As a wine writer, I love visiting winemakers in their tasting rooms, sampling small-production rarities I can’t find at home. But that’s hardly the only benefit of traveling to great viticultural regions. Wine tastes better at its source, and vineyards are usually surrounded by breathtakingly lush scenery. Beyond that, a thriving wine industry tends to attract accomplished restaurateurs and, eventually, first-class hoteliers. "People around the world are increasingly passionate about wine and visiting wineries," says Valter Scarbolo, a winery owner, restaurateur, and enologist in Friuli, Italy. And one after another, the world’s wine-producing areas are getting ready to receive them.
These days, bodegas, châteaux, and cantine from Alsace to Tasmania stock T-shirts and corkscrews, open tasting rooms, and offer group tours. What I look for instead is authentic local cuisine; boutique inns and small hotels with crisp linens but also warm, personal service; and those delicious wines that I won’t encounter anywhere else. Here are five of the newest ready-for-prime-time wine regions from around the world, appellations and areas where these attributes have recently converged, along with inside recommendations for where to stay, what to eat, and what to taste once you get there.
Even Americans who love Italian wine have trouble getting their heads around this extreme northeastern region of hills and valleys, which spills so far around the corner of the Adriatic Sea that it actually overlaps into Slovenia. The names of the producers—Gravner, Jermann, Fantinel—hardly sound Italian. And unlike those of Tuscany, Sicily, and Piedmont, the best of the wines in Friuli are white.
What one finds upon visiting Friuli is undeniably Italy—old churches filled with frescoes; impeccably dressed businessmen with sweaters knotted loosely about their shoulders; pasta or risotto as part of every meal—but with a distinct Mitteleuropa air. The wineries are scattered among charming villages, each of which boasts its own highly touted restaurant.
La Frasca, Scarbolo’s casual restaurant outside Udine, is one of them. It serves simple but irresistible salumi and other local specialties and is the kind of place I’d eat at twice a week if I lived in the area. By day, Scarbolo makes a few thousand cases of serious wines, such as the nuanced Viotto Bianco, a blended white. And he’s not the only one pulling double duty. In Buttrio, winemaker Paolo Meroi spends his evenings cooking at Al Parco, a small restaurant tucked inside an old stone house with red shutters. Surrounded by an arc of tables, he grills meat over an open flame while his wife greets customers. I ate baby lamb chops accompanied by a Meroi Ros di Buri Merlot, of which 240 cases exist for all the world. Then Meroi took me out back, through a fragrant courtyard, to show off his tiny cellar.
Not everything in Friuli exists on such a small scale. Marco Felluga, one of the region’s major producers, has three wineries and two restaurants and is building an eight-room inn. The Fantinel family presides over an empire that includes three wineries, three prosciutto factories, 20 ham bars (one may come to Seattle later this year), a cooking school, and the Trieste soccer team. Yet its boutique winery, La Roncaia, set in the hills above Udine near the Austrian border, is as intimate a tasting experience as I’ve found in the region.
I especially enjoyed the wines of Livio Felluga. Now 92, he still oversees production at his modern winery of wood, stone, and glass, where you’ll sample the region’s most focused bottlings. But my most rewarding visit was to Vie di Romans, on the windswept Isonzo plain, where the wine world’s other Gallo family makes a sports car of a Chardonnay that could stand as an exemplar of judicious use of oak. Try it at the massive pine table in the tasting room, then ask for a taste of Flors di Uis, one of those perfectly peculiar wines that help define a region. A three-grape blend, it smells like Malvasia, tastes like Riesling, and could come from nowhere else but Friuli.