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Beyond Napa Valley: Five alternative wine trails worldwide

Napa Valley may be the most recognizable wine region in the U.S., but it’s not the only option anymore. If you’ve already “done” Napa, or if you’re just looking to check out interesting wine trails in other destinations, there are plenty of up-and-coming wine regions all over the world ready for you to visit.

Here are five wine trails from five different continents worthy of your next trip, whether you want to center your visit on tasting wine, or drop in at a winery or two as part of a larger vacation.

Chile’s Colchagua Valley

Chilean wines, reds in particular, have garnered a lot of attention amongst wine drinkers over the past few years. Chile has six wine valleys, and one of the best for full-bodied red wines is the Colchagua Valley. Sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes, this fertile area is located in Central Chile, about a two-hour drive from Santiago. Its most popular varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Malbec, and Syrah. It was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Regions of the Year” for 2005, the same magazine that recognized it as “the next Napa” in 2002.

Travelers often base their visits in the town of Santa Cruz because, as Matthias Holzmann of the Aqua Motion tour company explains, “out of Santa Cruz you can reach 10 wineries in less than 60 minutes.” One of the most popular ways to see the Colchagua Valley’s wineries is on a Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) tour, which includes scheduled visits to a variety of the valley’s wineries, multilingual guides, transportation, tastings at several wineries, lunch, and sometimes a stop at the Colchagua Museum, one of Chile’s best collections of historic artifacts. Rates start around $44 per person. Alternatively, the Colchagua Tren del Vino (Wine Train), a restored steam-engine train, offers tours of the valley’s wineries two to five times per month. Rates start at $33. Several other companies offer one- and multi-day trips to wineries, including, Aqua Motion, and Latitud 90.

Self-guided tours are also possible with a map, rental car, and sense of adventure. Most wineries require advance reservations, which can be made via email or by phone.

The area’s mild weather makes touring the wineries a year-round pursuit. Summers are sunny and dry, and temperatures usually hover in the 60s and 70s. Santa Cruz hosts a March harvest festival with Chilean foods, wine tastings, handicrafts, and traditional music and dance.

Accommodations are limited in the Colchagua Valley. The Hotel Santa Cruz is a popular option. The hotel has 85 guestrooms, three restaurants, and a pool, and rooms start at $165. Another option is Los Lingues, a hacienda about 45 minutes from the wineries of Colchagua with rooms starting at $180 per night. Los Lingues can arrange wine tours, as well as horseback riding, fishing, and rafting expeditions, and it also has tennis equipment and bicycles. In addition, some wineries, including Casa Silva and Viña La Playa, have small hotels on-site.

Next>> New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay

New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay

Wines from New Zealand have been popular in the U.S. for more than two decades. The country has at least 10 growing regions, but one of the best for visitors is Hawke’s Bay, on the North Island. Wine expert Michael Cooper is quoted on as saying, “If I had to drink the wine of one region for the rest of my life, it would be Hawke’s Bay.”

Hawke’s Bay boasts more than 40 wineries. “There are all kinds of wineries, from the multi-million dollar ones like Sileni and Craggy Range, right down to the small family-owned ones like Brookfields,” says Andy Raven, a New Zealand B&B owner.

Its sunny weather (the region sees more than 2,200 hours of sunlight per year) helps winemakers produce exceptional reds and whites, including Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. New Zealand’s oldest winery, Mission Estate, is in Napier, Hawke’s Bay’s largest town. Mission Estate offers tastings and tours, and hosts concerts in its amphitheater. And, the Church Road Winery in Taradale is home to the only wine museum in New Zealand.

There are a number of ways to tour Hawke’s Bay. The flat terrain is ideal for biking, and several companies including Bike About, Bike d’Vine, and On Yer Bike rent bicycles by the day, starting around $20. Self-guided tours by car are also good options, and Hawke’s Bay Wine Country tourism website has a detailed wine map. A variety of guided tours from several companies are also available. The local i-Site visitor information centers are good resources for planning a visit to the wineries.

In addition to attracting wine lovers, Hawke’s Bay is also a draw for culinary travelers and art enthusiasts. Napier is celebrated for its art deco architecture, while Hastings is noted for its Spanish Mission-style architecture. The Hawke’s Bay Art Trail features more than 40 open artist studios and the Wine Country Food Trail has more than 80 stops, showcasing the region’s food products. New Zealander and wine enthusiast Lynda Scott comments that Hawke’s Bay, with its architecture “combined with the fantastic vineyards in the area of Napier and Hastings…is just a magic place.”

Hawke’s Bay’s mild, sunny weather makes it a year-round destination. Major wine events in the region include Harvest Hawke’s Bay in February and the Midlands Charity Wine Auction in June.

Accommodations range from B&Bs and hotels to hostels (or backpackers, as they’re known locally). Camping is available from $7 per night, while dorm rooms start around $11. B&Bs are available from $38 per night for a single room. The Hawke’s Bay Wine Country website has a comprehensive guide to accommodations. Hawke’s Bay is accessible by air and car. It’s a four-hour drive from Wellington, and about an hour’s flight from Auckland and Wellington.

Next>> Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Since the mid-’80s, Oregon’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines have grown in popularity among U.S. wine drinkers. Its largest wine region, Willamette Valley, remains relatively untouched by tourists compared to its California neighbors, which makes it somewhat of a hidden gem.

Lisa Hill, spokeswoman for the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, compares Willamette Valley to how Napa Valley was 25 years ago, with “very small, family-owned wineries where the winemaker and owner are often pouring in the tasting room.” Because many of the region’s wineries are small and non-commercial, a trip to Willamette Valley requires some pre-planning; some wineries are open to the public by appointment only. Hill recommends calling ahead to schedule visits.

Willamette Valley’s more than 150 wineries are spread out over a large area, with wineries located about 30 minutes to two hours from Portland. Visiting the region is doable as either a day trip or a longer, more in-depth tour. A self-guided tour by car with a map is a good way to explore the region’s “country lanes and stunning vistas of the Cascades and hillsides,” as Hill describes it. Guided tours are also available for visitors who would rather leave the driving to others. For a bird’s eye view of the vineyards, hot air balloon rides over the valley are also popular.

Wineries are open year-round, but the best, and driest, weather is during the summer months. Willamette Valley hosts several notable festivals throughout each year. The most popular are the Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekend open houses. During these weekends, visitors are welcomed at more than 100 wineries, some of which aren’t normally open to the public. Barrel tastings, live music, and the sale of newly released or limited-edition wines are among the events. Meanwhile, July brings the International Pinot Noir Celebration with three days of seminars, tastings, and tours in McMinnville. Visitors to Portland may check out the Indie Wine Festival in May, a two-day event that features small, independent wines, many of which hail from Willamette Valley.

Within Willamette Valley, there are three major sub-regions, McMinnville, Dundee Hills, and Yamhill-Carlton. The towns within these regions have a wide array of independently owned B&Bs and restaurants. While there are a few chain hotels, B&Bs offer personalized charm and the opportunity to get firsthand advice about the wineries. B&Bs start around $75 per night, but average prices range between $125 to more than $200 per night.

Next>> Spain’s Rioja region

Spain’s Rioja region

Spain has several wine regions, but one of the most tourist-friendly is Rioja, located in north-central Spain. Rioja produces many of Spain’s best and most popular red wines, though some wineries (or bodegas in Spanish) also produce notable whites and roses. Patricia Clough, representative of the U.S. Vibrant Rioja campaign, explains that visitors are attracted to Rioja for its “rugged landscapes of mountains and multi-hued vineyards…[and] wineries with beautiful architecture and outstanding wine.”

About the size of Delaware, Rioja is made up of three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Alavesa, and Baja. Logroño is the region’s capital city, home to churches, markets, and shops, as well as Calle Laurel (Spanish only), a cobblestone street lined with tapas bars that serve Rioja wines. Haro is considered the heart of Rioja, while Laguardia is a popular medieval walled city. The Museum of Wine Culture is in Briones. Elciego, a small village in Rioja Alta, will be home to a new Frank Gehry-designed hotel when it opens in September.

Wineries (bodegas, in Spanish) vary in size, from small, family-owned ventures to large, modern establishments. Touring them—Rioja boasts more than 500—requires some advance planning, as the area isn’t as developed as its counterparts in France and Italy. Most bodegas require reservations, although calling a day or two in advance is usually sufficient. Some hotels and tourist information offices are happy to make the reservations.

While it is possible to take a self-guided tour by car, you can get an insider’s perspective by visiting with a guide. Some popular providers include Cellar Tours, Iberian Traveler, Red Rioja, Totally Spain, and Vintage Spain, and they can generally arrange driving, biking, and walking tours led by bilingual guides.

The off-peak travel season in Rioja is from November to March. The weather is colder than at other times of year, and some parts of Rioja get snow. The weather is sunny and dry throughout much of the year, however. Rioja has two major wine festivals in the warmer months. On June 29, Haro celebrates the Battle of the Wine, which culminates with participants dousing each other in thousands of liters of wine. September brings the Rioja Grape Harvest Festival in Logroño, a six-day celebration complete with grape-stomping, bullfights, and wine tastings.

Bilbao is the nearest major city to Rioja, located about 85 miles north. Accommodations in Rioja include hotels, apartments, B&Bs, and vineyard stays. As with most countries in Western Europe, accommodations in Rioja aren’t cheap: most rooms start at more than $100 a night.

Next>> South Africa’s Stellenbosch Wine Route

South Africa’s Stellenbosch Wine Route

South Africa has long been a popular travel destination for safari adventurers, but its winelands are the up-and-coming attraction. South African wine has only been on the U.S. market since the mid-90s, but it is growing in popularity. The country is home to 14 wine trails, some of which overlap, and all welcome visitors. The oldest and one of the most popular of these trails is the Stellenbosch Wine Route around the town Stellenbosch.

Cape Town native and independent tour guide Selwyn Davidowitz recommends Stellenbosch for three things: its wines, its scenery, and its culture. Home to more than 100 wineries that produce mostly reds, Stellenbosch is about 45 minutes from Cape Town, and is also close to two other wine regions, Franschhoek and Paarl. The university town of Stellenbosch is filled with busy sidewalk cafes, shops, and nightlife, and is a good base for hiking and other outdoor pursuits nearby.

Stellenbosch’s wineries are easily accessible by rental car, bicycle, or guided tour. It’s worth calling in advance for hours of operation (some may be closed on Sundays). Davidowitz suggests picking up the John Platter South African Wine Guide, the so-called Bible of South African wineries, that can be purchased at most wineries and tourist information offices. Some popular wineries that Davidowitz recommends in Stellenbosch are Beyerskloof, Ernie Els (yes, the golfer), Middelvlei, Rust en Vrede, and Warwick .

One of the best times to visit Stellenbosch is during harvest in February, when the region is bustling with activity. However, this is also when prices are highest, so cost-conscious travelers might prefer visiting during late April and May, or the end of October, Stellenbosch’s shoulder seasons. If your priority is the wine, Davidowitz suggests visiting in the off-peak months of July and August. The weather will be rainier than other times of year, but you’ll have the wineries to yourself. In early August you can also attend the Stellenbosch Wine Festival.

There are a variety of accommodation options in Stellenbosch for a range of budgets, including hotels, guesthouses, farmhouses, and hostels. Davidowitz recommends staying in a privately-owned guesthouse to take advantage of South Africans’ “open, honest, sincere, and warm” hospitality. Rates for guesthouses range from $35 to $200. Because Stellenbosch is a university town, budget options are also available at several different hostels for around $10 per night.

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