When it comes to wine, choosing a locally produced bottle isn’t just a way to reduce its carbon footprint. It turns out that some of the world’s most dynamic wines don’t stray far from the vine. In fact, roadside bodegas and local restaurants are sometimes the only places to track down some of these eclectic varietals.
Americans get the best of everyone’s wine, but in other countries, more traditional wine-producing regions have developed their own local taste. And it makes the experience of traveling to a destination all the more worthwhile. “People who travel typically want to immerse themselves in as many different aspects of that area as possible, and wine is one way to do that,” says Travel + Leisure wine editor, Bruce Schoenfeld. “Some of these local varieties are really quirky and cool.”
Another benefit of sampling regional wines? They often come at bargain prices—if you know what you’re looking for.
One example is Spain’s aromatic white wine Verdejos, a local alternative to the country’s better-known export wine, Albariño. Albariño can be a pricey option, but locals—and travelers in the know—seek out Verdejo, a light-bodied varietal affordable enough for everyday consumption.
Finding great local wines doesn’t necessarily mean bringing your passport. Travelers to Seattle and Portland should keep an eye out for well-priced Merlot from Washington’s eastern wine regions. Boutique producers like Hightower and Januik don’t produce enough cases to place their bottles on big-city restaurant wine lists, but the locals are happy to keep it to themselves.
“California Merlots, which are the American reference point, are sort of dense and thick,” says Schoenfeld. “With Washington Merlots, the fruit is just bright.” They can even save you some money: while equivalent California Merlots are often priced well above $30, Januik’s Columbia Valley Merlot sells for $25 a bottle.
So whether you’re looking to discover some trattoria wines for your next Italian sojourn or searching for vintage steals for an upcoming cellar purchase, here are the can’t-miss bottles to try when traveling. —Nina Fedrizzi
Marlborough’s Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs are New Zealand’s export standards, but the wines of Martinborough are often more nuanced. Producers such as Palliser and Te Kairanga make expressive reds and whites, some served for around $25 a bottle at restaurants. And while Australia’s Barossa Valley Shiraz is known worldwide, those from the McLaren Vale region are often more balanced, more aromatic, and just as sturdy. Two names to know: Coriole for feminine, dressed-up wines, and Two Hands for pure power. —Bruce Schoenfeld
This country is known for its dessert wines: Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese that go for hundreds of dollars. But you’ll find the younger generation of Germans drinking more of the sharp, dry (trocken) Rieslings of the Rheingau and Rheinhessen from top-quality producers such as Schloss Johannisberg and Gunderloch. They’re affordable; have low alcohol content, so you can have a glass at lunch; and will complement anything you’re likely to be eating, even the experimental food of Berlin’s creative restaurant scene. —Bruce Schoenfeld
The funky, earthy, Grenache-based wines from the village appellations of the southern Rhône have always been appealing. Increased attention to vineyard practices and new wine-making techniques have raised the quality a notch higher, but prices remain low. Tardieu-Laurent is a négociant (meaning it buys grapes from many sources) that makes wines from throughout the Rhône Valley. Try the fruity red Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Les Becs Fins or the slightly pricier old-vine St.-Péray, Vacqueyras, and Gigondas from the eponymous villages. Look for the 2007 vintage, one of the best in years. —Bruce Schoenfeld
Torrontés grapes grow as high as 7,500 feet in the Argentine Andes, and the chilly nights make for a white wine that’s fresh and tangy. The Colomé, from Salta, is one of the most fascinatingly complex $15 options in the world, but the ubiquitous Alamos, from Mendoza, may be even more versatile. Chilean winemakers discovered Syrah a decade ago, and lately that country’s wine drinkers have fallen head over heels. The Matetic, from coastal San Antonio, tastes like earth and smoke; two years in the bottle will bring out the subtleties. —Bruce Schoenfeld
If you don’t consider Spain when thinking about white wines, you’re stuck in 1990. While the familiar Albariño can be an expensive proposition, Spaniards gravitate toward the light-bodied Verdejos from the northern appellation of Rueda, which are priced for daily consumption. They’re also—increasingly—terrific, especially when sourced from gnarled old vines. Try Angel Rodríguez’s Martínsancho, a versatile thirst-quencher that can be found at restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona for about $20. —Bruce Schoenfeld
Restaurants from Mendocino to Mission Beach will sell you cult Cabernets, renowned Bordeaux and Burgundies, and famous names from everywhere else. But the best choices come from just up the road—those venerable California producers that turn out drinkable wines one vintage after the next. Try Chateau St. Jean, a Sonoma County property with impressive continuity (only four winemakers in its 37-year history, two of whom are husband and wife) and a reliable stable, from easy-drinking Pinot Blanc to muscular Malbec.Washington
If Merlot strikes you as underwhelming (and overpriced), you haven’t tried one from Washington. The state’s eastern half may be the only area in North America where the varietal truly thrives. Boutique producers such as Hightower, Barrage, and Beresan typically make a few hundred cases of bright, fruity Merlot that never travel farther than Seattle or Portland. Or look for Januik’s raspberry-red Columbia Valley Merlot, which is often the best value in the house. —Bruce Schoenfeld
Tourists shop for Brunellos and Super-Tuscans, but locals order Morellino di Scansano. Made from a type of Sangiovese grown only on the last ridge of hills before the sea, it usually sells on Italian wine lists for less than $20. The maritime breezes keep it fresh, and the hot summer sun gets it ripe, typically with black cherry and blueberry flavors and enough tannin to stand up to robust food. This isn’t a wine for long aging, so choose a recent vintage—2007, even 2008—from a producer such as Fattoria Le Pupille. —Bruce Schoenfeld
When you’re juggling varietals, regions, and producers, vintages may be one variable too many. The good news: better wine-making techniques have made bad years almost extinct. Follow these tips and order like a pro.
Years to Know: In Bordeaux, 2000, 2003, and 2005 got the headlines, but seeking out 2001, 2002, and (especially) 2004 from top châteaux will get you a great bottle that’s ready to drink at sometimes half the price.
When Age Doesn’t Matter: For all but the most age-worthy white wines and pretty much all rosés, the rule is that the best vintage is the newest one.
Sweet Finish: With dessert wines, it’s the opposite direction. Anything with a little age will have its edges rounded, its angles softened, and a mellow sweetness.
Finding Value: In Italy’s Piedmont and Spain’s Rioja regions, difficult years like 2002 mean that there aren’t always enough superior grapes to make reserve and single-vineyard bottlings, so many wineries include their superior grapes in basic releases, making them even better.
Lesser Knowns: If you’re in doubt, sommeliers are often eager to recommend wines from years that didn’t get the hype. (They’re known as restaurant vintages, after all.) —Bruce Schoenfeld