Though there are over 10,000 grape varieties and 73 countries that produce wine worldwide, there are three specific valleys that provide a heady blend of history and distinction: the Dordogne Valley in southwest France, the Hunter Valley in eastern Australia, and the Russian River Valley in California.
The Dordogne River passes through the Bordeaux region (perhaps France’s most well-known) with scenic towns along its banks, such as Beynac-et-Cazenac, famous prehistoric sites such as Lascaux, and 54 appellations that yield some of the best red wine in the world. The Romans initially brought winemaking to the region during the 1st century, where it has remained an iconic industry to this day. The region’s maritime climate is a result of the Gironde estuary that borders the Atlantic, working in concert with the Dordogne and Garonne rivers that provide natural irrigation. The limestone bedrock provides the calcium and the gravelly, clayey soil. And the sun does the rest.
Saint-Emilion, located just east of Libourneon on the bank of the Gironde, is known primarily for blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Saint-Emilion’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is reason enough to visit, given its beauty, but its wineries are equally as attractive. One such is Clos La Madeleine, sited on a limestone plateau in south Saint-Emilion where wine has been made since the 6th century. Caverns cut into the hill (and the inward cellars) provide a place for wine to age, but also provided shelter for people visiting the site in August of 2003, where a historic heat wave kept temperatures at or just over 100°F for weeks. The unusual weather resulted in some harvests, such as nearby Pomerol, being burned out completely. However, the grapes that survived the extreme heat (like the vineyards from northern Medoc) produced wines that may be some of the finest in recent Bordeaux history. Obtaining a bottle from this 2003 vintage can be expensive, but worth it!
The Bordeaux area is not only known for red wine; in fact, one of the sweetest wines in the world can be found on the south bank of the Garonne in the nearby Sauternessub-region. Often viewed elsewhere as a dessert wine because of its high sugar content (which many feel clash with a dessert's sweetness), Sauternes actually goes well with salty food, such as its classic partner fois gras and cheese. Semillon is the grape of choice today, which is essentially dehydrated to almost a raisin by noble rot (caused initially by the botrytis fungus), which concentrates the grape's sugars—this is why Sauternes is so sweet. The winery Chateau d'Yquem is widely agreed to be the best producer of Sauternes in France, and if you have $300 and a great deal of patience until a bottle becomes available, you can still obtain a 2003, which can best be described as a chewy liquid honey, but a d'Yquem Sauternes has been known to keep for nearly a century, so it may outlive its seekers!
Ten-thousand miles away from Bordeaux is Hunter Valley along the New South Wales coastline in eastern Australia. The valley's maritime climate is a product of the funnel created by mountains to the west and north, which coax cooling Pacific Ocean breezes up into a region that would otherwise be impossible for viticulture due to its humid subtropical temperatures. This was the climate that drew James Busby, the "Father of Australian Wine", to the region, who planted the first vineyards in the valley in the early 19th century.
About 75 miles north of Sydney along the eastern Australian coast, Hunter Valley is easily accessible via at least a dozen tour operators, most of which include stops at wildlife parks for petting koalas, kangaroos, or kookaburras. A popular stop along the way is Wollombi Tavern, where you can buy a jug of Dr. Jurd's Jungle Juice. An admixture of port, brandy, wine, the concoction was invented out of necessity (and a bit of clever marketing) after the tavern's owner, Mel Jurd, needed a proprietary product to draw patrons to his newly built wine saloon after a fire. The tavern is a great example of Australian hospitality and storytelling.
Within the valley proper, the region's 150 wineries grow Shiraz and Chardonnay, but are known primarily for their Semillon production, which is grown on the valley's sandy alluvial flats. The grape yields a wine name that some view with incredulity: Hunter Valley Riesling. If the name itself isn't dissonant enough–Semillon and Riesling are two different grapes—the wine's character confirms its status as one of the most interesting wines in the world. This is because the unique climate is able to encourage the Semillon—known for being a low-acid grape—to much higher acid levels than it should be able to achieve. The result mimics a Chardonnay that has been aged in oak for years. Near Cessnock in the Lower Hunter, this special "Riesling" can be tasted (and bought) at Mount Pleasant and Pepper Tree, and is best enjoyed with a heaping plate of Moreton Bay Bugs!
Russian River Valley
California's Russian River Valley is located in the heart of Sonoma County 60 miles north of San Francisco, one of the state’s many wine regions, reflective of a culture established in the 18th century by Spanish missionaries. The region earned American Viticulture Area status in 1983 and is today known as the place where wineries from other famous wine valleys seek their cool-climate grapes. The region's 70 wineries sit on a variety of soils, ranging from the sandstone "Goldridge" soil formed by volcanic ash over bedrock that supports Chardonnay production and the clayey "Sebastopol" soil that supports Pinot Noir, a grape that has been widely narrated elsewhere. During the summer, banks of fog caused by the region's proximity to the Pacific Ocean move in from the south and west, lowering daytime temperatures, but keeping them within optimal ranges for growing grapes.
Iron Horse is known worldwide for its famous Champagne, made exclusively from Chardonnay. Even in France, Iron Horse's champagne is regarded with respect, notably because of insistence upon the traditional method (used in France's Champagne region itself) where only the best juice from a gentle press of the grapes is used, known as cuvée. It stands to reason, then, why Iron Horse's Wedding Cuv
ée is a popular beverage for celebrating the tying of many knots.
Old-vine Zinfandel is another popular attraction for those visiting the valley. Harvest Moon Estate, tucked away off the Olivet Road, delivers on this promise with a late-harvest Zinfandel that is balanced, which is not usually the case with sweet dessert wines.
Each March, central California wine enthusiasts flock to Sonoma County to enjoy Barrel Tasting weekend, which allows you to purchase futures on many winery's barrel samples at a discount. A year or so later, you can come back and pick up your bottled wine. Healdsburg along Route 101 is a popular base (as is the more remote Guerneville nestled right next to the Russian River itself) for exploring the area and enjoying a Barrel Tasting, which usually involves over 60 wineries. Most offer food—though the event is not a food pairing event, which is usually held at the beginning of November—but all offer tastings of wine whether from the barrel or the bottle. Limo service or Uber is strongly recommended!
Along the Russian River itself, Sophie's Cellar in Duncans Mills is a great place to stop and enjoy both the surrounding scenery as well as the expertise of its proprietor, who has a covered deck set up outside (with attendant friendly garter snakes beneath) for enjoying a flight of wine with cheese, prosciutto, and crackers to help determine which bottle to buy from his extensive collection. It's actually a perfect spot to stop before visiting a winery because you can pick up the terminology and concept you'll later encounter at a tasting. Finally, at the River's End restaurant in Jenner, you can enjoy a sip of your favorite vintage during a sunset meal overlooking the Pacific; a perfect way to enjoy one of California's finest wine regions.
Like what you see? Find all of the Anderson Design Group wine designs + 1,700 more original vintage travel designs @ adgstore.com. Shop for hand-illustrated travel posters, postcards, notecards, metal signs, coffee table books, and more. All created and printed in the USA.