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Get a real taste of the local flavor and culture at these unique wine destinations.
Photo by Renata Amazonas
Whether you’re interested in a full-blown wine-themed vacation or just appreciate tasting the local flavors when you visit a destination, the options for wine-loving travelers are growing exponentially. Bonus: By sampling unfamiliar wines, cultivating relationships with winemakers and sommeliers, and becoming acquainted with new wine regions, you can explore local cultures and lifestyles in ways you might never have imagined. Here are four of our favorite unexpected and overlooked eno-themed experiences to consider for your next trip.
MEXICO’S RUTA DEL VINO
Manicured cypress trees stand sentinel along winding driveways to elegant tasting rooms and creative farm-to-table restaurants. Emerald vineyards stretch to the distant rolling hills, and blazing skies belie the fact that the Pacific coast lies just beyond the valley.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is Napa or Sonoma. At a glance, it certainly resembles its northern cousins. But this is Mexico.
Two-thirds the size of Napa Valley, Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe is home to approximately 80 wineries, many boasting daring architecture, critically acclaimed restaurants, highly accomplished winemakers and world-class chefs. Aptly named the Ruta del Vino, the area is emerging as a premier enotourism destination for U.S. travelers.
“Winemaking is getting to be a very big business,” says Fernando Pérez Castro, proprietor at the six-year-old Lomita winery. “It’s an exciting time [for] owners, chefs, all kinds of people who are passionate about their community and about what they’re doing. We’re writing our own history right now, all of us together.”
At Lomita, you can taste signature wines such as the full-flavored 2011 Pagano, the polished 2011 Tinto de la Hacienda and the buttery 2013 Espacio Blanco while cleansing your palate with locally made artisanal breads, and marmalade and Paloma cheese made by Castro’s mother.
A few miles away at Monte Xanic, founded in 1987, a brand-new building welcomes guests for tours and tastings. Its picture windows look across 300 acres of vines, some of which are up to 80 years old.
“We get more than 350 days of sun here,” says Ana Maria Ceseña Sirutis, who handles U.S. market development. “It’s a semi-arid Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. It’s perfect.”
Monte Xanic’s best-selling wine is a Chenin-Colombard blend, a bright, fresh wine with citrus notes. Our favorite was a small-batch reserve wine, the Gran Ricardo 2012. These hand-selected Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes came from the oldest vines on the property; if decanted for roughly 40 minutes, the result is a smooth, velvety wine that opens up and expresses itself beautifully.
Vena Cava is another memorable spot, in part because its subterranean construction incorporates upside-down fishing boats. The proprietor and winemaker Phil Gregory and his wife, Eileen, also own the Villa del Valle inn and Corazón de Tierra restaurant.
Gregory produces interesting, unexpected flavors in wines that are, at heart, easy to drink. His “Big Blend”—a mix of Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Grenache—is unparalleled.
“In this part of the world, you’ll find lots of creativity, and love, and sometimes madness,” Gregory says. “It’s what I wanted. When we arrived, there were maybe 12 to 15 wineries. Five years ago, it was 30. Now, we’re on our way to 100.”
FROM BAJA CALIFORNIA TO THE RIVIERA MAYA
Like the Gregory’s, Gustavo Ortega Joaquín also had a dream. He had substantial experience in the hotel business, and after visiting France’s Loire Valley five years ago, he and his wife talked about finding the right spot to open a boutique hotel. Then they discovered the Valle de Guadalupe.
“We fell in love with the wines and the food,” Joaquín recalls. “We realized we could do something really interesting.”
They joined forces with Joe and Delores Martinez, owners of Lomas Travel and the El Dorado Spa Resorts and Hotels, and Generations Riviera Maya, by Karisma, in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. The result: El Cielo winery in the Guadalupe Valley.
“When we built the winery, we had two big concerns,” Joaquín says. “One was growth, because we knew we had to think big. The next was being very correct in every part of the process. Our design is productive and efficient, and we’re the first winery in Mexico to be 75 percent solar-powered.”
El Cielo is more than a tasting room, Joaquín says. It’s a complete experience.
“We host weddings and concerts, our shop sells local artisanal products like olive oils and cheeses, and we do unusual pairing events,” he explains. “For example, we’ll pair our wines with different types of chocolates.”
By March 2016, El Cielo will have expanded its 12-room hotel to a 58-suite luxury resort with a full spa and conference center. The future looks very bright for the young winery, which currently offers 11 labels. They’re distributed throughout Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Riviera Maya and Isla Cozumel, where Joaquín was born and raised.
In fact, most Valle de Guadalupe operations distribute their wines to Mexico’s major resorts, which is great news for vacationers. You need not travel to northern Baja to sample its fruits. You simply need to ask.
And more resort guests are asking.
“There’s a much higher interest in the world of wine,” says Jeroen Hanlo, vice president of food and beverage operations for Karisma Hotels. “More people are purchasing wines beyond the house wines. They’re curious.”
Hanlo started developing the international wine list for Karisma 11 years ago, and it now boasts 146 labels. Some are Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe (including El Cielo) and the mile-high Parras Valley near the Coahuila-Durango border. The rest hail from around the world.
“What could be better than sand and sun paired with great food and great wines?” he asks. “It’s all about creating special moments.”
Hanlo believes Karisma Hotels is more focused on wine than anyone else in the Mexican Caribbean. Not only is the Generations Riviera Maya property home to the innovative Wine Kitchen, it’s in its third year of a partnership with Jackson Family Wines, hosts twice-weekly tastings and ongoing wine classes with expert sommeliers and features a signature wine event during the first week of each month. During that week, guests get to know a visiting wine personality (winemaker, sommelier or master sommelier) and a guest chef. They will enjoy meet-and greets, cooking classes, food and wine pairings, a “Waves and Wine” event on the pier, and an evening gala. Hanlo says the wine week is building significant momentum.
“People plan their vacations around it,” he says. “Wine is part of the experience here. You feel it, you live it.”
SPANISH WINES AND FIRE FESTIVALS
Mexico isn’t the only place that tends to fall off the wine radar. Consider Spain. It’s the world’s second-largest wine producer after France, yet most Americans think of Italy for an overseas wine experience first.
They’re missing out, according to Erin Nass at United Vacations. Nass has traveled to Spain three times and lived in Seville. On one trip, she and friends rented a car in Valencia and took a two-day driving tour through Laguardia, Logrono and Haro in the Rioja winegrowing region, known for its affordable Tempranillo and Grenache.
“We loved Laguardia, which is a medieval walled town,” Nass says. “You have to park outside the walls and walk in.”
Favorite spots included Bodega el Fabulista with its underground caverns, and Marques de Riscal with its venerable wine operations and contemporary, Frank Gehry-designed hotel.
“What could be better than sand and sun paired with great food and great wines? It’s all about creating special moments.” -Jeroen Hanlo, Karisma Hotels
“Some wineries here offer tours, while others only do tastings, so call in advance,” Nass advises. “If tours are offered, they can arrange an English-speaking guide for you.”
Nass is quick to note that Spain is not an intimidating destination.
“English is prevalent, and renting and driving a car is easy,” she says. “Plan to go in March. The climate is cool and pleasant, plus you’ll be able to participate in Las Fallas de Valencia.”
In this unique five-day festival, revelers create and then burn statues made of cardboard, wood, papier-mâché and plaster. The city population swells from 1 to 3 million for this fiery celebration.
A few final tips for wine lovers: Bring as many suitcases as you can, and pack light. Wrap wine bottles in clothes or bubble wrap, and watch the weight limits in your checked luggage.
OREGON’S LAID-BACK WINE COUNTRY
The United States has its own assortment of lesser-known gems in the wine world. For starters, there is the state of Oregon with its nine American Viticultural Areas. Lisa Itel with Travel Oregon says her state still surprises people, because it’s a laid-back version of the tony Napa and Sonoma valleys to the south.
“It’s what Napa and Sonoma were like many years ago,” she says. “Our winemakers came in the 1960s, and they wanted to be masters of their craft, not bulk wine producers. That’s how Pinot Noir was born.
“It’s a relaxed experience here,” she continues. “It’s unusual in many wine regions to see a winemaker opening bottles in the tasting room, but at Ponzi Wines, you’ll see Luisa Ponzi and her kids sorting grapes.”
Approximately 400 wineries are currently operating in Oregon, from boutique producers of 5,000 to 10,000 cases per year to larger growers who might produce anywhere from 30,000 to 220,000 cases per year. Even that, Itel says, is a drop in the bucket compared to Napa.
“That’s why people love making wine here,” she said.
Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris still dominate the Willamette Valley, while in Oregon’s southern “banana belt,” you’ll find more Tempranillo, Viognier and deeper reds. But no matter where you go, you’ll find outstanding experiences to pair with the wines.
“It’s what Napa and Sonoma were like many years ago. Our winemakers came in the 1960s, and they wanted to be masters of their craft, not bulk wine producers.” -Lisa Itel, Travel Oregon
At Quailhurst Vineyard Estate in Sherwood, for example, you can combine wine tasting with horseback riding. Cycling is wildly popular everywhere, with riders stopping at farm stands as well as wineries to sample local delights like blueberries and goat cheese. Then there are events like Oregon Wine Month in May, the International Pinot Noir Celebration in July, Feast Portland in September, and Wine Country Thanksgiving in November.
“We have a lot of prominent winemakers, and now in this third generation, we’re seeing a lot more women,” Itel says. “I think that’s part of what makes Oregon special—the diversity of what we do, and the people here.”
WILD WEST WINEMAKING, MAUI STYLE
Farther off the beaten path is a hardy 41-year-old winery on Maui’s 150-year-old Rose Ranch estate. This was once a mountain retreat for King Kalākaua, the last reigning king of Hawaii. Today, guests will find Maui Wine.
“We’ve had success with Syrah here, as well as with Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Viognier, Malbec and Gewurtztraminer,” says Joseph Hegele, Maui Wine’s director of sales and marketing. “That’s a lot of variety for 16 acres under vine. We do a lot of experimentation, which is what attracted me. This isn’t like growing Cabernet in Napa; it’s so crazy and different, it’s the Wild West. You don’t know what’s going to work. You have to listen to the vineyard, and find which way is our way.”
The winery’s greatest success has been its pineapple wine, which it has produced for four decades: semi-dry, balanced Maui Blanc; sweet, passion-fruity Maui Splash; and crisp, sparkling Hula Maui.
“It’s so crazy and different, it’s the Wild West. You don’t know what’s going to work. You have to listen to the vineyard, and find which way is our way.” -Joseph Hegele, Maui Wine
“It may be the most interesting wine in the world,” Hegele says. “Pineapple and Maui just go together.”
The winery offers complimentary tours and tastings seven days a week. Guests can broaden their experiences through Downhill Maui’s bike-and-wine tours and Hike Maui’s adventure-and-wine tours. Don’t miss additional area highlights such as the Pau Vodka distillery, Surfing Goat Dairy, and O-O Farms, where you can enjoy picking and tasting different organic foods, meeting the on-site chef, and dining alfresco.
“Upcountry Maui used to be just us, and now it’s a major destination in itself,” Hegele says. “There’s a lot more growth here. It’s exciting, because this really is the other face of Maui.”