Like virtual wine tastings, armchair travel is overrated.
During the thick of the pandemic, many wine lovers sated their wanderlust snuggled on a sofa quaffing their favorite bottle while binging travel or culinary shows. Or, they tasted a recent vintage virtually and pretended to be gallivanting through Sonoma County. I’m guilty.
Thankfully, there’s been some progress since then, with jabs available and myriad international borders reopening. Keeping that in mind, next year is an excellent time to escape and experience great wine and the culture that accompanies it. From Old World to New World and classics to up-and-comers, these wine regions are ripe for exploring in 2022.
“At the foot of the mountain” accurately describes this magnificent region nestled in the Alps in Northwest Italy. Some may believe Piedmont is too reserved and lacks excitement, but this quiet yet complex quarter is a beauty. It’s also a bargain destination as compared to some others in Europe, and not nearly as loaded with American tourists as Tuscany.
Lush, undulating hills and parcels of vines mingle with castles and fairytale villages like Neive, La Morra, and Bra, where the slow food movement originated. Meanwhile, the picture-perfect city of Alba, deemed the white truffle capital of the world, lies at its heart.
Sommelier Tonya Pitts has visited Piedmont several times and says it was almost like a religious experience. “I feel like I can touch the heavens in La Morra,” she says. “It’s otherworldly.”
Monferrato and Langhe-Roero, just a 90-minute or so drive from Turin, are UNESCO World Heritage sites and produce some of the region’s shining wine stars. But make no mistake, exquisite wines can be had all over Piedmont.
Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco are two big players here, but widely-planted Barbera, Dolcetto, and the natives — Grignolino and Arneis, among others — also have roots in the area. Pitts emphasizes, “there are lots of varieties grown in the region, and they don’t get as much attention.”
As for the food? It’s divine. In 2021, restaurants in Piedmont collectively earned 46 Michelin stars. “My standout pairings in Piedmont were truffles with fresh pasta and Barolo,” Pitts recalls. “And filet with Barbaresco was sublime.”
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Wildfires ravaged this picturesque region in 2021, with tourism at a standstill in late summer, also wineries’ busy season. Now it’s back to business, so 2022 is a prime year to travel to Western Canada’s up-and-coming Okanagan Valley. According to James Cluer MW and owner of Fine Vintage Ltd., “Few Okanagan wines make it outside of the province, and visiting the cellar doors is one of the only ways to taste the best.”
Diversity is the region’s strength, as the terroir is as varied as the wines. Since the valley spans more than 155 miles and features a variety of sub-regions and climates, the wines range from juicy reds to crisp whites and everything in between.
“Cool-climate grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling thrive in Kelowna and Lake Country, which mark the northern edge of viticulture in the Okanagan,” says Cluer. “There’s something especially distinctive about the Rieslings grown here: steely and mineral-driven with zesty citrus fruits and racy acidity.” But in the southern section of the valley, where the temperature tends to be warmer than the north, he says Bordeaux and Rhône varieties prosper. With so many wines on offer, the Okanagan Valley promises something for every palate, from novices to enthusiasts.
Yet another reason to go: District Wine Village near the town of Oliver debuted in June 2021. The project is Canada’s first wine village and features 13 wineries, a restaurant, brewery, an on-site vineyard, and more.
Western Cape, South Africa
After enduring four domestic alcohol bans and an export ban, South Africa is perhaps the wine destination that’s struggled most during the pandemic, with winemakers, cellars, and tasting rooms scrambling to rebuild. While the future is still uncertain, inevitably, the country’s wine lands deserve a visit.
Characterized by regal mountains, vast farmlands, and white-sand beaches, the Western Cape is often considered one of the most alluring provinces in the country. This fertile region features significant wine estates that rank among the best in the world alongside small, independent makers.
One must-see town is Stellenbosch, with more than 200 producers and winemaking roots in the late 1600s. And about 22 miles east, Franschhoek provides a hop-on-hop-off wine tram, perfect for a full day of tasting and relishing the beauty of the valley.
In terms of what to taste, Manuel Cabello, Master Sommelier and operations manager at Ellerman House, suggests Franschhoek’s Semillon; Pinot Noir and Chardonnays from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, a ward in Walker Bay; Constantia and Elgin Sauvignon Blanc; Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon; Syrah from Swartland; and the Champagne-esque Cap Classique from Robertson.
Cluer adds that “Walker Bay and Elgin are producing cool-climate styles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a decidedly Burgundian influence.” But don’t skip the exclusively South African Pinotage — a marriage of Cinsault and Pinot Noir — one of the region’s signatures. And the ubiquitous Chenin Blanc is the country’s versatile flagship grape. “Chenin Blanc shouldn’t be missed for those who visit the Cape,” says Cabello.
Beyond the region’s incredible wines, there are beach strolls, nature hikes, and al fresco dining in Cape Town, all while social distancing.
Long Island, New York
Nearly two years after New York stood at the center of the pandemic, life in the Empire State is flourishing, and that includes wine country. In development since 1973, the region has come into its own in recent years. Ask anyone familiar with these wines, and they’ll likely attest that they keep getting better.
This storied landmass stretches from New York City to Montauk at its eastern tip, with several producers in Western Suffolk and the glitzy Hamptons, or South Fork. However, a trail of vineyards and tasting rooms in Jamesport, Mattituck, and Southold, among other hamlets, dot the laid-back North Fork, which can still feel decidedly local, especially in the offseason.
With the Atlantic Ocean flowing on the south and the Long Island Sound cascading on the north, the region’s cool, maritime climate defines the terroir, explains Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. “As a result, the wines are moderate in alcohol and well-balanced with ample acidity,” he says. “Both characteristics make them pair well with food, especially all the seafood that lands on our shores.”
Variety is the spice of this region as well, in fruit and winemaking styles. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are abundant, but lesser-known grapes like Gewürztraminer, Tocai, and Lemberger prosper here, too.
Offering an idyllic coastal setting alongside acres of farms and quaint beach cottages, Long Island wine country oozes charm. And who doesn’t want to swirl a lovely pour of Cabernet Franc and watch the sound glimmer as the sun creeps below the horizon? Yes, please.
While oenophiles often plan trips to the Douro or Porto in Portugal, it’s Alentejo — a mostly dry, hot area of southern Portugal — that is creating more buzz these days. The region’s wines are crafted from blends and more than 250 native varieties, with 80% of production dedicated to rich, fruit-forward reds, with the balance being crisp, elegant, lighter, and full-bodied whites.
Set inland about a 90-minute drive from Lisbon, Alentejo and its picturesque surroundings reveal rugged mountains and sun-drenched vines, along with olive groves, lavender fields, and cork forests; the area is one of the top cork sources in the world.
Natural beauty aside, 2022 is the year to experience this largely unexplored section of the country, since Portuguese wines have become all the rage. Thus it’s only a matter of time until throngs of travelers flood the region.
Yet another reason to go now: to support Alentejo’s commitment to responsible winemaking. João L. Barroso, sustainability manager for Wines of Alentejo, says standard practices range from water conservation and reuse to recycling and reduced energy consumption and training employees to take sustainability efforts beyond the vineyard.
What’s more, this corner of the world promises plenty for visitors, from surfing in the Atlantic and ballooning over the plains to walking through the bush in the Serra of São Mamede, Barrosa says. “And the best of it all? You can find awesome wines being grown in every part of this big, wide, untouched region.”