Undiscovered Wine Regions

Not literally undiscovered, but certainly overlooked, these off-the-radar destinations are well worth a visit.


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Let’s just assume we know about the great wine regions of the world, such as Bordeaux, Rioja, Napa—but what about all of the other intriguing destinations worldwide in the wine game? The following roster of wine regions covers two types of emerging destinations. Some locales—such as Romania and Umbria—enjoy long wine-growing traditions but have remained isolated from the viticultural mainstream. In other parts of the world—from Texas to Patagonia—passionate pioneers are daring to boldly plant where no vinifera has gone before.

In selecting these regions, we considered areas where the wine has evolved from quirky curiosity to worthy collectible. Many of these wines receive minimal distribution beyond their own appellation, which means to enjoy them, you might just have to visit. What’s wonderful about viewing these as unique travel destinations is that each has a personalized feel. Winemakers literally climb out of fermentation vats to greet visitors, and leading restaurants might seat just 20 diners. For wine lovers, touring these counties and countries places a landscape behind the labels and lends new appeal to appellations.

1. Niagara Peninsula, Canada Cold Comforts

“From water into wine” could be the motto for the Niagara Peninsula. This region was once best known for the thundering waters of Niagara Falls. Now the area ranks as the largest VA (Viticultural Area) in Canada, producing 70% of the country’s wine grapes.

Bordered by Lake Ontario on the north and Lake Erie to the south, the Niagara Peninsula lies 80 miles from Toronto. Lake Ontario moderates temperatures, warming the region in winter and cooling it in summer. The region’s fossil-rich limestone soils create the distinctive mineral profile of the wines. Cool-climate varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc flourish.

Dubbed “liquid gold,” ice wine rules as the region’s signature product. It is made from grapes harvested at temperatures below 17oF. Handpicked at dawn, the frozen grapes are pressed to release concentrated, yellow-gold liquid. Most ice wine is made from either Riesling or Vidal (a hybrid suited to cold climes).

The Niagara Peninsula has more than 70 wineries. In 1975, Inniskillin became the first licensed winery in Ontario since 1929. In the tasting room housed in a renovated 1920s barn, visitors can sample an array of icewines, including sparklers and one made from Cabernet Franc. Jackson- Triggs produces icewine as well as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and a white Meritage (80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sémillon).

The world’s first LEED-certified wine-making facility, Stratus Winery features a geothermal energy system and tasting room set in a glass cube designed to minimize heat gain. At Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery, visitors can buy signed prints and collectibles related to the hockey star. Wine Country Ontario (WCO), winesofontario.org

Other Attractions:

Mists surge and rainbows arch from the plummeting waters of Niagara Falls. The flowing phenomenon contains three cascades: Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the border, and the American Falls and smaller Bridal Veil Falls in the U.S.

Even though the waterfalls get more press, the Niagara Escarpment ranks as a natural wonder in its own right; it‘s a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The oldest and longest continuous footpath in Canada, the Bruce Trail showcases vistas of sheer cliffs, pebbled beaches and old-growth white cedars.

Situated near some 60 wineries, Niagara-on-the-Lake (locals call it “NOTL”) captivates visitors with its 19th-century clapboard and brick houses. Each January, the town hosts the Niagara Ice wine Festival, with events ranging from ice bars and chestnut roasts to winery tours.

2. Jura, France. The New Jurassic Age

The Jurassic era of dinosaur fame derives its name from the Jura Mountains, which arc along the Franco-Swiss border from the Rhine to the Rhône. Located east of Burgundy, the Jura region nestles against the mountains, giving it a colder climate than its neighbor. Vineyards occupy south-facing slopes to maximize exposure to sunlight and heat. Jura encompasses only 4,600 acres of vineyards, making it the smallest wine region in France.

Like Burgundy, Jura produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But it distinguishes itself with wines and grapes unique to its six AOCs (appellations). The most celebrated is Vin Jaune (“yellow wine”), which is made from Savagnin, a grape related to Gewürztraminer. Aged for six years in barrels that are not topped off, the wine develops a veil of yeast on its surface. The resulting dry wine, which can age for decades, conveys aromas of honey, curry, nuts and dried rose petals. Well-regarded producers include André & Mireille Tissot, Château Béthanie, Domaine Berthet-Bondet and Frédéric Lornet.

Jura produces several other unique drinks. Vin de Paille (“straw wine”) refers to sweet wine made from overripe grapes that are dried on straw mats after harvest. Macvin, a vin de liqueur, comes from unfermented grape juice combined with brandy. A sparkling wine, Crémant du Jura, is crafted according to the méthode champenoise using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Poulsard (a red grape). Wines of Jura, jura-vins.com

Other Attractions:

According to legend, Vin Jaune was invented by nuns at Château-Chalon, whose abbey was founded in the seventh century. Perched on a bluff above its vineyards, the scenic town holds remnants of a Romanesque church and 13th- century castle.

Louis Pasteur was born and raised in the Jura region. In addition to breakthroughs in disease prevention, he improved modern winemaking techniques. Open to the public, Pasteur’s house in Arbois contains many of his personal souvenirs, instruments and photos.

Say cheese—Jura produces notable fromages including Comté and Morbier, both of which pair perfectly with the local wines.

3. Michigan, United States Northern Exposure

Most quality wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. Thanks to this “lake effect,” prodigious snowfall helps protect the vines in winter, while proximity to warm waters lengthens the growing season in autumn.

Located on the 45th Parallel—the same latitude as Burgundy and Oregon—Michigan has four AVAs and nearly 80 wineries. Riesling is the most widely planted white, while Pinot Noir tops the list for reds.

Michigan’s favorite summer vacation spot is also a haven for wine grapes: Traverse City. In 1974, Ed O’Keefe planted the first large-scale vineyards with classic European varieties on the Old Mission Peninsula. His family-run Chateau Grand Traverse remains a pre-eminent producer of Riesling.

Black Star Farms bills itself as an “agricultural destination,” with two tasting rooms plus an inn, café, creamery, and equestrian facility. In addition to wines, it produces eau de vie brandies from locally grown pears, apricots and cherries.

Spread along 100 miles of lake shoreline, the Leelanau Peninsula is called “Michigan’s Wine Coast” since it has nearly 20 wineries. Named after a 19th-century logging settlement, Gill’s Pier Vineyard & Winery is known for a medium-bodied Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend. Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, michiganwines.com

Other Attractions:

A replica of a 1800s cargo schooner, the tall ship Manitou features wine tastings while guests sail around Grand Traverse Bay.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan—as well as 400-foot dunes, hiking trails, historic farmsteads… and some of the best beaches in the state.

Everything's coming up cherries in Traverse City—largest producer of that fruit in the United States. The National Cherry Festival (July 2–9, 2011) serves up marching bands and pie-eating contests. Any time of year, Cherry Republic sells everything from juice to salsas.

4. Patagonia, Argentina. Beginnings at the Ends of the Earth

How remote is Patagonia? Writer Bruce Chatwin called it “The farthest place to which man has walked from his place of origins.” You won’t see icebergs or penguins—but will encounter some of the southernmost vineyards on the planet.

Although Patagonia stretches to Tierra del Fuego, its winelands lie in the north of the region, just 400 miles south of the famous vineyards in Mendoza. We’re talking desert—only seven inches of rain falls annually. The dry, breezy climate helps protect grapes from diseases such as powdery mildew. Since day-night temperatures can swing 40˚, grapes ripen slowly, preserving sugar-acidity balance. One challenge lies in relentless winds that can tangle vine shoots and damage buds during flowering. And hungry parrots and wild boar sometimes feed on fruit and vine.

Patagonia is comprised of two main wine growing regions: Neuquén and Río Negro. Most plantings are red, but Chardonnay, Sémillon and Torrontés also perform well. In Neuquén, most wineries are centered in the valley of San Patricio del Chañar. A pioneering winery in the region, Bodega del Fin del Mundo, earns medals with its Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec blends. Michel Rolland serves as consulting enologist.

Set on the wild, parched Patagonian plateau, the Río Negro region suits white varieties like Traminer and Riesling, as well as Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir. Notable winery Bodega Noemia de Patagonia is biodynamically farmed and its wines offer bold black fruit and smoke flavors. Wines of Argentina, winesofargentina.org

Other Attractions:

The Argentine Lake District lies in the southwestern part of Neuquén province. On the Seven Lakes driving route, visitors admire vistas of snowcapped peaks towering over crystalline lakes.

”The rock that speaks.” That’s the name the indigenous Araucanian peoples gave to the monumental Somuncurá Plateau in the south of Río Negro province. Resembling fortresses, sheer basalt walls rise from the plains, and lakes shelter flamingos, swans and ducks.

Set below the final peaks of the Andes, Ushuaia (pronounced oo-SHWY-ah) claims to be the southernmost city in the world (55 south latitude). From here, people can ride the “End of the World Train” (a former convict conveyance) to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Landscapes encompass coast, forest and mountains.

Cordero asado (barbecued lamb) is the regional specialty, slowly cooked over wood from the piquillín (a spiny shrub).

5. Texas Hill Country, United States. Lone Star’s Rising Star

At the mention of Texas, most people think of cowboys and Stetsons rather than Cabernet and Syrah. But Texas ranks as America’s fifth-largest wine-producing state—and Texas Hill Country is the second-most-visited wine region in the U.S., trailing only Napa Valley.Texas Hill Country lies north of San Antonio and west of Austin—about 75 miles from each. Its 27 wineries cluster around historic towns and rolling landscapes. Dry limestone soils, warm days and hot nights are perfect for warm-weather grape varieties. The biggest challenges for growers are frosts in the spring, which can kill tender vine shoots, and high humidity in summer, which can foster mildew.

While Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay have done well, the rising stars are Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, Sangiovese, Vermentino, Tempranillo and Tannat.

Founded in 1975, Fall Creek Vineyards ranks as the region’s oldest winery and is known for its superpremium Meritus, a Cabernet-Merlot blend. Surrounded by three acres of lavender fields, Becker Vineyards garners accolades for Viognier.

At Duchman Family Winery, the Tuscan design reflects the roster of Italian varieties such as Vermentino, Dolcetto and Moscato. Texas Hill Country Wineries, texaswinetrail.com

Other Attractions:

At the Alamo in San Antonio, a small band of Texans held out for 13 days against Mexican forces during the Texas Revolution in 1836. The former mission is one of the most-visited historic sites in the country.

Along San Antonio's River Walk, stone paths connect several museums and historic districts. Check out the Pearl Stable Complex, a one-time brewery that now holds gourmet markets, restaurants, condos and a branch of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

Founded by German immigrants in 1846, Fredericksburg resembles a village on the Rhine with stone and fachwerk (half-timbered) buildings. At Cabernet Grill, dive into Hill Country fare such as jalapeño-stuffed quail and rib-eye with green chili cream gravy. The wine list showcases more than 70 Texas labels.

“A special corner of God's real estate.” That's how President Lyndon B. Johnson described his sprawling cattle ranch in Hill Country. Now open to the public, the property is part of Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.

6. Umbria, Italy. Wines from Medieval Times

Once overshadowed by Tuscany, its neighbor to the northwest, Umbria now claims its own place in the Italian sun. Travelers are discovering its medieval hill towns and unique red wines.

Umbria is the only landlocked region of Italy. In climate and geography, it resembles Tuscany, with dry, sun-struck summers and cold, rainy winters. The region holds eleven DOCs (classified growing areas) and two DOCGs (wines meeting the highest quality levels). Both DOCGs designate dry reds.

Until recently, Umbria was best known for white wines from Orvieto, made from Procanico (a local version of Trebbiano) and Grechetto. In recent decades, the once-sweet Orvieto has been reconfigured into a vibrant, crisp wine.

Sagrantino di Montefalco has been cultivated for millennia. Thick skinned, the grape yields a burly, ruby-red wine with high tannins. During the Middle Ages, Sagrantino was made into passito, a semisweet wine produced by letting grapes dry after picking to intensify the sugars. More recently, winemakers have adapted Sagrantino for a secco (dry) wine that ages in oak for 29 months to tame it.

Another DOCG red is Torgiano Riserva, which relies on Sangiovese (50–70%) and Canaiolo (15–30%). Since the 1960s, the Lungarotti family has been synonymous with Torgiano’s wines. Benchmarks for the region, their single-vineyard Rubesco Riservas can age for 30-plus years.

Sangiovese and Merlot also perform well, and sometimes team up for “Super Umbrian” wines such as Campoleone, a blend from Lamborghini. Founded in the 1970s by Ferruccio Lamborghini of the famous car-manufacturing firm, the wine estate lies near Lake Trasimeno. The Foods and Wines of Italy/Italian Trade Commission, italianmade.com

Other Attractions:

In Italy, the term agriturismo means vacation accommodations in farmhouses that can range from simple to sumptuous. Several notable Umbrian wineries have agriturismos tucked among vineyards, including Antonelli, Lungarotti and Lamborghini.

Head for the hills—Umbria’s beguiling hill towns. Favorites include Gubbio, filled with ancient feudal palaces, and Todi, overlooking the Tiber River.

Built in the 13th century, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi houses the saint’s tomb. It also holds a treasure-trove of frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and other medieval masters. Although it was badly damaged by a 1997 earthquake, most paintings have been successfully restored.

Porchetta—roast suckling pig—rules as the Umbrian specialty. The distinctive pasta is strangozzi, which is made with a “poor” dough (without eggs). About 80% of Italy's production of truffles—both black and white—come from Umbria. The fabulous fungi appear in local specialties such as spaghetti alla nursina.

7. Waiheke Island, New Zealand. Island of Wines

Martha’s Vineyard meets wine country on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Located 35 minutes by ferry from Auckland, the isle is known for holiday beaches—weekend cottages scattered around shores. The ocean helps moderate temperatures, creating a long, mild growing season. Windbreaks of pine trees protect vineyards from Antarctic winds that can hamper fruit set.

Steep terrain makes for small, labor-intensive vineyards. Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot comprise 60% of plantings, Syrah is the new ”it” grape and reveals subtle floral and spicy bouquets.

Most wineries have tasting rooms, which are known as “cellar doors” Down Under. Shaded by 200-year-old Pohutukawa trees, Kennedy Point uses organic and biodynamic techniques to produce top-quality Syrah.

Tony Forsyth, a former psychologist who started Te Whau on a precipitous headland in 1993, crafts a Cab/Merlot blend that delivers a huge fruit component and soft tannins.

Stonyridge is known for its Bordeaux-style Larose, a blend that has ranked with Pétrus and Lafite Rothschild in blind tastings. The restaurant serves a delightful brunch overlooking the vineyards. Waiheke Winegrowers Association, waihekewine.co.nz

Other Attractions:

More than 70 artists and craftspeople live on the island and exhibit works at area galleries and studios. Look for paintings by Mike Morgan, a bearded, barefooted artist who creates whimsically surreal images of the local scene. The Waiheke Community Art Gallery showcases a wide range of artists.

Pair white wines with local specialties such as plump Te Matuku Bay oysters, pipi (a mollusk with an elongated shell) and tarakihi (ocean bream), a firm, moist white fish.

Cliffs, coves, and beaches—you can see them all while sea-kayaking in the island’s protected waters. Waiheke Island Tours and Kayak Adventures offers guided trips. 

8. Sierra Foothills, United States. Original Zin

During the California Gold Rush of 1849, pioneers headed west with pick-axes, shovels—and grapevine cuttings. Often their plantings panned out better than their prospecting. One variety that originated in Croatia grew especially well. Today, the Sierra Foothills AVA holds some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in the U.S.

Located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the area lies 100 miles east of both San Francisco and the Napa Valley. The region features over 100 wineries centered in the counties of Amador, El Dorado and calaveras.

In the Sierra Foothills, richly-flavored Zinfandel reigns. “Old-vine” plantings are exactly that; some date to the 1860s. Many vineyards are also “dry farmed,” meaning not irrigated. Well-drained, nutrient-poor soils encourage vines to send their roots deep for nourishment and water, creating intensely flavored grapes.

Sobon Estate encompasses the historic D’Agostini Winery, founded in 1856 by Adam Uhlinger, a Swiss immigrant. Now a California State Historic Landmark, the old winery, with its rock walls and hand-hewn beams, houses the Shenandoah Valley Museum.

Increasingly, winemakers are turning attention to varieties from Italy, which thrive in the rocky, iron-rich soils of the Sierra Foothills.
Amador Vintners’ Association, amadorwine.com; Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, calaveraswines.org; El Dorado Winery Association, eldoradowines.org “We’ve got a layer of granite that Barbera really likes,” says Villa Toscano winemaker Susan Farrington.

Other Attractions:

At Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, visitors can see original buildings and try their hand at panning for gold.Several gold mines are open to the public, including Sutter Gold Mine, where tours delve 450 feet underground to an old quartz vein.

Sutter Creek retains 19th-century charm with wooden storefronts lining Main Street. For lunch, Susan’s Place features California/Mediterranean cuisine, a garden patio and selection of local wines.

Former mining towns flank CA-49, dubbed the Gold Country Highway. Once the richest strike in the Mother Lode, Jackson offers maps for self-guided walking tours through its historic center. In Murphys, the Ironstone Heritage Museum houses the largest crystalline gold leaf specimen in the world, weighing 44 pounds.

Sierra Foothills wineries and attractions make for easy stops on the way to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park.

Contact: Amador Vintners' Association: 888-655-8614 or 209-245-6992; www.amadorwine.com; Calaveras Winegrape Alliance: 866-806-WINE or 209-728-9467; www.calaveraswines.org; El Dorado Winery Association: 800-306-3956; www.eldoradowines.org

9. Idaho, United States. Not Small Potatoes

Home to nearly 20 wineries, the Snake River Valley ranks as one of America’s newest American Viticultural Areas—and also the first in Idaho. The region lies 30 miles west of Boise.

Warm days and cool nights characterize the short growing season in the northern high desert. To produce top wines, meticulous management is mandatory. So that grapes ripen, growers “drop fruit” (prune clusters) to limit yields to 1.5 tons per acre (three to four tons per acre is common in the Napa Valley). Syrah and Viognier thrive in the well-drained soils; winemakers also are experimenting with Tempranillo.

In particular, growers are enthusiastic about the Sunnyslope area, south-facing vineyards above the Snake River. Koenig produces premium wines (try the Viognier and Syrah) plus fruit brandies and Famous Idaho Potato Vodka.

Named for the volcanic layers underlying vineyards, Cinder crafts top wines under winemaker/owner Melanie Krause. Other well-regarded vintners include Bitner, Williamson and Davis Creek Cellars. Snake River Valley Wine region, snakerivervalleywine.org

Other Attractions:

Set in a Masonic Lodge built in 1919, Brick 29 Restaurant in Nampa showcases locally produced wine and food. Chef Dustan Bristol reinvents comfort classics such as red-wine-braised Kurobuta pork cheeks served with a fingerling potato-sage hash.

For more than a century, Boise has served as a gathering place for immigrants from the Basque region. The Basque Museum & Cultural Center celebrates their heritage with cultural festivals, wine tastings and other gatherings. Nearby, the Basque Market sells delicacies such as Serrano ham and stuffed piquillo peppers. They also sell the largest selection of Spanish wines in the Northwest. 

World-class whitewater flows just minutes from Boise on the Payette River. Cascade Raft offers a variety of river trips, from mellow, half-day floats to a full day of surging rapids.

10. Romania, Of Vines and Vampires

Long before Count Dracula, wine flowed in Romania. Viticulture in this region goes back more than 4,000 years.

Under Communism, Romania produced plentiful—and cheap—wine. The country was saddled with obsolete clones and vineyard practices. A member of the European Union since 2007, the country now aims to produce top wines.

The Black Sea, Danube River and 8,500-foot Carpathian Mountains moderate the mainly continental climate’s hot summers and cold winters. Winemakers work with both international (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay) and traditional Romanian varieties.

Of the heritage grapes, the best-known red is Feteasc˘a Neagr˘a (Black Maiden), which offers robust black currant flavor. Among the whites, Feteasc˘a Alb˘a (White Maiden) produces dessert wines hinting of peaches and Feteasc˘a Regal˘a (Royal Maiden) yields citrus and offers spice notes.

Romania holds several wine regions. Transylvania occupies a plateau surrounded by the Carpathians. The cool, misty climate suits whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and indigenous varieties. Jidvei Winery offers tastings in their 16th-century castle. The sweet whites of Cotnari (in northeastern Romania) use botrytized grapes, balancing sugar with good acid structure. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sémillon and Viognier also thrive. APEV (Romanian Wine Exporters and Producers Association), wineromania.com

Other Attractions:

The alleged abode of Count Dracula, Bran Castle, looms atop a 200-foot rock near Brasov. Built in the 14th century, the brooding bastion features towers, timbered rooms and narrow, winding stairways. Bring garlic.

Masterpieces of Byzantine art, the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina (near Cotnari) are decorated with 15th and 16th century frescoes depicting saints and scenes from the life of Jesus. Seven churches are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

One of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns, Sighisoara surrounds a 12th-century citadel built by Saxon colonists. Sighisoara is also the birthplace of Vlad III the Impaler, the 15th-century ruler who inspired the fictional vampire.

Built in 1892, the Rhein Azuga Cellar is the oldest facility in Romania that produces sparkling wine using the méthode Champenoise. The property includes a 15-room hotel. Set in the Carpathian Mountains, Azuga is one of Romania's main ski resorts.

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