7 Vineyards Worth the Journey

We’ve all heard that “great wine is made in the vineyard.” True as that might be, it’s nevertheless a dull bromide repeated by those who make wine, meaning little to most who drink it. After all, how much do most of us—even those who take pride in selecting just the right bottle for the occasion—know about the nuts and bolts of vineyard management? For all the reverence cast by winemakers upon the specific soils, climates and exposures that distinguish their best blocks, to the wine consumer/lover, such talk will almost always be an abstraction.

That is, unless you go and see the vineyard yourself—the only way to understand a particular wine and, frankly, wine in general. Even for those of us who don’t possess graduate degrees in viticulture, it’s amazing how much an untrained eye can glean about a site simply by being there. You might see the rock from which the vines spring or the dampness in the soil. You may feel the brunt of the sun’s power or notice cooling sea breezes. It is in these details that the code of wine is written.

But seeing a vineyard isn’t just a way to illuminate a particular wine. Sometimes it can illuminate a culture. Are the vines on the hillsides or on the flats? Do people live among their vineyards or are they far away? On how steep of a slope are people willing to plant? Vineyards speak about more than grapes. They speak about the people who nurture (or neglect) them.

In this spirit, we have selected seven vineyards worth seeing with your own eyes. Some are eminently approachable, while others might require an appointment for a tour and tasting. They were selected not necessarily because they produce the most sublime wine (though many do), but because they are expressive in other important ways: history, culture, context, aesthetic beauty and, of course, the glory of their wine. To make a trip out of these, we’ve included some suggestions for the best places to stay, eat and drink in the region. And of course, we hope this spirit will move you to travel to the vineyards that produce your own favorite wines, that every sip thereafter may be savored with deeper comprehension.

Corton/Corton-Charlemagne, Côte de Beaune, Burgundy, France
For many, the surprise of Burgundy is that the greatest single vineyards rarely meet visual expectations. Often looking no different from the lesser plots next to them, their transcendent beauty is visible, not to the eye, but only to the tongue.

The hill of Corton, however, is the exception. It produces monumental wines and looks the part—a majestic escarpment removed from the rest of the slope, beaming like a beacon its grand cru glory. The wines in this case fit the image—the reds from Corton are the biggest of the Côte du Beaune in terms of depth, intensity and longevity. Hard in their youth, they take time to come around. The same can be said of Corton-Charlemagne, the great white grand cru, which begins around the turn of the hill when the soils turn chalky white.


Corton is just a short jaunt outside Beaune, home of the Burgundy wine trade. The ideal place to stay here is the Hôtel de Beaune, located in the heart of the village, in the former headquarters of Louis Jadot. This is not only because its half-dozen rooms are regally appointed and the service is first-class, but because its owner, the affable Johan Bjorklund (a former private chef to the French ambassador of Sweden), is one of the most connected men in Burgundy. For those who stay at his hotel, he is a particularly useful source of information and can be of great assistance in scheduling appointments at rarefied domains. He’s also plugged into the dining scene, and can help procure reservations at excellent restaurants like Ma Cuisine, the informal café with incredible food run by the young couple Fabienne and Pierre Escoffier, or the Caveau des Arches, a traditional restaurant with classic Burgundian fare and a great wine list.

Restaurants aside, one of the greatest things about Burgundy is that at the top of Corton-Charlemagne, at the edge of the woods, is a little bench. Before hiking up there, stop by the fromagerie, then the boulangerie, and bring a bottle of good Burgundy wine. Soon you’ll be picnicking at the perfect place from which to contemplate the miracle of vineyards. For more information, visit www.terroirfrance.com.

Clos Sainte-Hune, Rosacker Vineyard, Alsace, France
Some people believe that the Clos Sainte-Hune, a Riesling from the house of Trimbach, is the greatest white wine on the planet. Part of the larger Rosacker grand cru vineyard, this is a true clos, hemmed in by an ancient stone wall. Calcareous marl soil with limestone provides the foundation for Riesling vines almost 50 years in age. The site looks forceful. Gazing upon it, you would expect a monumentally mineral-driven wine, and that’s, of course, what it produces—one of the most long-lived whites in the world.

If this is the most perfect and prototypical Riesling in Alsace, Alsace itself is such a wine region. Unlike Burgundy, its grand crus announce themselves loud and clear—any vine-covered, towering hillside with southern exposure bursting up from the flatlands is likely a grand cru vineyard. The villages here, constructed of stone and half-timber, are as if out of a fairy tale, and the cuisine is just as dreamy—Alsace boasts more three Michelin-starred restaurants than any other region in France. Try the pristine Auberge de l’Ill, in the town of Illhaeusern. Its placid garden on the banks of the Ill river are a pastoral delight for the eyes while you indulge your other senses in a Sunday lunch of classic Alsatian cuisine, your wine selection guided by the hand of renowned sommelier Serge Dubs. But don’t stay in Illhaeusern; instead, venture a few miles beyond to Kaysersberg for another inspiring Alsatian scene. The lovely hotel Chambard sits right at the foot of the famed Schlossberg grand cru vineyard, which rises like a skyscraper from the hotel’s backyard. Just paces from the hotel is a steep footpath up to the ruined castle from which the vineyard gets its name. A hike up to it and a return trip should leave you suitably hungry for a bite in the hotel’s equally fine restaurant, where you can indulge in haute fare or something more simply Alsatian, like choucroute (sauerkraut accompanied by any of a variety of meats and vegetables) with a cold glass of Riesling. For more information, go to www.maison-trimbach.fr.

Russiz Superiore, Collio, Friuli, Italy
Unlike Alsace or Burgundy, Friuli is not famous for its single vineyards. Yet it is precisely this modesty that makes Friuli beautiful—it’s the integration of wine, food and culture that’s important, not the elevation of one over the other.
Russiz Superiore
Russiz Superiore

Russiz Superiore is an astoundingly beautiful estate, spread over rolling hills in the Collio region of Friuli. Though acquired by Marco Felluga in the 1960s, Russiz Superiore’s winemaking history dates back to the 13th century. Equidistant from the temperate waters of the Adriatic and the foothills of the Alps, this elegant vineyard produces the plethora of great wines the Collio is known for: whites like Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, and a few reds, such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

But this is a land of few blockbuster wines and many, many superb ones—wines that don’t aspire to celebrity status, but instead are perfect complements for food. Of this, the intensely graceful and mineral wines from Russiz Superiore are perfect examples.

So to truly appreciate Collio wines, one must eat well. A proper meal begins with a glass of Tocai and a plate of rich, nutty prosciutto San Daniele. Friulian cuisine is diverse, from the freshest of fresh Adriatic scampi (which, served raw with Russiz Sauvignon, is a heavenly combination) to wild game from the forests. Outside of the town of Cormons is the hallowed restaurant, La Subida. Run with warm hospitality by Josko and Loredana Sirk, La Subida’s cooking is traditional Austro-Italian, executed in a supremely elegant way. Dishes such as smoked venison carpaccio are supported by the best wine cellar in Friuli. For lodging, La Subida offers some simple apartments, or you can venture up the road to the quarters at the excellent winery of Venica & Venica. Here is another fine restaurant, named Arnold Pucher (for its celebrated Austrian chef). Though Pucher’s is the cutting-edge, experimentalist counterpart of La Subida’s traditionalism, in both places you will find food tailored to wine. For that is what Friuli is all about. For more information, visit www.initaly.com/regions/friuli/friuli.htm.

Clos Mogador, Priorat, Tarragona, Spain
To drive from Barcelona through a low mountain range and down into the region of the Priorat feels like going back in time. The passage of minutes seems to slow down, the scent of wild rosemary fills the air, and rocky hillsides emerge, dotted with ancient, gnarled vines.

It is these very vines that caught the eye of René Barbier, who created Clos Mogador from a vineyard around the town of Gratallops. Priorat was full of old-vine Carignan and Grenache and an intriguing preponderance of slate. For a century, despite naturally parsimonious yields and deep, intense wines, wine here was a bulk product, sold on tap by the liter at the local shops. But Barbier and his compadres, who simultaneously founded Clos Erasmus, L’Ermita and Clos Martinet (all of whose vineyards dot the hillsides around Gratallops), showed the region (and the planet) that with some modern equipment and techniques it could produce world-class wines that would sell out at dissonantly high prices. Clos Mogador is an exemplar of the Priorat collision between old and modern, mixing its 80-year-old Grenache vines with younger Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to produce something powerfully dense and mineral—and doing so using biodynamic methods. The wine screams of its stony, austere place. Thanks to the attention it and the others have received, the region is no longer as sleepy as it used to be—a good thing for the traveler, as accommodations and dining are far more sophisticated than in the past.

The scenic and medieval village of Gratallops now has a lovely hotel called Cal Llop (“wolf’s den”), with modern décor that merges with ancient stonework to ensure a time-warped aesthetic. In the town, there are a couple of excellent new restaurants, starting with Irreductibles, run by Barbier’s son. The food is Spanish contemporary, so expect to be surprised. In the nearby town of Falset is another great modern restaurant, El Celler de l’Aspic, which boasts a wine list to ponder deeply. For more information, visit www.priorat.org.

Sanford and Benedict, Santa Barbara County, California
These days the Santa Rita Hills AVA is one of the hottest areas of Pinot Noir production in the world. This reputation is due to the vineyard planted by geographer Richard Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict in 1971, when neither Pinot Noir nor the Santa Rita Hills AVA existed in the region. From the first vintage in 1976, the wines have proven to be exceptional, capturing the inherent grace of Pinot Noir, yet endowing it with a fruit intensity born of the California sun. To this day, the vineyard supplies juice not only for Sanford winery (both are now owned by Paterno Imports of Chicago), but for other esteemed labels such as Au Bon Climat.

Sandford and Benedict
Sanford and Benedict

Set close to the ocean amid towering hills, the vineyard is subject to the cold ocean winds that gallop through gaps in the ranges. From the peaceful rows of vines here, one can gaze onto Fiddlestix and Sea Smoke vineyards and realize the essence of what California coastal viticulture brings to the world: sun, wind and hills. The beauty’s in the simplicity.

Consider accommodations nearby at the plush Victorian Santa Ynez Inn, with its Jacuzzis and fireplaces. Dinner, however, is much more down home: the Hitching Post in Buellton is famous for its cameo in the movie Sideways, which ignited California’s Pinot boom. Simple steaks and chops seasoned with the restaurant’s signature “magic dust” just cry out for Santa Rita’s potent Pinot Noirs. For more information, visit www.santabarbara.com.

To-Kalon, Rutherford, Napa, California
If you pay attention driving north on California Highway 29 through Oakville, you might notice a certain vineyard on the left. The contrast between it and those around it is stark: here the planting is dense, almost breathtakingly so. Thus, you know it is the famed To-Kalon vineyard of Mondavi, one of Napa’s—and California’s—most historic sites.

Its first vines were established 1868 by Napa pioneer H. W. Crabb, a man later hailed by the Chicago Herald as “the wine king of the Western slope.” It was later expanded to 350 acres of vines and in the years before Prohibition, To-Kalon—which means “highest beauty” in Greek—became the vineyard that put Napa on the map. Lacking some Napa vineyards’ vertiginous flair, To-Kalon’s beauty is less noticeable today. Yet its plainness is why it is special: To-Kalon’s flat bed and gentle slope up the Oakville Bench is an ideal terrace for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, something clearly articulated by the wines, which show a consistent fusion of structural intensity with silky elegance.

Today the vineyard is shared by the Robert Mondavi winery, the University of California at Davis and super-grower Andy Beckstoffer. No matter the owner, though; it will always be the heart of the valley.

Of course, if this vineyard represents the highest beauty of viticulture, the Napa Valley offers the same for lifestyle. This should include a sojourn at the famed Auberge du Soleil resort in Rutherford; there exists no better place to relax into the placid rhythms of the valley. Yountville is the place to go for food. Here is Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, thought by many to be among the best restaurants in the world. (Call a month ahead for a reservation.) Down the street lies Keller’s more accessible Bouchon, which boasts better bistro food than can often be found in France. Farther down the street is the newcomer Redd, named for its chef Richard Reddington, a Napa mainstay. For more information, visit www.napavalley.com.

Klein Constantia Estate, Constantia, Cape Town, South Africa
The vines planted in Constantia were among the first planted in the Southern Hemisphere. Its first wine dates to 1689. Set on terraces carved into the hillsides beneath Cape Town’s dramatic Table Mountain, the vineyards of Klein Constantia produced a famous sweet wine that, in its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, might have been the most sought-after wine in the world. Over the years, it was chased by Napoleon and immortalized in the pages of Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire.

With the devastation of phylloxera in the late 19th century, hard times fell on the property and the wine disappeared. It wasn’t until 1980 that, under new ownership, the property was revitalized. Considered of special importance was the revivification of the famous sweet Constantia wine, and a winemaking team was assembled to raise the dead. Through intense research, a unique clone of Muscat de Frontignan, thought to be propagated from the original Constantia stock, was found and replanted. The result is the powerful Vin de Constance, made of shriveled, late-harvest grapes pressed and macerated in the traditional way. Though today the vineyard produces a full portfolio of wines, the manicured property, set among terraces and fruit trees, looks much as it might have in the past.

The city of Cape Town, however, feels supremely contemporary—a cosmopolitan center in transition from old ways to new. This spirit is palpable in the mix of people and cultures that populate the shops and restaurants. Take in the views from the Twelve Apostles Hotel, which is perched on a coastal drive in the shadow of Table Mountain. From there it’s a quick spurt into Cape Town and restaurants like The Codfather and Ginja. The former has no menu, but a choose-your-own counter full of fresh fish. With its back-alley entrance, scarlet red walls, and Asian-Mediterranean fusion cuisine, the latter captures the polyglot spirit of Cape Town today. Everything here reminds us that all that is old can be new again. For more information, visit www.capetown.gov.za.


Published on August 2, 2008
Topics: TravelWine DestinationsWineries