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Wine lovers head off the beaten path

As nearby as Long Island, as far afield as Portugal, Italy, or South America, tours of lesser-known wine regions offer breathtaking scenery and culture. Oh — and the food!

Dawn illuminates vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina (top photo); the clifftop Tuscan village of Pitigliano is known for its white wines (above right); the Bordeaux-inspired aging cellar is a highlight of Mission Hill Family Estate in British Columbia (right).

Dawn illuminates vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina.

White wine grapes cluster in Long Island’s North Fork, where vineyards and farmstands are plenty.

David Lyon

White wine grapes cluster in Long Island’s North Fork, where vineyards and farmstands are plenty.

Call it the Oenophile’s Theory of Vacation Planning: If you like sunshine, good weather, and great scenery, you’ll usually find all three in abundance wherever wine grapes are grown. And the happy corollary to the Oenophile’s Theory is that you’ll also find good food to accompany those local wines.

Some of our favorite wine regions are a little off the beaten path. Just a short ferry hop from New London, Conn., Long Island’s North Fork is one of North America’s most underappreciated wine regions. About three dozen operations along a 20-mile stretch of road range from casual farm wineries to heavyweights such as Lenz Winery in Peconic whose wines hold their own on the world stage.

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Following the Napa-Sonoma tourism model, many wineries have decks overlooking the vineyards where tasters can sip wine with a picnic lunch. Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck even installed an outdoor patio last year with a bar and grill to serve small bites to complement their wines. More traditional farms are still part of the North Fork agricultural mix; their farmstands proffer everything from spring strawberries and asparagus to summer sweet corn and tomatoes and autumn pumpkins.

And at Lavender by the Bay in East Marion, more than 60,000 of the colorful plants reach their peak bloom in July.

The North Fork didn’t get serious about wine until the 1980s — the same time that winemakers took a shine to the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont, which Thomas Jefferson pronounced “the Eden of the United States.” The gourmand-in-chief predicted the area would produce wines to rival Europe and finally Jefferson is looking prescient.

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After touring Monticello, Jefferson’s self-designed estate in Charlottesville, it’s fun to check out some of the 100 or so wineries in the area. A good bet is Barboursville Vineyards, established by an Italian winemaking family in the 1970s on land once deemed fit only for tobacco. The tasting room makes it easy to sample the range of wines, but since Barboursville is so successful with grapes rarely seen outside Italy, it’s even more satisfying to pair the wines with the Northern Italian cuisine in the winery’s Palladio restaurant. A scenic walk leads to the ruins of the estate of James Barbour, Virginia’s governor from 1811 to 1814. They are a state historic landmark — designed by Barbour’s friend Thomas Jefferson.

The clifftop village of Pitigliano, adjacent to the Morellino red wine district, is known for its white wines.

David Lyon

The clifftop Tuscan village of Pitigliano is known for its white wines.

The southwest corner of Tuscany has been producing wine since the Etruscans were in charge, but wine tourism is something of a newcomer. Only a two-hour drive from the Rome airport, the lower Maremma region has always been rich in enotecas (wine shops that also sell most of their wines by the glass), but only in the last few years have B&Bs and tasting rooms blossomed at the wineries.

This is the home of Morrelino di Scansano, a bright red wine with a finish that evokes red cherries, and the growers’ consortium office in Scansano provides maps and a list of hours for winery tastings. In Scansano itself, the Terenzi estate combines some of the best Morellino wines with an inn amid the vineyards.

Most lodgings encourage a visit to the nearby sulfur hot springs of Saturnia, a spa town since the Roman days. On the way, it’s worth detouring to the medieval fortress city of Pitigliano, known for excellent white wine, fruit conserves, and sausages. (The entire region is studded with Michelin-recommended country trattorias.) Driving the opposite direction leads to the ocean and the Parco dell’Uccellina nature preserve, where guided horseback tours of the trails and beaches are offered at the stables of Azienda Agricola Alberese.

The most improbable wine-growing landscape we’ve ever seen is Portugal’s Douro Valley, where vineyards cover every inch of steep, stony riverbanks that rise 1,000 feet on both sides of the river. Port has ruled the valley for more than 300 years, yet a generation of wine-growing mavericks who call themselves the Douro Boys have begun making some of the most complex and interesting table wines in Europe.

The Douro River cuts a blue ribbon through the mountains of northern Portugal. The rocky vineyards of the Douro Valley are some of the steepest wine country in the world.

David Lyon

The Douro River cuts a blue ribbon through the mountains of northern Portugal. The rocky vineyards of the Douro Valley are some of the steepest wine country in the world.

Good bases for touring are Pinhao, where even the train station is covered with tile murals of wine growing, or Peso da Regua, the capital of the Upper Douro. Both towns have port warehouses and tasting rooms for the surrounding vineyards, or “quintas.” And both are stop-offs for river tours aboard rabelos, the high-prowed vessels traditionally used to ferry pipes of port downriver.

Perhaps the most dramatic lodging is at Quinta do Vallado, run by one of the Douro Boys, where guests choose between an 18th-century manor house or the ultra-modern hotel building. The winery makes both table wines and port, and rooms come with bicycles and fishing gear.

Instead of a river, a narrow glacial lake lies at the bottom of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, an upstart wine region just north of the United States making its name with bracing rieslings and complex pinot noirs.

The Bordeaux-inspired aging cellar is a highlight of Mission Hill Family Estate in British Columbia.

David Lyon

The Bordeaux-inspired aging cellar is a highlight of Mission Hill Family Estate in British Columbia.

One of the destination wineries is Mission Hill, a stunning estate of Tuscan and modern architecture perched on a hilltop above the west side of the lake. It’s worth visiting for its open-air gourmet restaurant alone, but you might also catch a summer concert at its outdoor amphitheater. Just across the lake, a sculpture of a giant wine bottle pouring out of the sky marks the restaurant of Summerhill Pyramid Winery, which combines biodynamic winemaking and showmanship (wines are aged inside a giant pyramid to “amplify the spirit”). The valley stretches 60 miles southward from those leading properties, with more than 125 wineries and dozens of fruit farms that grow apples, peaches, cherries, and berries.

Sandy beaches line the southern tip of the lake in Osoyoos, where the Watermark Beach Resort makes a good base for touring. Irrigation makes the valley so lush that it’s hard to believe that the Okanagan is the northernmost reach of a desert clime.

Argentina’s Mendoza wine region is even drier, thanks to the rain shadow of the 20,000-foot peaks of the Andes Mountains. Relatively unexplored by North Americans, the greater Mendoza area is emerging as one of the southern hemisphere’s finest wine districts, producing towering reds, powerful whites, and seductive roses.

Because everything is grown on a flat plain with drip irrigation, wine estates tend to be huge and somewhat far apart, making it useful to hire a tour guide. Until this year, visiting the area usually meant staying in Mendoza city. But in January, a luxury hotel of 22 villas opened at the Vines of Mendoza resort in the Uco Valley. It provides a great base for exploring the Uco estates and hiking in the foothills of the Andes.

Even travelers who opt to sleep elsewhere should dine at the resort’s Siete Fuegos restaurant. The open-flame gaucho cuisine tastes even better as the sun sets in flamingo hues over the nearby Andes.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at harris.lyon@verizon.net or follow their culinary travels at www.HungryTravelers.com.
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