As a wine and food enthusiast, I’ve learned so much from attending wine pairing dinners and they’ve deepened my appreciation for the complexity of flavors a wine can offer. But when I sit and listen as a sommelier describes the precious grapes and how the morning dew clings to their skin, how the sunrise crawls over the valley like a warm blanket, and how the minerals in the soil nourish the vine … I want to be there. I have to be there. The traveler in me hangs on every word during these wine-making stories.
My first trip into wine country was to Napa, and honestly, I was a bit disappointed. There are some great wines that come from Napa (Cakebread and Murphy Goode being two of my favorites), but it wasn’t the lush rolling green hills I was expecting. The landscape was dry and brown and the road was straight through the valley with no climatic views of breathtaking vistas. I wanted the experience of that scene in the movie Walk In The Clouds. And I did find it elsewhere during other travels. Want to know what wine destinations really “wowed” me and offered that movie-like experience? Here are the three…
Mystical 17th century palaces alongside deep river valleys and lush green terraced vineyards stepping down into the river, the Duoro Valley is quite an enchanting place. It’s the oldest demarcated wine region, and in my opinion, probably one of the most beautiful. It also offers affordable luxury experiences as I don’t know anywhere else in the world where you can stay in a palace for less than $200 a night.
My first introduction to Porto was watching the sunset over the Douro River while sipping Port Tonics from the balcony at The Yeatman Hotel. The autumn air was cool and the evening felt magical as we watched the lights start to sparkle from within the buildings in historic Porto. The Yeatmen sits on top of a hill in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia (or just “Gaia” as the locals say), across the river from Porto. This is where many port makers keep cellars to store their wine before being exported. We actually did a port tasting here and it was the first time I learned that there are multiple shades of port. Not just red and white, but pink and purple as well. All of them refreshingly delicious when served as a tonic. Even my husband, Pete, couldn’t resist these sweet sips. The Yeatman is definitely a wine-lovers dream hotel. Each room is decorated by a different winemaker. Their spa offers treatments featuring crushed grapes and vino-therapy. Even the pool is shaped in the form of a decanter.
But my enchantment with this region didn’t end there. On our second night in Porto, Pete and I joined our TBU conference group and boarded a ‘rabelo,’ (a traditional flat-bottom cargo boat used for transporting wine) for a sunset cruise down the river to Pousada do Porto Freixo Palace Hotel. After debarking the wooden boats, we climbed a short staircase to a candlelit courtyard that welcomed us to the entrance of this elegant palace. More port tonics where poured as we gazed upon another glowing sunset over the river while listening to the music of Enigma. It was as if I had accidentally walked on to the set of a music video. Essentially, it was perfect.
Wines To Try: Vinho Verde, Multiple Varieties of Port
Must Do: Port Tonics while watching the sunset at The Yeatman.
Hermanus, South Africa
Just outside of Cape Town, the wine regions of Franschoek and Stellenbosch certainly stole my heart. But Hermanus was an unexpected surprise. Located on the Western Cape south of Cape Town, Hermanus is better known for whale watching and shark cage diving. I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to death-defying adventure, so you can imagine my relief when we learned that the water was to choppy for us to go out for a boat ride with the great whites.
Instead, we spent the afternoon riding four wheelers through vineyards and our guide revealed one of the most spectacular views of the coastline. We also got to visit Hamilton Russell Vineyards for a wine tasting. Riding up and down the rolling hills through the vines, wind blowing through my hair, dust on my skin, and the taste of pinot on my lips, this was one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in a vineyard. The only thing missing was crushing grapes with my feet.
Where To Stay: The Marine
Wines To Taste: Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir, Delaire Botmaskop
Dubrovnik and Zadar, Croatia
This is a recent experience for me. Unfortunately, they don’t export a lot of their wine so you must travel there to taste it, which I think is a perfect excuse for a vino-vacation. Dubrovnik has been made popular by cruise ships and fans of the show Game of Thrones as it is essentially the location of King’s Landing. But there’s a hidden secret just north of Dubrovnik; the small village of Zadar. Known for having breathtaking sunsets, rich Roman history, a sweet cherry flavored liquor, and some of the best wine I tasted in the country. The local tourism board directed us to the Art Hotel in the center of town for lunch where we indulged in a three course meal, some spectacular desserts, and what ended up being one of my favorite wines in Croatia, G. Perhaps one of my friends in Croatia can comment below and correct me, but I believe the cursive writing on the bottle means something like “my blood is your blood,” but in a more romantic “we’re wine brothers” sort of way.
Another hidden gem, located in Dubrovnik is, D’vino wine bar. Located in a quiet and intimately lit alley way, this is the perfect place to escape the crowds and spend the evening sipping great wine and sharing in conversation. The owner, Sasha, is like a walking wine encyclopedia. You describe to him your favorite wine and he’ll pick the perfect one for you. For me, he selected a local red that only had 200 bottles in production and had no label. Sasha described how the grapes are layed out on the sand to enhance the flavor and there is almost a certain effervescence to it. Of course it doesn’t need a label. It’s so damn good it won’t stay on the shelves. In addition to fabulous wines, D’vino also offers some great tapas-style snack plates with local cheeses and sausage. You won’t be disappointed.
Wines To Try: Prosek, G, and anything that Sasha at D’vino recommends.
For Photos: Head out for an afternoon on Gulliver’s Wine Train to get up close and personal with the vines. You’ll also find some great tasting locally produced olive oils.
Want to see more photos of my favorite vino-vacation destinations? Take a peek at the gallery below:
Disclosure: My travels to Croatia and South Africa were part of sponsored press trips #EssentialCroatia and #VisitSouthAfrica. I recommend these destinations because I’ve been there in person and absolutely fell in love with the landscapes and culture and I never recommend a place I haven’t tried first hand. If you have any questions, feel free to email me or send me a note via Facebook.