Monday, January 17, 2011

Top Ten Breathtaking Wine Regions

The only thing better than a glass of wine, is a glass of wine that comes with a view. And what better way to have it all than to travel to the most beautiful wine regions around the world. From magnificent sunrises to awe-inspiring sunsets, just about anything would taste good paired with the beautiful scenery of these regions. So here's a list of the best regions to visit for a breathtaking view, although not necessarily a breathtaking wine:

1. Sardinia, Italy
As a general rule, Italy is home to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes in the world. From the Valle d'Aoste sub-region in the northwest, to Cinque Terre in Liguria and most of Tuscany, Piedmont, and the Veneto, it's hard to find a region that could make this list. I chose Sardinia, spelled locally as Sardegna, not only because of its mind-blowing scenery, but also its climate, and health benefits of the local lifestyle.

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean behind Sicily. The region is heavily influenced by Spain, France, and of course Italy. Its Mediterranean climate makes the region ideal for growing the Grenache variety, known locally as Cannonau, which is the most widely planted grape on the island. Giro and Carignan, known on the island as Carignano, are other widely-planted red varietals. Most of the whites are made from the Vermentino grape and are commonly found in the northern regions of the island. Some producers are experimenting with international varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, both in blends and on their own.

The Sardinian diet has recently received quite a bit of attention. This is because National Geographic writer and Emmy award-winning documentarian Dan Buettner explains in his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, that the Sardinian diet coupled with the regions "feel good" reds are like a fountain of youth. Supposedly they can add about six years to the average life expectancy. Not that I ever need a reason to drink, but hey, a little extra motivation doesn't hurt.

2. Stellenbosch, South Africa
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, in their fifth edition of The World Wine Atlas, stated, "The most dramatically beautiful wine country in the world is surely South Africa." I chose Stellenbosch both for its gorgeous scenery and for the fact that the region is regarded as the finest in South Africa. This is due to the growing conditions and the University of Stellenbosch, which is incredibly influential in South Africa's wine advancement.

Virtually all of South Africa's vineyards are found within 100 miles of Cape Town. And while vines first were planted in South Africa in the mid 17th century, it wasn't until apartheid ended in the early 90's that the country really began producing quality juice. Today some great values can be found from the country.

3. Okanagan Valley, Canada
The Okanagan Valley is the oldest and most important wine region in British Columbia. It's also one of the world's most northerly wine growing areas. Over 90% of British Columbia's vines are located in the Okanagan Valey. The region is Canada's best chance at producing world-class varietal wines from grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Starting at the Washington state border, the Okanagan Valley Vintner's Quality Alliance (VQA) stretches north 155 miles. It's home to the glacial Okanagan Lake which provides a moderating effect. The area is almost desert-like, receiving an annual rainfall of only six inches. While the region produces wines of good quality, you have to pay for them. Not the most value-packed, but certainly breathtaking scenery around the lake.

4. Mosel, Germany
George M. Taber explains in his book In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism, that "The Rhine and Mosel rivers and valleys are the birthplace of Germany's romantic heritage." The Mosel region, formerly the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, is Germany's third largest region in terms of production, but is the leading region in terms of international recognition.

The Mosel is often regarded as Riesling's spiritual home. Cool temperatures, the Mosel river, and slate soil come together to create a perfect environment for producing world-class Riesling. The steep river banks are where most of the grapes are grown, with vineyards being planted on inclines of up to 60 degrees. The banks of the river are both breathtaking and practical as they provide good drainage and allow the river to act as a mirror, reflecting the suns rays up under the leaves to the berries to help warm and ripen them. It's the beautiful Mosel river and its steep banks that solidify this region's place on this top ten list.

5. Douro Valley, Portugal
The Douro Valley, home to the Douro River, is best appreciated from atop the nearby mountains. Vines are planted to the sun-baked soil hillsides, which are very steep in some areas. While the Douro region is famous for its fortified dessert wines called Port, what many don't realize is the region makes as much still table wine as they do Port.

Ten years ago visitors to the country would choke down the table wines from the region to hurry up and get to the world famous Ports. Over the last decade however, the region has been producing not only palatable juice, but good-quality wines. Quality table wines from this region are beginning to show depth, structure and age-ability. The reds from the region, when done well, can prove to be remarkable values. It is this factor, along with the beautiful view, that lands the Douro on this week's top ten list.

6. Provence, France
Provence is this writer's all-time favorite wine region. It's not just the wine or the scenery, but the cuisine and the culture that entice me. Situated between the French Alps and the Mediterranean sea, this breathtakingly beautiful region has the best of both worlds - skiing in the mountains and swimming in the sea. Its perfect Mediterranean climate ensure a mild winter and spring while supplying locals and visitors with a warm summer and fall. A perfect recipe for enjoying the region's most notable wine style, rosé.

Provence has been producing wine for over 2500 years. While the region makes delicious red and white wines, it's best known for its pink wines. In fact, over half of the region's wine production is rosé, which pairs perfectly with the local fare. Cuisine includes olives, garlic, seafood (think sardines), rockfish, sea-urchin and octopus, lamb and goat, and chickpeas. Local fruits include grapes, peaches, apricots, strawberries, cherries, and the famous melons of Cavaillon. Who could resist?

7. Napa Valley, California
The view in Napa Valley is admired by over five million people each year. With more than 450 wineries, the Napa Valley is often regarded as the finest American Viticulture Area (AVA) in the United States. The valley floor is surrounded by mountains, with the Mayacamas Range on the western and northern sides and the Vaca Mountains on the eastern side. The floor of the valley gradually rises from sea level at the southern end to just over 350 feet above sea level at the northern end in Calistoga at the foot of Mount Saint Helena.

While commercial wine production began in the mid 1800's, it wasn't until the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, now called the Judgement of Paris, that this region was viewed world-wide as a quality wine producing region. As the acclaimed Chateau Montelena was stealing the first place spot from French Chardonnays of premier Burgundy producers, Warren Winiarski's 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon was also besting the Frenchies, taking the first place title from first growths like Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. While it was a crying shame that the film Bottleshock completely skipped over this feat, it was this accomplishment that put Napa on the map. The region's stunning view and world-class wine production helped it make this week's top ten list.

8. Finger Lakes, New York
This one has a soft spot in my heart. With over 9,000 square miles of gorgeous rolling hills and 117 wineries, the Finger Lakes region is New York's largest AVA. Tom Stevenson, in the fifth edition of his book The Sotherby's Wine Encyclopedia, explains "The (Finger Lakes) name is derived from the 11 finger-shaped lakes in west-central New York. These inland water masses temper the climate, and the topography of the surrounding land creates "air temperature" in the winter and summer."

The Finger Lakes is the oldest and most prominent region in the Northeast. It's prized for soil with good drainage and extreme cold. Because of the cool growing season Riesling tends to do best, but international's like Pinot Noir and Cab are popping up in some vineyards. Also because of cold climate and harsh winters, they produce some exceptional Ice Wines. While it's difficult to find any wines from the Northeast outside of the area, this region is producing some delicious juice. Definitely worth hunting down. But like the wines of Okanagan Valley in Canada, you have to pay for them. The region's lack of Hollywood hype, as compared to the glitz and glamor of Napa, as well as its delicious wines and breathtaking view solidify its spot on this top ten list.

9. Mendoza, Argentina
Mendoza is considered by many to be Argentina's most important wine region. At over 350,000 acres of land planted to vines, the region accounts for nearly two-thirds of the country's entire wine production. Located in the eastern foothills of the Andes, the elevation at which the grapes are planted is one of the only reasons the region is so successful. These vineyards are some of the highest in the world, with the average site located between 1,900 and 3,600 feet above sea level. It's this elevation that provides ideal conditions to slowly ripen thick-skinned grapes, because with elevation comes a decrease in temperature - one degree Fahrenheit for every 300 feet of elevation.

The mountains in Mendoza provide this region with the perfect climate, soil, and location. The diurnal variation, or range, is ideal for growing hearty varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has an alluvial soil type, which is great for growing grapes, and the region receives the perfect amount of rainfall. And in dry years, the water from melting snow-capped moutnains makes up for any lack of rain. Very few vineyards need to irrigate, so water is virtually free - a major bonus when considering it's one of the largest costs at a winery. It is this region's delicious, value-packed wines and proximity to Mount Aconcagua that makes it one of the most breathtaking wine regions in the world.

10. Central Otago, New Zealand
Last but not least is one of the most southern wine producing regions in the world. With grapes growing at elevations up to 1,300 feet, Central Otago is home to New Zealand's highest vineyards. Its southern latitude and high vineyard elevation make this region prime for growing cool climate varietals. It's one of the fastest growing regions in New Zealand, producing what some are calling world-class Pinot Noir. Critics have gone as far as to say the style of Pinot Noir produced is "Burgundian". However, the region, in my opinion, grew a tad too fast, resulting in a number of mediocre to below average wines being produced.

The reason this region is on this week's top ten is the view, oh what a view. Want to experience it in full but can't afford the ticket? Get the blu-ray version of Lord of the Rings, the film was shot in New Zealand. Central Otago is covered in mountains and beautiful green hills. Take this along with the fact that it's capable of producing world-class wine, and you have yourself a beautiful wine region worthy of a visit.

These ten regions showcase a variety of terrains with stunning views and delicious wines. There are so many gorgeous regions around the world, many producing quality juice, that it was tough to nail it down to ten; there are many more that could have made the list.
I hope you have a chance to visit a few of these or any of the other fantastic wine destinations. In fact, if you have, I'd love to hear about it. Drop me a line via email, facebook, or leave a comment here on the blog.

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Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

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