If asked to name North America’s top wine regions, you’d most likely cite Napa and Sonoma in California and perhaps New York’s Finger Lakes region. But it’s highly unlikely that Arizona’s Verde Valley, Virginia’s Loudon County or Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake would be on your radar. But vines in these locales have matured over the past 20 years, and their vintners are producing some delicious wines. As an added bonus, their varied settings—from the high desert to the salt-sprayed coast—provide scenic and sometimes historic backdrops for wine tasting. Here are six unsung wine regions worth a visit.
Verde Valley & Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona
Known more for saguaro cacti than Sauvignon Blanc, this desert landscape is nevertheless producing some pretty impressive wines, thanks to enterprising vintners and the hospitable terroir of the high desert in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley. A great tasting experience is available on the Verde Valley Wine Trail and in a pair of historic neighborhoods—Old Town Scottsdale and Old Town Cottonwood, which is about two hours north. Each has five tasting rooms. Top labels are Burning Tree Cellars, Arizona Stronghold, Paige Springs Cellars and Merkin Vineyards.
Insider tip: Visit in May or November/early December for the best weather. Where to stay: Plan a day trip to Cottonwood, and stay in Scottsdale with its vibrant restaurant, nightlife and arts scenes. Book a room at Hotel Valley Ho (HotelValleyHo.com), a restored midcentury-modern gem that’s walking distance from the Scottsdale Wine Trail. Rates from $150/night. Restaurants such as Postino and FnB have extensive Arizona wine offerings.
Loudoun County & Old Town Alexandria, Virginia
In northern Virginia, you can enjoy both the rich history and culinary scene in Old Town Alexandria, set on the Potomac River just outside Washington, DC, and the bucolic countryside of Loudoun County, where horse farms are interspersed with 40-plus wineries. Old Town makes an ideal base for wine-tasting day trips, since Loudoun is only about an hour away. Enjoy sips at sustainability-focused Sunset Hills Vineyard, where solar panels power a circa-1870 barn-turned-tasting-room serving a mix of Rosé, Cabernet Franc and red blends…Stone Tower Winery for panoramic views and premium wines such as Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot…Breaux Vineyards featuring 17 grape varietals and a New Orleans French Quarter–style tasting room…and Chrysalis Vineyards, home to the largest planting in the world of America’s oldest native grape—the Norton varietal. Back in Alexandria, stroll King Street, which has great restaurants—Vermilion for modern farm-to-table cuisine…and shops—The Hour for vintage barware and Wine Gallery 108 for more local wines to tote home.
Insider tip: Time your stay with the Spring or Fall Wine Festival, held in May and October at George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, to sample offerings from 20 Virginia wineries. Where to stay: Stay at Morrison House Alexandria, a 45-room property in Old Town where The Study features a few Virginia wines to complement an elevated small-plate dining menu. Rates from $165/night.
Texas Hill Country
Leave it to Texas to have a wine named Kick Butt Cab, which has won numerous awards for Texas Hills Vineyard in Johnson City. It’s just one of more than 50 vineyards on the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail, which stretches west from Austin and includes the historic, wine-centric town of Fredericksburg, home to about two dozen tasting rooms. Inviting wineries here include Becker Vineyards, known for its Malbec, Petite Sirah and award-winning Prairie Rotie…and Grape Creek Vineyards to enjoy Tuscany-inspired architecture and wood-fired pizza as you sip a Pinot Grigio or a red blend. Fredericksburg also is a hub for German cuisine, such as the Bavarian specialties served at Ausländer.
Insider tip: If you’re craving steak (this is Texas after all), book a table at Cabernet Grill to enjoy perfectly aged rib-eye or filet mignon—paired with top Texas reds. Where to stay: Hoffman Haus is a delightfully decorated bed-and-breakfast just a block from Fredericksburg’s Main Street. Rates from $155/night.
North Fork of Long Island
The Hamptons, on the South Fork of eastern Long Island, gets more hype, but the North Fork is for wine lovers. Located two hours from New York City, the region is home to more than 35 wineries and the North Fork Wine Trail (NorthForkWineTrail.org), which meanders from Jamesport through Mattituck, Cutchogue, Southold and Peconic to Greenport. The North Fork is known for its Merlot, but other top varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Leading vineyards include Bedell Cellars, Lenz Winery, Lieb Cellars, Osprey’s Dominion and Paumanok Vineyards. Restaurants specialize in locally sourced dining—from creamy seafood chowder and crispy fried clams at Braun’s Grill in Cutchogue to seasonally inspired menus at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold and creative seafood at Noah’s in Greenport.
Insider tip: Visit midweek from April to November to avoid traffic, although weekends are more festive (some wineries offer live music). You can also take the ferry from New London, Connecticut, to Orient Point, New York, and drive from there. Where to stay: It’s B&B-style at the farmhouse at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck. Rates from $269/night. Or stay on the water in Greenport at the 35-room Harborfront Inn. Rates from $199/night.
San Diego, California
Wine bars and tasting rooms have long proliferated in downtown San Diego, but 1870’s Gold Rush Julian probably isn’t on your radar. It’s home to several wine-tasting rooms and more than a half-dozen boutique wineries, but it is better known for the sugar rush created by apple pies served daily at the Julian Pie Company and Mom’s Pie House. This makes for a delicious day trip—it’s about 70 minutes from San Diego. Menghini Winery, located near Volcan Mountain, has a rustic tasting room for sampling its Syrah, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc. Nearby Volcan Mountain Winery is equally charming and offers tastes of Viognier, Sangiovese, Old Vine Zinfandel and more. And don’t miss Orfila Vineyards & Winery, known for its French and Italian varietals and set amid vine-covered hills in neighboring Escondido. Where to stay: Kimpton Hotel Palomar in San Diego, which offers a complimentary nightly wine hour. Rates from $178/night.
Toronto, with its international dining scene, is just to the north, and Niagara Falls is to the south, making the scenic slice of heaven known as Niagara-on-the-Lake, a convenient spot to enjoy both sightseeing and wine tasting. Here, you’ll find 20-plus wineries producing reds, whites and rosés—as well as the region’s unique specialty, ice wine. If you’ve never tasted ice wine, head to Inniskillin Wines, where a variety of tours and tasting options will introduce you to the nuances of these sweet and concentrated wines made from Riesling and Cabernet Franc grapes picked when the temperature sinks to -8°C (18°F) for long enough. Neighboring Riverview Cellars is known for its Gewürztraminer, Bordeaux-style reds and ice wines…Reif Estate Winery offers four-glass wine “flights” in its Sensory Wine Bar…and Peller Estates has gorgeous grounds and the 10Below Icewine Lounge. Insider tip: US dollars go further here, since the current exchange rate means about a 25% discount and the region’s Winemaker’s Selection Tasting Pass (CAD $25/US $19) lets you taste the winemaker’s selection at more than 20 wineries. Where to stay: 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa, a boutique property located in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s old town. Rates are from US$200/night.
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