World’s best wine tours and trails

Story highlights

Napa Valley vineyards in California may well be the perfect place for the novice

British Columbia's unusual climate has turned Canada into a wine producer

No other wine is more associated with a country than Rioja is with Spain

CNN  — 

The Italians say that “a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.” Indeed, for many cultures, wine is an essential part of a meal and wine production has spread from the Mediterranean region to every continent.

Appreciation of wine on its own is on the increase and has led to the establishment of wine routes ever since Germany inaugurated its own Weinstrasse in October 1935.

Today, the choice of wine routes and tours from the essential (Bordeaux) and the scenic (Cape Town) to the historic (Armenia) or the unexpected (Brazil) is greater than ever.

Here are 15 of the best:

1. Hunter Valley, Australia

The closest wine region to Sydney is still a fair hike from the Aussie metropolis, so many visitors choose to join a tour. These are lively trips, peppered with Aussie humor.

The big valley names are McGuigan, Stonehurst and McWilliams, all of which specialize in Shiraz, a grape that takes easily to the hot and dry Australian interior. It’s one of the world’s hottest wine regions, with temperatures of 35 to 40 C (95 to 104 F) possible in summer.

2. Napa and Sonoma, California

Napa Valley vineyards in California may well be the perfect place for the novice, because of their complete lack of pretentiousness. As one might expect in the state that harbors Hollywood and Disneyland, tours are well-organized, entertaining and, most of all, informative.

There are more than 400 wineries in Napa County and another 200 or so in neighboring Sonoma, including international heavyweights like Inglenook, Mondavi, Domaine Chandon and Clos du Val. The wines are fruity and good-bodied with some exceptional Chardonnay and Zinfandel as well as possibly the best Champagne-style wines outside France.

For once the attractions of a wine tour go beyond mere tastings. At the top of Napa Valley, everyone stops by a geyser affectionately called Old Faithful, which obligingly spurts steaming water every 30 to 50 minutes.

3. Alentejo, Portugal

With more than 250 wine producers in eight registered denominated regions, the Alentejo is one of the biggest wine-growing regions in Portugal.

There’s a surprising variety in the wines that’s easily explained by the different soils present in the area: granitic, calciferous and Mediterranean red. As a result, what was once three different Rotas dos Vinhos or wine routes in the Alentejo, have merged into one.

Along it, visitors can stop by adegas (wineries) to sample wines and local delicacies. November is a good time to visit for the Festa da Vinha e do Vinho in Borba where small tascas (inns) tempt passersby with wine from enormous clay pots as the streets fill with colorful parades.

4. Cape Winelands, South Africa

The Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.

As if the attractions of Cape Town weren’t enough, just an hour’s drive inland lie the popular wine trails of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Wine-making in the Cape dates from the late 17th century and the arrival of Huguenot migrants from France. Their wines were used as an antidote to scurvy during long sea voyages to the Indies.

Today, South African wines are renowned worldwide and in Pinotage they claim the only new grape variety created outside Europe.

The wine tram in Franschhoek provides a hassle-free hop-on hop-off winery tour while Boschendal estate, with its iconic Cape Dutch architecture, is South Africa’s best claim to a European-style manor house.

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5. Route des Vins, Alsace, France

The Route des Vins is a self-drive continuation of the German Weinstrasse and follows the Rhine below Strasbourg in the Alsace. This is prime Riesling territory, passing under carefully manicured slopes of tethered vines, past geranium-draped villages hiding behind medieval gates.

They are overlooked by the thickly forested Vosges mountain range where a series of castles face the Rhine, permanently on the lookout for possible invaders.

It takes a few days to drive the full route whose highlights include Haut-Koenigsbourg, a 12th-century castle refortified in the 19th century under German control, and Obernai, one of the most charming villages in France.

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6. Santorini, Greece

Wine may be the last thing on anyone’s mind when they encounter the spellbinding vistas of the Santorini caldera, with its precipitous cliffs rising from the sea. However, the island is also home to nine indigenous grape varieties that include the famous Assyrtiko.

Traces of this dry white wine have been found in a prehistoric village excavated at Akrotiri, buried under the volcanic eruption that sank half of the island.

What’s particularly unusual about wine-making on Santorini is how the young vines are twisted to form a wreath with the grapes growing in the center to protect them from the winds that blow down the Aegean in the winter.

These can be seen in the fascinating Koutsoyannopoulos Wine Museum outside the village of Vothonas.

7. Maipo, Chile

The valley of Maipo is within Greater Santiago and many estates are extremely easy to get to from Chile’s capital. This is the birthplace of the Chilean wine industry, producing mostly reds such as Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Carmenere.

Chilean vines remained free of the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed their European cousins in the 19th century and were used to graft back and regenerate the devastated Old World vineyards. Taxis can easily be found to the venerable estate of Cousino Macul, which was established in the 1850s and is still in the same family today.

International giant Concha y Toro lies farther out. There, visitors will be shown the original “devil’s cabinet,” the Casillero del Diablo, which gives its name to a well-known brand.

This is the cellar where the owners used to keep their best vintages. They told workers it was possessed by the devil to deter theft.

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8. Okanagan, Canada

British Columbia’s unusual climate has turned Canada into a wine producer, and the Okanagan Valley is home to the majority of its wineries. Despite the extremes of the weather, the hardy vines of the Okanagan Valley have thrived. Lakes crucially protect the vineyards from spring frosts while coastal mountains strip away the Pacific Ocean’s moisture and keep rainfall low during summer.

The first winery was only established in 1932 at Calona and even by 1990 there were only 19 estates. By 2016, that number has exploded to 255 regional wineries with about 40% of the grapes coming from land leased by the Osoyoos First Nation.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Okanagan is the sheer variety of grapes cultivated there. The reds encompass Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet, while the whites extend from Pinot Gris and Chardonnay to Riesling. It seems anything will grow here.

9. Tuscany, Italy

San Gimgnano, a UNESCO World Heritage village, is on the Vernaccia wine route.

In 1716, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici decreed that only the region between Florence and Sienna can claim to produce Chianti Classico using the local Sangiovese grape. Three hundred years later, the Chianti estates have become organic, focusing on biodynamic cultivation and natural ways of protecting from disease.

Many winemakers are members of the Vini Veri movement that calls for natural wine-making. Large estates such as Fontodi are even experimenting with Roman terracotta vats.

Other, smaller, wineries such as Le Boncie let the vines grow untended next to weeds and wild grasses. Consumers applaud such efforts with sales up by 25% in the past five years. Visitors enjoy tastings that can often be free since Italians tend to treat everyone as a house guest.

10. Bento Goncalves, Brazil

Italian immigrants to Brazil brought vines to the pampas of Bento Goncalves in the furthest south of this tropical country. The region’s wines, mostly Merlot, complement perfectly the traditional rodizio meat grills that dot the towns.

The wineries are concentrated in the Vale dos Vinhedos where, despite the Brazilian look and feel, the Italian heritage is celebrated in museums, a steam train and documentaries idolizing those early pioneers.

Overseas visitors are welcomed with genuine delight even by giant estates such as Miolo, mainstream favorites like Casa Valduga and perennial sommelier darlings Salton, all keen to show off their quality wines. The result is a genuinely uplifting tasting experience.

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11. Mendoza, Argentina

Argentina used to be the sleeping giant of wine production. For decades vintners still used old vines imported by Jesuit priests employing cheap methods such as large, reusable vats instead of smaller disposable barrels.

But once the production standards improved, the advantages of the Mendoza region of Argentina became obvious: a dry, almost pest-free climate underscored by controlled irrigation from the Andes’ snow melt.

Red wines dominate, with the famous Malbec holding its own against any European rival. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also popular with growers. The Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo regions are reasonably flat so renting a bicycle is becoming a good alternative to group tours that must be booked days in advance.

12. Rioja, Spain

No other wine is more associated with a country than Rioja is with Spain. Many believe that Rioja is a type of grape and that the wine is always red. In fact La Rioja is the prime wine region of Spain; the typical grapes are Tempranillo, Grenache, Graciano and Mazuelo.

There are also white wines bearing the Rioja name. Still, it’s the reds that are best-known around the world. They must be drunk late, after at least three years; five is preferable, seven to eight is ideal.

They can be tasted in the grand traditional haciendas like Lopez de Heredia or the new shiny glass-fronted boutique wineries such as Baigorri. The Spanish have a saying: “Where the wine’s good, the food is, too.”

And it would be amiss to go on a wine tour in La Rioja without trying tapas of its special spicy chorizo, black pudding or the air-dried loin of pork marinated in wine served as lomo embuchado.

13. Moselle Valley, Germany

The Moselle is the most scenic tributary of the Rhine – slow-moving, twisting and turning in its path.

A trip on the river reveals the terraced patterns of some of the steepest vineyard slopes to be found anywhere. The almost vertical gradients make working in vineyards dangerous – even hiking can be treacherous in the area – but they reap rewards in the exceptional quality of their Rieslings.

The vines love the slatish soil around the Moselle River. It allows them to grow their roots deep and absorb minerals reflected in the wine taste. The excellent tourist office in Koblenz offers detailed maps for the wine trails and gives advice to tailor individual interests.

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14. Bordeaux, France

Although the area is full of familiar wine regions such as Graves, Pomerol, Sauternes and Saint-Emilion, it’s the Medoc chateaus that are on a wine buff’s wish list.

Bordeaux has five crus (graded qualities) with four chateaus in the Medoc occupying the coveted premier grand cru class: Margaux, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Lafite – the fifth, Haut-Brion, is situated at Pessac-Leognan.

Some would consider it blasphemous to think that all five could be visited in one go, so it’s worth trying to spend several days wine-trailing. Bordeaux’s massive Vinotheque in the center of town is worth a visit; the easiest way is to book a trip through the super-efficient tourist office.

Between wines, there’s also a fabulous fine art museum, the Musee des Beaux-Arts.

15. Vayots Dzor, Armenia

According to the Bible, Armenia was the first wine-producing region in the world, since it was on the slopes of Mount Ararat that Noah planted the first vine after the flood. Archaeologists agree – at least on the long tradition: a 6,100-year-old winery was discovered not long ago.

The local Areni variety has been unchanged for centuries, being highly resistant against disease with a thick skin that helps shield it from the cold.

The easiest wine-growing region to get to from the capital, Yerevan, is Vayots Dzor, where a microclimate ensures 300 sunny days a year. Most organized tours zoom in on the Areni Noir, an incomparable red that put Armenia on the map when it was launched internationally in 2012.

John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He’s written or co-written 15 books.