It's that time of year - the kids are back in school, the grapes are coming off the vines, and we are beginning the annual harvest of travel articles recommending the best wine regions to visit. USA Today popped the cork on this celebration last month, crowning the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York as the best U.S. wine region to visit for the second year in a row. Many other publications will chime in with their choices over the next few months. Whether you take a spontaneous autumn trek to wine country or are planning next year's vacation well in advance, you will have plenty of advice.
So here's my list. These are wine regions around the world that have captured my imagination, for the quality of the wines as well as the quality of the visit. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I second all the media endorsements of the Finger Lakes, Paso Robles, Calif., and Charlottesville Pull out your atlases and start planning your next wine escapade.
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. The Okanagan Valley may be the most exciting wine region you've never heard of - but you will. It's a relatively young wine industry producing wines of great diversity, quality and value, and selling pretty much all of it out the winery door. Expansion into export markets will be slow, but demand could pick up with tourism.
About a four-hour drive from Vancouver, Okanagan Lake resembles the Finger Lakes writ large. So you see the cool-weather varieties you'd expect: riesling, pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. But the valley also extends southward to the U.S. border with eastern Washington state, where, in dry, desert conditions, cabernet sauvignon and syrah thrive. This expanse lends an impressive diversity to the selection of wines, and it's backed by a lot of money. Retired Vancouver stock traders and Calgary oil executives, retail magnates and other moneyed folk, have built some astonishing wineries in places with great views and top-notch restaurants. Order the trout whenever you can.
Best time to go? Not winter, unless you're a skier. Okanagan Lake is British Columbia's beach resort, so late summer and autumn are the best times to miss those crowds. It's a great region for bikers, too. Make Penticton, at the southern end of the lake, your home base. That way you can venture south toward the border or north in the direction of Kelowna to explore the entire valley. While you're at it, take the southern route back to Vancouver through the Similkameen Valley and visit a few more wineries.
Douro Valley, Portugal. Here is the most spectacularly beautiful wine region I've visited (and I've never discovered an ugly one). The terraced vineyards lining the Douro River, as it winds through northern Portugal, are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Tourism may still be easier in the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia at the river's mouth, but it is growing in the valley itself and is worth the trek. It helps, of course, to love Port, the sweet, fortified wine that is the region's claim to fame, but the Douro produces outstanding table wines as well from the same grapes used for Port.
June 23 is the annual festival of São João (St. John), a citywide party in Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, when revelers feast on sardines and chorizo, send paper lanterns into the sky (while vigilant workers with fire hoses protect the roofs of Port houses), and enjoy concerts and fireworks. The next morning, anyone who can rouse themselves or who hasn't gone to bed, line the riverbanks to cheer on the annual race of the traditional Rabelo boats that used to bring young wine down from the valley. Harvest time in September is another good time to visit and is more temperate.
Michigan. Traverse City sits at the southern end of the Grand Traverse Bay and is the hub of an up-and-coming wine region. The Leelanau Peninsula separates the bay from Lake Michigan to the west, while the Old Mission Peninsula juts northward into the bay. Leelanau excels in chardonnay and sparkling wine, while Old Mission favors riesling, gamay and cabernet franc. Established wineries such as Left Foot Charley and Chateau Grand Traverse lead the way, but there's also a growing cadre of boutique wineries, such as 2 Lads and Mari.
Willamette Valley, Oregon. Just an hour's drive south of Portland - well, depending on traffic - the Willamette (rhymes with "slam it") is a pinot noir geek's paradise. Interested in terroir? Ask any winemaker to explain the region's fascinating geography, with its mixture of volcanic and marine sedimentary soils. Explore Yamhill-Carlton, the Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills to experience an impressive diversity of wines made from pinot noir. Don't miss the chardonnay and riesling while you're there. Want to surrender yourself for a bacchanalian weekend? The International Pinot Noir Celebration each July is the best consumer wine event in the United States.
Wherever you are.Wine is now made all around the world. When traveling, look for local wines in stores or restaurants. You may discover something unexpected and delicious. And explore your own local wine country for a fun weekend outing. A bottle of your local wine is an excellent host gift when visiting friends around the country. My most recent discovery close to home is Walsh Family Wines in Loudoun County, Virginia, where Nate and Sarah Walsh are crafting delicious single-vineyard varietal wines - don't miss the merlot!
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McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.