Wine-tasting. It’s always a delightful way to spend an afternoon, but there are only a handful of destinations that immediately come to mind. Napa of course, is the undisputed king of the grape on the West Coast, with the lower peninsula of Michigan dominating the Midwestern scene with many excellent small producers. But what about when you take that summer in Europe? Don’t just leave your wine consumption to the cute little bistro on the Champs Elysees, the rest of the world has a lot of wine tasting opportunities.
Spending a summer in Poland for example, I was introduced to Bulgarian red wines, which I found to be excellent and comparable to French Bordeaux, and quite affordable. And for sweet wine lovers, there is absolutely nothing better than Hungarian Tokaji, which is quite possibly the closest thing to the nectar of the gods we will ever find.
Here are a few of my favorite international destinations for wine lovers.
Fans of the television reality series 90 Day Fiance will know Moldova as the home country of the amiable but decidedly alpha-male Andrei, but this country also has a lot going for it in terms of wine. It may be one of the least-visited countries in Europe, but the post-Soviet destination stands proud as the home to Mileștii Mici winery, which boasts the biggest wine cellar in the world with 124 miles of underground passages, 34 of which are given street names and are lined with about two million bottles.
On Intrepid Travel’s 13-day Expedition – Moldova, Ukraine & Romania, travelers have the chance sip on Mileștii Mici’s exceptional wines, as well as tour the winery and its endless tunnels (drivable by car!). In fact, over the past few years, with the help of USAID, the country’s wine has been placed on an international level. Dumitru Brinzan, a native of Moldova who organizes wine tasting tours in Italy and Germany, tells me about the country’s Ziua Vinului (National Wine Day), a two-day event in October with hundreds of thousands of people converting in multiple cities, including the capital of Chisinau, specifically for this spectacular event.
There are several interesting wineries in Moldova, including MIMI, which last year opened their MIMI castle after a complete restoration. The largest private architectural restoration project in the history of Moldova, the estate was founded in 1893.
Travel writer and photographer Cory Varga is indeed a kindred spirit who like me, loves Tokaji wine. Cory writes the blog You Could Travel, with some great recommendations and tips, and he says “The best destination for wine lovers is the Tokaj wine region in Hungary.” The region has a long and storied history dating to the early 18th century, when Ferenc Rákóczi II, the Prince of Transylvania, gave Louis XIV of France several bottles of wine from his Tokaj estate. Delighted with the taste, the wine became served at the Versailles Court, and soon became known as “Wine of Kings, King of Wines”. But this was only the beginning, as Tokaji wines became the favorite beverage of several historical figures, including Voltaire, Goethe and Schubert, to name just a few.
A good bottle of Tokaji in the United States may run fifty dollars, but in Hungary, it’s cheap, the restaurants are fabulous, and Cory says he especially loved the 2001 Eszencia, “which didn’t test like a wine but like a delicious nectar. Tokaj is one of the best places to visit if you are a wine lover!”
No European wine expedition is complete without a visit to Italy, but where do you start? Jon Pollock, founder of boutique travel company Ciao Andiamo, says “When most people think of Italian wine, they think of Tuscany. But for travelers looking to go off the beaten path, they need to look no further than the neighboring region of Umbria.” Jon says that the Sagrantino di Montefalco is the must-try red wine of the region, made from 100 perecnt Sagrantino grapes that are grown nowhere else in the world. The wine is a tannic red with notes of dark fruit, perfect for a pairing with Umbrian truffles.
Another one of Italy’s best-kept wine secrets is Franciacorta, the Italian sparkling wine region. Sparkling wines from Franciacorta are handcrafted in the “metodo classico” with each glass capturing the true passion of this diverse region in the heart of Lombardy in northern Italy, just one hour east of Milan and home to picturesque hills and medieval towers and castles. The region’s wine culture dates to the 16th century. Franciacorta has become a long-standing favorite of Italian tastemakers and celebrities (and some from across the globe like George Clooney), and thanks to a strict minimum of 18-months bottle aging, the wines are complex yet refreshing and crisp.
Giles Cooper from BI Wine, a global fine wine dealing platform, has his finger on the pulse of wines from everywhere in the world, and he has the inside scoop on the top wines, not just from Italy but from every country in the world. He says, “Piacenza Province (Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy) – a picturesque region with ancient vineyards preserving wine-making traditions that date back to Roman times. Highly recommend the famous Gutturion wine (quite memorable taste for a red wine) which is kind of symbolic for the entire province. The name comes from the Latin word (gutturnium) denoting a particular wine cup used in banquets.”
For centuries the European courts were fascinated with the top quality wines from the Fruška gora wine route in Serbia. Bermet and Ausburch, the authentic wines of Srem are pride and joy of winemaking in this region, and the recipe for making Bermet is a well-kept secret passed down from generation to generation. This desert wine with herbs made local winemakers famous at European courts, and bottles of Bermet were even found in the wreck of the Titanic. It is assumed that it was to be included in the Titanic’s wine list. Besides “the wine capital”, wine admirers on the Fruška gora wine route will want to visit the “Banonija” and “Urošević” cellars in the town of Banaštor and the “Kovačević” cellar in Irig.
The “Palic wine route” in Serbia is known for the sandy terrains and the Palić lake, an old trendy summer resort and today one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in Serbia. Some ancient sorts of grape vine are traditionally cultivated on this sandy soil of the Palić wine route. The Negotin wine route, vintners grow the most beautiful sorts of red grapes out of which are made fragrant red wines. Amongst the Negotin’s wines the most respectable ones are the red wines made from Prokupac, black Burgundy, and Gamet. Wines have intensive red color, rich opulent taste and pleasant bouquet. Regarding white wines, well known are Bagrina, Italian Riesling, Sauvignon, Smederevka, and Semillon.
There’s nothing quite so satisfying as a good port after dinner, perhaps with a high-quality Cuban cigar, so when you’re in Europe, take a few days to stop over in Porto, Portugal. Porto is well known for its port production, but there are not that many visitors and the wine tours are never too crowded. If you are a port lover, you will no doubt be aware that port is protected by a set of “designation of origin” guidelines – and as a result, only port made in Porto, Portugal can legitimately be called “port.” Many of the local port houses offer tours, the locals are always friendly and knowledgeable, and as an extra bonus, some of the port houses pair their ports with different chocolates – a perfect combination!
The Duoro Valley is also a must-stop when touring Portugal. Wines of this region are from a single vineyard, and the region gives you an excellent chance to experience some under-the-radar indigenous grape varieties, including touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta amarela (trincadeira) for reds; códega do larinho, gouveio (godello), malvasia fina and viosinho for whites. It goes without saying too, that Portuguese food is exceptional!
If you haven’t gone wine-tasting in Spain, you’ve missed out on a great experience. Your first stop has to be La Rioja, where you can visit Vivanco, where the wine is out of this world, and the views from the vineyard are spectacular. Stop in at the restaurant for some great food pairings, and the 13,000 square foot museum on-premise.
Another excellent opportunity is the Duero Valley, where LeDomaine, a 12th century abbey, has been converted into a luxury hotel complete with a subterranean spa with spa sommeliers. The region, and the estate itself, produces award-winning wines, and the restaurant, Refectorio, has a Michelin star.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.