Travelers often play favorites, returning to cherished destinations time and again.
For people focused on wine, however, there are plenty of places to explore, especially as destinations reopen to vaccinated travelers. Those who want to avoid crowds might consider these five alternatives to Western European wine vacations.
“Riding a donkey with grape baskets during harvest is one of my first recollections of my grandfather’s small vineyard,” says Mirena Bagur, cofounder of online retailer Croatian Premium Wine.
In the last decade, U.S. travel to Croatia grew by leaps and bounds, especially in conjunction with HBO’s blockbuster series Game of Thrones, parts of which were filmed in Dubrovnik. The country’s tourism board says that accommodation capacity doubled since 2012.
“Tourism is a key industry for Croatia, and its wine history spans millennia,” says Bagur. “It was just a question of time when the two would combine.”
Plus, Croatian wines are increasingly available. According to the Croatian Bureau of Statistics, exports of the country’s wine to the U.S. have grown from about 1.3 million bottles to approximately 1.7 million bottles from 2013–2020.
“It is significant, however, that while the growth in quantity is at around 30%, the growth of value has increased to about 65%, which shows a significant emphasis on exporting premium Croatian wines to the U.S.,” says Bagur. “This is not surprising, given that more U.S. citizens are traveling to Croatia and learning about the wines and then searching for them when they get home.”
Croatia has 130 indigenous grapes, mostly from Dalmatia and its islands. White grapes Malvazija Istriana or Malvazija Istarska and Pošip, and red grape Plavac Mali, have become regional flagships.
Istria, which borders Italy, shares its food and aesthetic traditions. From the restaurants in Rovinj to the wineries in the hills, everyone has upped their “oeno-gastro offerings,” says Bagur, as they’ve combined specialties like truffles with Malvazija Istriana. Kabola combines modern architecture in ancient hills, and family-owned Ritoša Winery in Poreč sits near the Eurphrasian Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Southern Dalmatia lies Croatia’s newest appellation, Komarna. On the limestone hills that face the sea, wineries like Terra Madre Winery farm organically. Rizman Winery has a small gourmet restaurant with sweeping views of the Adriatic.
Dalmatia’s famous walled city, Dubrovnik, is near the Pelješac Peninsula. Here, wineries make tannic, powerful reds from Plavac Mali, a relative of Zinfandel. Citrus-scented Pošip, an indigenous white grape, thrives on nearby islands Korčula and Hvar.
Sofia Perpera, oenologist and director of the marketing board for Wines of Greece, says Nemea and Thessaloniki should be on any wine lover’s itinerary. Greece’s largest red wine-producing region, Nemea is home to the Agiorgitiko grape, used to make fresh reds and rosés as well as complex, ageworthy wines.
The historic seaport village of Nafplion provides a picturesque base from which to taste the popular aromatic white grape Moschofilero in the appellation and ancient city of Mantinia, 45 minutes away. For mythology buffs, Hercules slayed the Lion of Nemea near the Temple of Zeus, two hours west of Mantinia.
Thessaloniki, a seaport in northern Greece, has ancient wine history that spans multiple cultures, says Perpera. Top wineries and the country’s best wine museum are in the village of Epanomi, 45 minutes east of Thessaloniki.
Winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou of Ktima Gerovassiliou is largely credited with reviving the white grape Malagousia, which spurred plantings across the country. The Gerovassiliou Wine Museum displays a collection of 1,500 wine openers, which Vangelis started collecting in the 1980s.
Ninety minutes west of Thessaloniki, Naoussa prides itself on red grape Xinomavro. Attractions along the way include the tomb of King Phillip, father of Alexander the Great. It’s considered one of the most exciting excavations in Greece.
For another perspective on Xinomavro, head to up-and-coming region Amyndeon. Perpera recommends a stop in nearby Nympheo, a traditional village that embodies “simpler times,” she says.
The food and wine scene, combined with Minoan ruins like Knossos, thought to be Europe’s oldest city and the island’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site, make this a standalone destination.
Anna Maria Kambourakis, who co-owns Chania Wine Tours with her husband, Vasili Kokologiannakis, loves Crete’s juxtaposition between old and new. She cites the 3,000-year-old wine press in Vathypetro, which is right down the street from “new, state of the art wineries.”
The island’s 11 indigenous varieties include Vidiano, a standout white wine grape native to Rethymno, and aromatic whites Muscat of Spina and Malvasia. Kambourakis likes red grape Liatiko for its elegance. Producers blend Kotsifali and Mandilari together for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wines of Peza.
Many producers also create natural and orange wines, which pay homage to the island’s historical production methods.
There’s a cluster of wineries in the Peza and Archanes regions, outside of capital city Heraklio. Lyrarakis Winery has an outdoor vine museum with local grapes, and Digenakis Winery has a new, art-filled tasting room.
Diamantakis and Paterianakis wineries have incredible views of the surrounding countryside, while a new museum at Titakis Winery shows the evolution of Cretan winemaking.
Around Chania lies the solar-powered Dourakis Winery, built on the side of a mountain, and Manousakis Winery, which also has a terrace restaurant that serves traditional Cretan dishes.
“For millennia, wine has been embedded in the Georgian lifestyle,” says Natia Khidasheli, copartner and manager of travel companies Sun Georgia Travel and Taste Georgia, and a wine guide for nearly a decade. “Any house, guesthouse or even touristic site can be considered a wine tourism destination.”
In Georgia, she says, wine tourism isn’t just about wine. It’s about the entire hospitality experience, with lots of good food and drink set against a striking, mountainous backdrop.
Georgia has more than 525 indigenous grape varieties. The most famous Kakhetian varieties are Saperavi, the country’s richest and the most full-bodied red, and Rkatsiteli, a popular white grape. In central Georgia, Chinuri and Tavkveri prevail. In the west, there are fresh, bright whites made from Tsolikouri, Tsitska and Krakhuna grapes.
Near the capital of Tbilisi lies Chardakhi, a village where Georgian wine industry icon Iago Bitarishvili treats visitors to a lunch of cheeses and dumplings. Overnight guests can experience the aristocratic lifestyle of 19th-century Georgia at Chateau Mukhrani.
In addition to the country’s best-known wine region, Kakheti, Khidasheli recommends a visit to the Imereti area of western Georgian, and specifically Baia Abuladze in the village Obcha.
“Not only are her wines fresh with typical Imeretian zest, but the incredible food is cooked by mom,” she says. Khidasheli also suggests Gaioz Sopromadze for great wine and “peak Imeretian cuisine” cooked by the winemaker’s wife. In the Samegrelo area, Oda Family Winery serves natural wines.
In the shadow of Mount Ararat, on a Biblical landscape, Armenia’s ancient winemaking culture flourishes anew. It’s said that the Great Flood swept Noah and his Ark into the Ararat Valley, where he settled with his family and planted the world’s first vineyard.
According to Ara Sarkissian of Storica Wines, a leading import, sales and marketing company for Armenian bottlings in North America, wine has played a role in Armenian culture for thousands of years. The country’s 400 indigenous grapes include the fruity, medium-bodied red Areni, and a citrus- and flower-scented white, Voskehat.
While in Armenia, Sarkissian recommends asking winery or wine bar staff to taste small-lot experiments, a trend among winemakers. In the capital city Yerevan, In Vino, a wine bar that opened in 2012, inspired a row of restaurants along Saryan Street proud to serve domestic wines. Wineries have proliferated as well, as 25 facilities opened their doors across the country in 2018 alone.
An hour outside the capital, Van Ardi serves biodynamic wines amid picturesque hills. Plus, Sarkissian says, pretty much everywhere you turn in Armenia, you encounter an open-air museum “spanning the Roman, Medieval and Soviet eras.”
For wine history, head to Vayots Dzor, Armenia’s best-known wine region two hours from the capital and the site of the Areni-1 cave complex. It has the world’s oldest winemaking facility, which is more than 6,000 years old, with ancient fermentation vats, wine presses and storage jars.
The area’s most famous modern winery is Zorah, founded by Zorik Gharibian. He grew up in Italy and cultivated a successful career in fashion before returning to his homeland to prove its wine traditions could be beautifully revived.