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Wine First, Business Later

By Michael Franz
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003; Page H01

Part of the romantic allure of the world's great wines is their seeming remoteness. Your bottle of Champagne seems more special when you learn that it was aged in a cavern cut by the ancient Romans from the limestone depths of northern France. A Pinotage from South Africa or a Shiraz from Australia seems especially exotic when you reflect that it was sailed across the oceans to you from halfway around the globe. The point is also proved by its converse: Virginia makes some excellent wines, but how awed can we be by something made 45 minutes from the Beltway?

Yet the surprising fact, if you travel internationally, is that many of the world's most storied vineyards are likewise only a few minutes away from common routes and destinations. For example, if your European travels include a stop at the hub in Frankfurt, a rented car and 45 minutes of bat-out-of-hell fun on the autobahn will deliver you to one of the greatest wine estates in Germany. Similarly, if you can feign illness and bug out of your boring business meeting in Adelaide, you can be sipping Shiraz in McLaren Vale within the hour.

Fog settles over Oregon's Willamette Valley, which begins just outside of the Portland city limits. (Courtesy of Chehalem Winery)

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Why aren't more travelers aware of this? Perhaps they haven't descended so far into wine geekdom that their sense of world geography is signposted solely by reference to great wine -- as I confess mine is. Or maybe because wineries that are aspiring to greatness and attentive to atmospherics don't wish to advertise that they're just 45 minutes from a major airport.

Why should you devote a day of your trip to wine touring? Because wine is uniquely a beverage of place, deriving its nuances from the lay of the land, the savor of the soil and the character of the climate. Painters and photographers know that sunlight differs everywhere across the world. Grapevines know this too, and they translate it into subtlety where the sun is stingy and dramatic ripeness where the sun is searing.

To see and taste in the same place is to understand this. As a bonus, the seeing side of the equation is enhanced by the fact that fine wine tends overwhelmingly to come from beautiful places. On the tasting side, great wine demands great food and always gets its way, either by inspiring local cuisines over centuries as in Europe, or in the New World by luring taste-conscious visitors who are in turn an irresistible lure for ambitious chefs.

Wine country visits invariably include engaging conversations, as the crafts of viticulture and winemaking entwine science and art in very interesting ways, with threads from culture and history running into the weave as well. Your chances of encountering the actual winemaker are greater at smaller establishments, but larger ones are frequently better prepared to offer tours and tastings for visitors. In any case, you are very likely to meet happy and enjoyable individuals all along the way, as conspicuously few people in the wine business are itching to take up a different career.

So off we go. Here's my top 10 list of favorite regions making wicked wine within easy reach of major destinations. They are listed in alphabetical order and supplemented with how-to information (see box, this page) that will smooth the way. Oh, and one last thing: Once you've had a chance to hit a few of these great regions, please reflect that proximity and excellence can coincide, and remember to support your local wineries!

Champagne From Paris

Champagne may be the most magical beverage ever conjured from the vine by human beings, and it can be made only in one place in the world. The region is so far north and so cool that the grapes barely get ripe by conventional standards, and still wines from Champagne are almost undrinkably hard and angular. But Champagne's harsh climatic conditions and chalky, limestone soils are absolutely ideal for making sparkling wines. Hundreds of attempts to duplicate the magic have been made around the world, resulting in some very nice sparklers that invariably fall short of the originals.

The French region's countryside is lovely, but you'll find most of the prime attractions for a brief visit concentrated in Epernay or Reims. Almost all of the big Champagne houses have beautiful buildings and astonishing cellars and are roughly evenly divided between the two cities. Epernay has an edge in being smaller and more easily navigated, but Reims is home to one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe, which can be missed only at the risk of having one's passport revoked by the Travel Police.

McLaren Vale From Adelaide

Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, is a wonderful attraction in its own right. Beautifully situated and ingeniously designed, it has an urban interior of a perfect square mile rimmed with gorgeous parkland. Adelaide is also a culinary wonderland (don't miss the Central Market) and a great center for the arts, but for our purposes what is most important is that it is the (virtually official) capital of Australian wine.

Home to the beautiful new National Wine Centre of Australia, Adelaide has water to the west but great wine in every other direction. Nearby regions include the Adelaide Plains and Adelaide Hills as well as the Barossa, Eden and Clare valleys. To the South you'll find Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale, which is my top pick if you've got just one day for wine touring. A superb Visitor Center will give you all the information you'll need for an efficiently full and hassle-free day of tasting. If you hit enough producers, you'll find good renditions of almost every type of wine made in Australia, but the top dog here is rich, robust Shiraz.

Rheingau from Frankfurt

Wine just doesn't get any better than great German Riesling, and nowhere is wine country more dramatically beautiful. If you had time for a week of touring, I'd be paralyzed with indecision on where to send you, but for a single day from Frankfurt, this is a no-brainer. The Rheingau is Germany's most aristocratic growing region, with the country's highest concentration of the supremely noble Riesling grape and well more than its share of large traditional estates.

The big estates offer very good tours and pretty good wines, but the best juice is flowing from smaller houses like Georg Breuer (Rüdesheim), Johannishof (Johannisberg), Franz Kunstler (Hochheim), Hans Lang (Eltville-Hattenheim), Josef Leitz (Rüdesheim), Wegeler Erben (Oestrich-Winkel) and Robert Weil (Kiedrich). Don't fail to take a quick drive up from the river at Eltville or Hattenheim to the Cistercian monastery of Eberbach, one of the best-preserved medieval monastic sites in Germany.

Ribera del Duero From Madrid

The robust reds of Ribera del Duero are probably the hottest things in the very hot world of Spanish wine, and once you've beheld the blinding intensity of the sunlight here, you'll know why. Tempranillo is the star grape, and though this variety produces amazing wines all across northern Spain, Ribera's renditions may be the most balanced, beautiful and satisfying of all.

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