, and a visit to any of the province’s wine regions can make for a great combination of good wine tasting and amazing natural beauty. You can stay at a country inn or B&B, and go whale watching or view bald eagles when you’re not sampling the province’s great cabernets and pinot noirs.
The Hunter Valley, Australia
Australia has more than 2,400 wineries and 65 wine regions, so it’s hard to pick just one. But for easy access and lots of amenities, the Hunter Valley Wine is hard to beat. It’s just two hours’ drive north of Sydney, so you can visit on a day tour or get a hotel right in wine country. Then you have your pick of top wineries such as Tyrrell’s and Wyndham Estates, which hosts opera each October.
The proximity to Sydney gives you access to that city’s great restaurants, beaches and nightlife. But the Hunter Valley itself is worth a couple of days to explore its nature parks, cooking schools, health spas and golf courses, and sample its locally made breads, cheeses and olive oils. If there’s time left over, head for one of Australia’s other great wine regions: the Barossa Valley, Margaret River, the Yarra Valley – the list goes on.
Cape Town, South Africa
Despite its dark history, Cape Town is now a popular tourist spot, partly as a jumping-off spot for safari trips. But it’s also just 10 miles from the Constantia Valley, the oldest wine-producing region in the southern hemisphere. Nestled between two mountain ranges, the region produces some of the country’s world-famous wines, and the valley’s wine route leads you to nine wineries that offer tours and tastings.
In your spare time, you can explore Cape Town itself, which has blossomed into one of Africa’s most exciting cities. Sample the cuisine and the nightlife, relax on one of its khaki-coloured beaches, or ride the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for great views of the surrounding countryside (the city’s crime problem persists, so beware pickpockets). For that matter, why not combine your wine tour with a safari – you’re in Africa, after all.
If you like a sip of something stronger after dinner, the wine to drink is port – and Portugal is the place to go. Start out in Oporto, the ancient, UNESCO-listed city that is the centre of the port world, for tastings in the “lodges” of companies with names like Sandeman, Graham, Taylor’s, and Cockburn.
Then head out to the Douro Valley, where the wines are actually made, and tour the wineries themselves: the region also makes excellent table wines. If you fancy some white wine after all that port, next door is the Vino Verde region, where grapes grown along the edges of the fields produce lively, slightly sparkling wines. Along the way, you can stay in some of Portugal’s famous pousadas — hotels situated in old palaces and castles.
That’s my list of the 10 best places for a wine vacation, but that’s not the last word on the subject. There are other places in the world that combine great wine with beautiful and interesting surroundings, such as Burgundy, Spain’s Rioja district, Germany’s famed Rhineland, New Zealand’s south island and Canada’s Niagara region — on which you’ll be hearing more from me.
You could argue ad infinitum about which is the world’s best wine region, but like anything else, it’s a matter of taste. Whatever your taste, though, the next time you’re planning a trip, think about including a wine tour as a possibility. It’s a great way to see new places, learn about wine, and have some fun — and after a few glasses of wine, having fun is pretty much a sure thing.