Wine tourism is booming. What's not to love about vineyard vacations? Strolling through grape-lined landscapes, sipping and swirling with the winemakers—each vineyard visit is an insight into a regions history, culture, and community. And at the top of most wine lovers list, are Europe's famous vineyards.
As the world catches on—and makes a beeline for Europe's most popular vineyards (France had 10 million wine tourists in 2016)—we asked three experts which regions are the hidden gems to look out for in 2019, and which are worth the visit in prime harvest season.
Though they don't all agree on when to visit: Veteran wine expert, Joe Fattorini, known around the world as ‘Obi Wine Kenobi’, says just after harvest. Raul Diaz, founder of Wine Training in London and Malaga Wine School prefers peak harvest. And VinConnect's European winery director, Sarah Bray opts for shoulder season in May "when the vines (and everything else) are flowering, and it’s before the summer heat and throngs arrive.” The experts all agree on the destinations to watch and the wines that you should be sipping right now.
Whether you visit in the spring or in fall, go forth and raise a glass beyond Tuscany and Bordeaux and read which regions are on their must-sip list.
“Portugal is such a glorious place for wine lovers right now.” says Fattorini. Northern Portugal’s Douro Valley, famous for its Port, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001 and is one of the oldest and most beautiful wine regions in the world–yet the wine area still stays rather quiet thanks to its remote location.
Diaz recommends exploring the ancient region and then heading to the vineyards to step further back in time and ogle over the “traditional winemaking”.
If you have time to explore some more of Portugal, Fattorini recommends going just south of Douro to inland regions like Dão or Colares—vines in these regions are planted in sand and are trained low to the ground as protection from salty ocean winds.
Sicily's Mount Etna has been cultivating grapes on its volcanic soil since the dawn of civilization—Homer sang the praises of Etna's vineyards some 2,800 years ago, declaring them "watered by Zeus, yielding wine of strength in which ambrosia and nectar flowed in abundance." Bray agrees, she's visited Mount Etna nine times in four years (she's about to make it 10). "It’s an ancient place to make wine, but they’re having their own renaissance."
"Volcanic wines are bang on trend," said Fattorini. "That freshness you get in Santorini, Tenerife, and Etna, but there’s something about those supple reds and the Sicilian atmosphere that’s unique in Mount Etna."
Come here during harvest season in fall to soak up the last of European summer when Sicily is still warm enough to swim in the sea, but mushrooms and autumn dishes are in full swing.
There's no better time to go to Georgia than right now–before the entire world catches on to its culinary charms, architectural marvels, and oft-forgotten natural beauty. Fattorini couldn't agree more, saying that "adventurous wine travelers are well-rewarded for heading east." He continued to explain, "wine is woven into every aspect of Georgian life and identity in a way you won’t see anywhere else in the world". The country’s famed (and newly fashionable) “orange” wines are still ladled into bottles from underground qvevri (tear-shaped fermentation vessels) and celebrated each harvest season with Dionysian-like feasting and folk song.
Santorini is another volcanic wine destination that wine experts praise. Santorini's Assyrtiko grape is Diaz' favorite for "delicious white wines that are very crisp and intense." Fattorini agrees, "we don't drink nearly enough Greek wine."
September and October are the best times of year to make a beeline for the Greek port city of Thessaloniki and the “Wine Roads” that take you through all the wineries of northern Greece.
All three experts adore Germany's wine regions. Pfalz, a narrow stretch of land just 9 miles wide and where vines outnumber inhabitants, is coming out on top. Fattorini put it simply, "if you’re not drinking German wines you’re missing out."
He continued to explain, "there’s been this renaissance of delicious, classy reds, mostly from Pinot Noir, but also so many brilliant Rieslings. They’re often made in a drier, richer, weightier style than in the past, and as you travel along under these terrifyingly steep, terraced vineyards you wonder who was mad enough to decide to make wine on them."
If you're traveling during harvest season—and you’re interested in seeing vines heavy-laden with grapes, Bray recommends picking a German region with a later pick time, such as the steep-sloped vineyards lining the Mosel Valley, known for its Rieslings.
Bordering Germany and Switzerland, the small region of Alsace is “the only region in France dedicated almost exclusively to making white wine, and it possesses an immense range of grapes, soils, vineyards, and styles," says Bray. The picturesque scenery along the wine route, which stretches from Strasbourg to Colmar, maintains this particularly quirky character, and it’s a particular delight to visit around Christmas time when the villages fill with traditional, German-style Christmas markets.
"Spain is so exciting right now," says Bray. Thanks to land in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula being less expensive to areas like Rioja and Priorat there's been room for experimentation, innovation and the focus on elevating traditional grapes such as the Mencía in rural and remote regions like Bierzo.
Fattorini raves about Spain's northwest too, recommending Ribera Sacra in Galicia, home to spectacular gorges and rivers, ancient monasteries and some of the country’s best wine and Valdeorras. "The wines are gorgeous and often in the slightly lighter-framed style that people are moving towards."
For southern Spain, Malaga tops it for Diaz. "You can find amazing white wines here made with Moscatel grapes. They are also using some international varieties like Syrah with amazing results."
For some of the "world's most exciting sparkling wines, grown in stunning rural settings that drip with history", Fattorini gushes about his home country, England.
"I discovered the other day that probably the first English sparkling wine was made about 50 years ago by someone who’d guarded The Queen of Tonga at our Queen’s Coronation. Bizarre." Head for the south where English sparkling wine is starting to carry as much kudos as France's champagne (Taittinger planted its first vines in Kent last year).
There are many reasons Slovenia has become one of the world's hottest culinary hubs of late. And tucked between Italy and Austria, it's home to sharp-peaked Dolomite Mountains and coastal vineyards producing white wines. Bray enjoys popping to the border town in Italy, Friuli. "I’ve been extremely impressed of late with some wines from Friuli, in the northeast bordering Slovenia, made of native grapes like Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla for white wines and Schioppettino for red. Aged releases by producers like Ronchi di Cialla show just how much aging potential these wines have as well." And many of the same grape varieties grow on both sides of the border.
The last decade has seen a huge uptick in Hungarian wine popularity, even with a couple of thousand years under its belt in terms of wine production. "I'm a huge advocate for the white Hungarian grape, Furmint. There’s even a small village in Hungary where a some of the winemakers call me “the Pope of Furmint”. They loved how I was such an advocate for the grape online." says Fattorini. "Stylistically the grape has the freshness of a Sauvignon and the weight of a Chardonnay. It’s incredibly versatile. Some come from Tokaji where they make dessert wine. But also look out for the tingly ones from the volcanic soils around Somló." The smallest of Hungary's 22 wine regions.