How to Have the Best Tasting Experiences in 3 Great Wine Regions

By HomeExchange Team Member, Yvette Wang

“Life is too short to drink heinous wine.”

Do you love wine? Do you consider yourself a casual drinker or a connoisseur perhaps? A good glass of wine can put a smile on your face, and a great wine will make you get up and dance (it has happened to me).

Do you know what can make that glass of great wine even better? Personalize it. Travel to where the wine is made and meet the people who have dedicated themselves to making it. Walk between the rows of vines, smell the aroma of the aging wines in the barrel room, and you’ll get a glimpse into the amount of love, effort and skill that goes into each bottle.

“Where do I go? Can’t I just stop at the tasting rooms on the main road? How do I choose a winery to visit? How do I know what’s good? Why should I bother?”

These are all valid questions. Let’s try to answer them and help you have the best experience possible when visiting a wine region.

Most Important Tip: A little planning prior to the trip goes a long way.

Bordeaux, France

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Let’s start with the most famous wine region in the world, Bordeaux. In its most basic form, there are two main divisions, Right and Left Bank of the river estuary Gironde. The Right Bank wines are predominantly based on Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes, while the Left Bank wines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon based. Just remember that much for now, because within these divisions there are 60 appellations with 7,000+ wineries.

Mon Dieu! “How does one know where to go?”

Well, a good place to start is with what you like. Have you had a Bordeaux wine that you enjoyed? Do you prefer Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot? Of course, on the other hand, one should keep an open mind to new things. I always say to friends and strangers alike, “you don’t like (insert wine type) because you haven’t tasted a good one yet.” If only I would get a dollar for every time I hear someone say, “Oh that Merlot is good, and I don’t even like Merlot!”

Do you still have no idea where to start? Try going to a good wine bar with a large selection, and the staff should be able to help you narrow it down. For the city of Bordeaux itself, try visiting Bar À Vin De La Maison Du Vin near the Tourism Office. You’ll find a large selection of Bordeaux wines at very reasonable prices. Go during the afternoon, before it gets packed by about 7 p.m.!

“Okay, how do I know what’s good?”

Bordeaux wines have multiple classification systems for its various regions, sort of a guide of “what’s good.” To help you out, here are the important ones. While visiting the Left Bank, at the very minimum, look for Cru Bourgeois wines, a certification that is renewed annually, with each wine evaluated by a set of standards (including taste). These are reasonably priced wines that deliver style and quality.

On the top end of the spectrum of the Left Bank, there are the wines from the famous 1855 Classification, about 60 in total, including the famous 1st Growths of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut Brion. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t possibly stop by one of these for a tasting, or that it’s too expensive.

Au contraire! For example, Lafite, Mouton, and Haut-Brion are open to private individuals as long as you make an appointment ahead of time. (Tip: Try to email them at least 1 month ahead of time as they are very popular.) There are also the 2nd Growths through the 5th Growths, all worth a visit, and many are open to the public. So, do not be dismayed if you can’t visit Chateau Margaux, because you can visit Chateau Palmer (a very famous 3rd Growth)!

Tip: The majority of the wineries in Bordeaux are only open during the week and sometimes on Saturdays. So plan your visits accordingly.

“Hey, what about Petrus? Isn’t that a 1st Growth?” Ah, no. Petrus is on the Right Bank, let’s shift our focus over there, shall we?

By the way, if you need a break from winery visits, the town of St. Emilion on the Right Bank cannot be missed. It is simply gorgeous. (The general difference between the Left and Right Banks are… more grand chateaux and less attractive scenery on the left, more humble wineries and more beautiful scenery on the right.)

The Right Bank has separate classification systems of its own and many appellations. Without going into too much detail, simply know that St. Emilion and Pomerol (where Petrus is made), are the most prominent areas. Look for Premiers grands crus classés A (of which there are only 4 currently), then Premiers grands crus classés B (14 estates), and finally Grands crus classés (63 estates).

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You’ll also find a number of humble, small producers if you wish to discover more options on the Right Bank. Some of the great Chateaux open for public tours include the famous Chateau Pavie (classés A), Chateau Troplong Mondot (classés B), Château La Gaffelière (Grands crus classés). Be sure to make an appointment prior to your visit or you could be stuck tasting from wine stores.

There really are so many places to visit in Bordeaux that a short trip to the area can be unsatisfying. It’s a good thing lodging cost is not a factor if you are on a home exchange, and it’s even better if you are swapping cars since many of these wineries are reachable only with one.

Tip: For non-EU residents, you can save some money because you won’t have to pay VAT if you have the wine shipped back home–basically canceling out the shipping fees.

Napa Valley

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Ah, Napa, where Cabernet is king. It is by far the most famous wine region in the Americas, and it certainly has the wines to substantiate that claim. Most wine drinkers are familiar with the major producers of Napa–names such as Silver Oak, Caymus, Beringer, and Merryvale–but there is so much more to learn about Napa, and better wines to try.

“Wait, better than Silver Oak?” Most definitely.

Tip: In general much of the best wines produced in smaller quantities are not exported outside of the state or region (referred to as “boutique wines”). This is true across the world; another reason to visit the actual wineries.

For the casual wine drinker, there are many activities to keep you entertained, like the Wine Train, a gondola on your way to visit Sterling Vineyards, or the Castello di Amorosa, a winery that’s styled like a 13th-century Tuscan castle.

For those looking for the pure wine experience, there is much to offer. There are over 450 wineries, many of which have their own tasting rooms.

The simplest way is to drive up Highway 29 through the many towns within Napa Valley. Click here for a useful planning map to visiting the wineries. You can stop at many wineries without an appointment for a simple tasting, but to experience a more in-depth tour or to taste the wineries’ more premium selections, you have to make an appointment. So, don’t miss out on the good stuff!

“How to decide on which one?”

Well, unlike their European counterparts, Napa Valley does not have a ranking system to give you easy ideas. It does have some guidelines about how a wine is labeled, usually. They center around where the grapes are grown. This typically will give you some sense of quality. If you see something labeled with just “Napa Valley,” that means the grapes came from all over the area, usually in bulk and cheaper. If the label mentions a specific region, like Oakville, or St. Helena, that means the grapes only came from that AVA (American Viticultural Area), and will reflect that region’s style or characteristics. If you see something labeled “Estate,” that means the producers used their own grapes, reflecting their own styles more accurately. If a label mentions a specific vineyard by name, like Beckstoffer To Kalon, then the grapes came from that one vineyard. By the way, if you see that vineyard on a label, you must try it.

Funny Story: In the early days of Napa’s development as a wine region, some winemakers from California went to Burgundy to try to learn how the French made their wines so well. The French winemaker exclaimed, “it’s all about the terroir! The Californians were confused because they couldn’t understand what a dog had to do with making wine….

One idea is to go beyond the main road where you can enjoy some gorgeous views of the valley. Make your way to wineries up in the mountains, like the Howell Mountain area, to visit excellent producers like the Cade Estate Winery, and La Jota Vineyard. Up in the hills by Lake Hennessey you’ll find more beautiful estates like the Chappellet Vineyard, also an excellent wine producer.

Some wineries don’t advertise themselves very much, nor are they even listed on the official Napa Vintners directory. These small but highly rated producers often rely on word of mouth, or your previous experience with one of its wines. One such winery is Failla Wines, located on the Silverado Trail. Be aware that their entrance sign is easy to miss.

“Well then, how the heck would I know to find these wineries?” Talk to someone knowledgeable at your local wine store or with the manager of a good wine bar. Ask for the name of a small producer that they love. (Or rely on your wine snob friends.)

I am not saying you should avoid the main highway. There are certainly worthy stops along Highway 29, like the small and hip tasting room for Orin Swift Wines (owned by genius winemaker, Dave Phinney.) You’ll be able to taste through their entire selection of reasonably priced wines, including those only available at the tasting room or through their wine club. Other great options include two collectives, tasting rooms that feature a number of different small but good producers, giving you a wider perspective on Napa wines. The Vintners Collective has more of a wine bar vibe, and Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley where you can taste in a garden surrounded by beautiful art pieces.

One secret to keep in mind about Napa Valley is that Sonoma is only an hour or so away! Where Napa is fantastic with Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma is just as good with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That is like saying Bordeaux and Burgundy are separated by only an hour’s car ride.

Another great thing not to miss are all the wonderful farmers markets in Napa Valley. One of the main attributes of this region is the concerted efforts in organic and sustainable agriculture (including the grapes). So take advantage of that kitchen in your exchange home and prepare some delicious meals with local produce!

Tip: Only purchase wines at the winery if you are certain you cannot buy it back home or online. Prices are either the same or higher at the wineries. This is partly caused by a law dating back to the period of Prohibition, the 1920s. “How can I be certain about prices?” Use wine-searcher.com. It’s the wine lover’s Google.

Barossa – Australia

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Name the first wine you think of when I say Australia… is it Yellow Tail? Well, there is much more to Australian wine than that. A winemaker once said to me, “we export all the swill and keep the good stuff for ourselves.” Thank goodness that is starting to change, and the rest of us who don’t live there finally get to have some good Australian wines. To truly appreciate some of their best, visit Barossa, the largest premium wine region located just 65 km to the northeast of the city of Adelaide.

Tip: Cork vs. Screw Caps. The Australians popularized the use of screw caps for their wines about 10 years ago. These caps stop the passage of air into the wine bottle, preventing oxidation, a process necessary to aging wines gracefully. When asked why they use screw caps, a winemaker replied, “the average amount of time an Aussie keeps a bottle is 2 hours, and screw caps are easier to open.” So, don’t judge a bottle by its top!

The region of Barossa is divided into 2 sections, Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. Barossa is predominantly known for Shiraz grapes. Yes, it’s basically the same as Syrah. That’s just what it’s called when you grow it Down Under. Some of the Shiraz vines date back to 1847. So you’ll love it here if you enjoy full bodied, massive, rich and ripe wines.

Other varietals to enjoy in this region include Grenache and Mataro (aka Mourvèdre), all grapes that thrive in the dry heat. Cabernet Sauvignon is not as prominent here.

“What about white wines?” Ah yes, the Eden Valley section produces some tasty Rieslings due to its higher altitude. Speaking of heat, the summers here are hot and dry, while winters are moderately cool. Do you get my drift?

Tip: Did you know that some white wines can be aged for decades? Riesling is one, and the great Sauternes from Bordeaux is another.

You will find the most famous Australian wine (and rightly so) in Barossa Valley: the Penfolds Grange. Yes, Penfolds is open for tastings with appointments. Yes, you get to taste the Grange. And yes, you must make an appointment.

There are of course other great wineries to visit besides Penfolds, including Peter Lehmann Wines, St Hallett, Yalumba, and Henschke in Eden Valley. Go to Seppeltsfield for a tour with some historical perspective, especially if you like Tawny Ports. You will most likely be able to find a vintage that marks your birthday or an important anniversary. For a completely different vibe, visit an off-the-beaten-track, family run, small winery like Yelland and Papps. These are but a few examples.

For those of us who love food as well, and how can you not if you love wine, be sure to visit Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop, a farm-to-table foodie destination.

Remember, make an appointment so you get to have a more personalized experience and taste the better wines!

What makes that glass of great wine even better: when you have personalized it. When you travel to where the wine is made and shake hands with the people who make it, when you walk between the rows of vines, smell the aroma of the aging wines in the barrel room, you’ll come away with your own sense of the art that is winemaking.

In our next installment, we’ll focus on another 3 regions: Tuscany of Italy, Rioja of Spain, and Mendoza of Argentina.

Please join in the conversation; share your thoughts (and your best tips) in the comments section below. What are your favorite wine regions?

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About the author

Yvette Wang

Yvette is a self proclaimed wine snob who truly believes that a bottle of good wine is a work of collaboration between man and Mother Nature.  Always in search of a great wine, Yvette often attends wine tastings and loves visiting different wine regions of the world. Nothing is more fun for her than to “geek out” with a winemaker about their craft and has been known to converse about the subject for hours at a time.  More than anything, she believes the best way to enjoy a bottle of great wine is to share it with friends and family.

21 Comments on “How to Have the Best Tasting Experiences in 3 Great Wine Regions

  1. Don’t forget Italy’s best wine region Piemonte! Home of the king of wines Barolo

  2. Hi Yvette!

    A very compact summary and data given indeed.Congradulations!
    Thé birthplace of wine is said to be Anatolia, today’s Turkey.Have you been
    visiting any vineries there? Any brands
    worth to recommended?
    Thanks!

  3. Branch out and choose Sonoma County over Napa. With a gorgeous coastline, and small villages from Geyserville to Bodega Bay and Carneros to Dry Creek, you have an extremely varied offering. Sonoma County is not just the town of Sonoma (although that is a wonderful part of it)..you can choose between cottages along the Russian River, sea view homes at Bodega Harbor or Victorian B & B’s in charming Healdsburg and much more inbetween…redwoods to vineyards and lots of beautiful open space and small country roads. Can’t find that in Napa. And, it’s only an hour to Calistoga and the Northern reaches of Napa Valley.

    • Hi Branko,

      This is just the first in a series of posts. We’ll be featuring other wine regions in future blog posts.
      “In our next installment, we’ll focus on another 3 regions: Tuscany of Italy, Rioja of Spain, and Mendoza of Argentina.”

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Hi Yvette
    You might want to look into the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
    We are an incredible up and coming wine area!
    Check it Out!
    Mary Ellen

  5. What a can of worms you have opened !!
    I live in the famous Hunter Valley district, in OZ where we are spoiled for quality wines but am not precious about the product and am always open to different varieties. For me, the people, the food and the moment all contribute to the overall wine experience.
    Sorry, have to finish, have to cleanse my tastebuds, am leaving Porto for Bordeaux in a few days.
    Adischatz
    Neil Bryant

  6. Hi Yvette,
    for future blog post You may want to check out:
    the beautiful historical city Freiburg (Black-Forest) in the so-called “California of Germany” in the “corner of 3 countries” is surrounded by the great wine regions “Kaiserstuhl” & “Tuniberg” and also Alsace is just a 40 minutes drive away.
    Spring & autumn are the best seasons to visit the traditional “Straußwirtschaften”, rustical, orginial (wine)-farmers pubs which are usually only open for some month in the year, offering great wines of own production and simple but tasty meals made mainly of their own harvest products. But of course You find also many fine restaurants offering these regional wines.

  7. Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, on the 45th Parallel, has the same latitude as Bordeaux France and the Rhine district of Germany. This Lake Michigan peninsula has over 30 wineries currently. Across Wesst Bay, Old Mission Peninsula has many wonderful wineries. I think more attention should be given to Made in America wines.

  8. Hi Yvette,
    Have you heard od the Douro wine region in northern Portugal? It is worth a visit and it is in fashion. I can provide simple accommodation.
    Enjoy your wine
    Maria Foy

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