Tuscany’s golden hills. The Cabernet-filled vineyards of Napa. These iconic wine regions represent the pinnacle of aspirational travel. Yet, such popularity and prestige come with crowds and high price tags. Lodging in the heart of Napa’s wine country can be expensive, as are some of the castle hotels that dot Chianti’s hilltops, many of which can command up to $1,000 per night.
Here are summer getaway ideas that won’t break the bank.
Napa may be America’s wine country sweetheart, but a few hours north, just over a mountain pass, sits agricultural Mendocino County, evocative of a bygone time.
Anderson Valley is nestled between redwood forests and stretches northwest along the Navarro River a little south of Boonville to the town of Navarro. Though many rave about its beauty, relaxed vibe and exceptional Pinot Noirs, it’s a low-key destination. There’s never a Napa-like traffic jam.
Jim Roberts and Brian Adkinson are the proprietors of The Madrones, opened The Brambles in 2017 as a cluster of quirky cabins in old-growth forest near Philo, California. His original project, the Mediterranean-inspired mixed-use Madrones, has evolved, too. Today, it boasts stylish guest rooms, as well as three tasting facilities for Drew Family Cellars, Smith Story and Long Meadow Ranch. There’s even a small spa with an apothecary that features cannabis products and treatments. The adjacent Stone and Embers serves some of the best food in the valley.
A bit further on Highway 128, the Boonville Hotel, with its “modern roadhouse” vibe, serves as lodging, watering hole and restaurant for seasonal bounty. The Apple Farm’s dreamy woodland setting offers a clutch of picturesque cottages.
Newer wineries have also debuted alongside respected legacy labels. For Pinot Noir, look for Baxter, Philips Hill, Goldeneye and Balo. Navarro excels at Alsatian varieties. And more delicious wines are coming out of Pennyroyal Farm (and creamery!), Witching Stick and natural-leaning producer Foursight Wines.
With its proximity to New York City and the tony Hamptons, Long Island’s North Fork has evolved into a haven for limos and party buses.
Instead, drive northwest from New York City. The Finger Lakes region delivers thrilling wines in a sleepy setting. Its wine country is dispersed predominately around three deep lakes that make viticulture viable in this cool climate: Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka.
Instead of the red blends of Long Island, you’ll sip on some of America’s best Rieslings. Pinot Noir and other delicate reds have gained traction too, like at Heart and Hands Winery on Cayuga’s eastern shores.
On Cayuga’s west side, taste racy white wines at Sheldrake Point, then head over to Seneca Lake for the experimental, bottlings of Bloomer Creek Vineyard and the textural wines of Forge Cellars. Stop by Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, a regional pioneer, and head toward Geneva for racy Rieslings by Ravines. Also on Seneca are Fox Run and Red Tail Ridge.
On Keuka Lake, Dr. Konstantin Frank winery dates to the 1960s and was one of the first to experiment with planting Vitis vinifera grapes in the Finger Lakes.
Food and lodging are as scattered as the wineries. Stay at the Aurora Inn on the east side of Cayuga to enjoy a bit of history In Geneva, Geneva on the Lake offers old-school romance on 10 garden-filled acres. To eat, score a reservation at F.L.X. Table, run by master sommelier/chef Christopher Bates. With his wife, Isabel Bogadtke, he also owns F.L.X. Wienery, F.L.X. Fry Bird, F.L.X. Provisions and Element Winery.
Bordeaux lives large in many wine lovers’ hearts for its famed chateaus and ageworthy reds. Recent years have seen an influx of visitors, a result of the restoration of its historical center and debut of the wine museum, La Cité du Vin. But on its fringe sits Gascony, the overlooked culinary heartland of southwest France.
If a pastoral food-and-wine holiday appeals, mark Gascony on your travel map, despite its lack of airports, highways or cities. Tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and Toulouse, Gascony experiences only a sliver of France’s tourism. Vineyards, grazing pastures and medieval villages comprise patchwork scenery. Instead of idling behind tourist buses, you’ll dawdle behind tractors and decipher hand-written signs for duck products sold from farmhouse doors along the way.
Take a week to soak up Gers, the small département that constitutes Gascony’s core. Don’t expect big brand hotels or celebrity chefs. Instead, you’ll find small, multi-generational businesses. Auch is the historical capital of Gascony and a good jumping-off point. To stay and eat, book a room at recently refurbished Hôtel de France. Enjoy duck in all its glory: foie gras, duck confit and roasted or cured magret breast.
You’ll enjoy quiet, scenic drives past forgotten villages. In Montréal du Gers, the restaurant L’Escale lends a contemporary, though foie-gras-slathered, touch to the provincial setting.
The value-driven wines of Gascony sing of heritage and quality over trendiness. For example, the singular expression of Tannat from Madiran, plummy and tannic, is not an opulent, polished wine. Arrange appointments for respected properties like Châteaux Bouscassé and Montus.
Armagnac, the barrel-aged, honey-hued brandy often overshadowed by Cognac, is often said to be the spirit that the French keep for themselves. Dartigalongue in Bas-Armagnac is one of the oldest producers in the region.
If you seek fresh and friendly whites, head to Domaine Tariquet, where Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Gros Manseng steal the show in still wines and complex spirits.
For its wine, pasta and romantic, rolling hills, many Americans fantasize about a Tuscan getaway. Medieval hamlets framed in spindly cypress trees have inspired poets and artists for centuries.
But Tuscany is a victim of its own success. A better choice? Drive past the turnoffs for Chianti and Montepulciano until you cross east into the Umbrian province of Perugia.
Umbria offers comparable scenery, edged in by the snow-capped Apennines, but with far fewer people. There’s room to breathe and enjoy the region’s famous chocolate.
Umbria’s wines tell a different story from those of Tuscany. The dominant grape, Sagrantino, is dark-skinned, tannic and brooding. At its best from Montefalco, the variety demands years in the cellar to soften. Fortunately, Umbria’s white wine, the crisp and dry Grechetto, can be enjoyed more readily.
Umbria’s villages are as lively as they were centuries ago. In other words, they’re incredibly tranquil and offer few signs of modern life other than Wi-Fi in guesthouses.
Bevagna, an adorable town in the center of wine country, boasts a handful of restaurants, mostly old-school, family-run trattorias. Try La Trattoria di Oscar for silky pasta, or Ristorante Redibis for dinner in an ancient amphitheater.
Just outside of town, Arnaldo Caprai Winery provides a contemporary feel with its tannin-taming, modern winemaking. Even more design-forward is Tenuta Castelbuono, which is owned by the Lunelli family. An architectural gem, the building is reminiscent of a shimmering copper tortoise shell hidden between the folds of Umbria’s rumpled hills. To taste older vintages of Sagrantino, the only way to understand the grape, make an appointment at Cantine Adanti.
Though wine tasting calls, don’t miss Assisi. This famous hill town was the birthplace of Italian patron saint St. Francis. His namesake basilica, a horizon-dominating church with two levels, is a destination for religious pilgrims. It draws the biggest crowds in Umbria that you’ll encounter.
The “L’Avenue de Champagne” in Épernay is a sight to behold. Lined with the money and marketing vision of more than a century’s sales of French bubbly, the grand stone houses include the famous names of Moët & Chandon, de Venoge and Perrier-Jouët. Tastings at these vaunted properties can fulfill fantasies of the good life. But a new region has sprung up. Though not far, it’s in another country: England.
Britain isn’t exactly new to wine production. Romans planted vines there 2,000 years ago. But the last 60 years brought experimental plantings and hobbyist vintners, which until recently left Sussex’s potential untapped.
Climate change, for better or worse, has proven a boon for local viticulture. And the affinity of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for chalky soil, similar to Champagne, has made Sussex a fine-wine region, albeit one unheard of to most tourists.
Rent a car in London and head 80 miles south, past gastropubs, castles and farms to reach the region’s dozen or so producers. Nyetimber, in West Sussex, provides a good foray into English bubbles. Like Champagne, they’re made in the traditional method, through second fermentation in the bottle and lengthy aging on the lees to impart toasty, brioche layers of flavor.
The climate lends grapes the racy acidity needed for high-quality fizz. Other properties to consider: Bolney Wine Estate, Ridgeview, Hattingley Valley Wines, Gusbourne and Stopham Vineyard. Unlike the formality and expense of Champagne, visits are relatively relaxed. To encourage tourism, eight producers formed the Sussex Wineries group. Their efforts include the inaugural Sussex Wineries Weekend, scheduled for June.
For lodging, try a vineyard stay at Oxney Organic Estate or book one of its renovated barns. The trend of gastropubs with guest rooms continues at The Milk House, a 16th-century pub in Kent with nice selection of local pours. For stately digs, stay at Gravetye Manor, a renovated 16th-century estate. Between wine tastings, visit artisan cheesemakers or hike the South Downs National Park.