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Thursday Thorns
Top Wine Travel Destinations

By Charles Olken

It just so happens that my wife and I were discussing vacations tonight when I came across a press release from Wine Enthusiast magazine not immodestly titled “Top 10 Wine Travel Destinations”.

Now, I have no real argument with anyone who suggests that the Aegean Islands are a fun place to visit, but I have been to some of the places on their list, and frankly, I hope you have a better travel agent than they do. Not that I have anything against Baja California. There are wines being made down there, but frankly, when I go below San Diego, it is not for the wine.

So, let me offer a few alternatives suggestions of my own. And first, let me agree that the Aegean Islands can stay on the list as can Sonoma and Umbria, but you can forget the rest of the list unless you have travelled to some fifty places more attractive than their suggestions. Never let it be said that I am without ideas, and here are my recommendations, some of which are mundane (been there, done that) and some are kind of interesting and offbeat.

There are so many places in Italy that are important to see, and, to be sure, you really cannot go anywhere in Italy without being in wine country. So, if you have been to Tuscany and the Piemonte, then you might want to try the Veneto in northern Italy because the wines are good enough and places like Verona, Vicenza and Basano Del Grappa (yes, that grappa) all are just far enough off the Rome, Florence, Venice trail to be far more relaxed.

And, I would highly recommend Sicily to anyone who wants to try something new. I was very pleasantly surprised on my visit to Sicily. Aside from its big cities, which are simply big cities, Sicily is awash in beautiful countryside, hill towns, a real volcano with wonderful wines growing smack in the middle of the lava flow zone. One winery there has a cellar carved into the hills whose walls chronicle seven different lava flows going back over several millennia. Another, Benanti, makes wine whose depth and beauty has been compared to good Burgundy (but not by me—a polished Stags Leap District Cabernet is a good approximation).

The only destination in France on the WE list was the Languedoc, and I can only assume that everyone at the Wine Enthusiast has had their fills of Alsace, Champagne, Burgundy, Provence, Bordeaux and the Loire because why else would at least not one of them be on the list. So, here is a France idea also off the beaten path but one that will make you glad you went. Go to Normandy and make a tour of the Calvados and hard cider producers. Stay in a seaside town like Honfleur and make day trips both up and down the coast and inland from there. And when you do, be sure to book ahead at Sakana, a two-star Michelin restaurant, seafood oriented, whose prices for its two set menus will embarrass both Paris and San Francisco restaurants.

In Australia, the WE wants you to go to the Barossa. No argument there, but if you do go, be sure to visit the neighboring growing regions like MacLaren Vale where the Shiraz is more elegant if less potent and the cool-climate regions that make lovely Chardonnay and Riesling like The Clare and Eden Valleys. And if you really want to far afield, try Western Australia. It has reminiscences of California in its mix of very cool growing regions along the Southern Ocean, moderately temperate areas up the west coast into the Margaret River area and warmer areas further along towards Perth. This is unspoiled country with great wine. The kangaroos in the vineyards in early morning are practically worth the price of admission on their own.

Okay, you get the idea. If you are going to go to a wine destination, and you want to look past the usual suspects, then do please choose places that have both great scenery and good wines. I love the Hill Country in Texas west of Austin, but not for the wine. And why no Spain. Try the Penedes south of Barcelona, the Navarre region surrounding Pamplona where the wines will taste like the Rioja and the scenery is better especially west of Pamplona and up towards Bilboa with its museum that ought to be a mandatory stop for anyone going to northern Spain. And if you go, allow a few days for the drive west to the Rias Baixas region and its Albarino. Stay in San Juan de Compestela in the old pilgrim inn now converted to a very nice paradore.

Oh, I could go on and on. But please, go for the beauty, but only if the wine is good as well.


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