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.
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)!
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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?
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.