Photo: San Sharma
1. New Orleans, USA
Although not located in the proximity to wine country like many of the other entries on this list, New Orleans has some of the best wine bars in the country. Maybe it’s because of its French and Spanish heritage, but New Orleans has always been a city that celebrates great food, and good wine is just another part of that culture. NOLA celebrates fine dining in a unique way that is not seen in other cities of the South.
The wine bars in New Orleans are neighborhood spots where locals gather for a bite and a glass. Although there are no wines actually produced in New Orleans, there are two local winemakers of note here, and you should try these if you see them on your restaurant or wine bar list. The first is Dr. James Moises, who owns Moises Wines. He produces a very elegant Oregon Pinot Noir that goes great with the creole cuisine of New Orleans. The second is Vending Machine Winery, another New Orleans-owned winery. Their wines are produced in Napa but inspired by New Orleans. Try Crooked Mayor, their cabernet sauvignon, and Horror Show, their red blend.
You can find both of these wines at one of my favorite wine bars in the city, Swirl. Swirl is an unpretentious wine bar/wine shop in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood, where you can have a glass or just buy some bottles to take home. There’s always something interesting to taste here, and the staff is helpful and knowledgeable.
On the other end of the spectrum, located in the Central Business District, you’ll find WINO (or The Wine Institute of New Orleans), where you can sample over 100 wines from around the world by the ounce. And if you happen to be in French Quarter with some time to kill before your dinner reservation, Patrick’s Bar Vin is the place to go for a glass of champagne. They offer 8 different champagnes by the glass here, along with a broad selection of still wines from around the world. The bar, located inside the Hotel Mazarin and furnished with plush couches and chairs, is elegant and comfortable.
2. Bordeaux, France
Bordeaux, located in Southwestern France, is the hub of the famed wine-growing region of the same name. Bordeaux is a much smaller city than Paris, but just as beautiful. In fact, a large portion of the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. If you are looking to buy wine, there are several great shops in the city. Bordeaux Magnum, L’Intendant Grands Vins de Bordeaux, and Bordeaux Max are just three suggestions.
For those wanting to learn about wine, the Ecole du Vin offers wine-tasting courses, both a two-hour introductory course for beginners and some more intensive multi-day courses designed for wine professionals. The full-bodied red wines of Bordeaux are best served with food, and the Garopapilles restaurant in Bordeaux does a wine paired dinner that will let you enjoy them to the fullest.
Bordeaux is a great base for exploring the surrounding wine country, but don’t just show up at the nearest Chateau expecting a tasting. Most of the wineries aren’t open to the public, and those that are, require an appointment. And if you are looking for access to First Growth estates, make sure you arrange a knowledgeable guide in advance who has the connections to get you in.
3. Napa, USA
Located at the foot of the beautiful Napa Valley, and home of some of the world’s most sought-after wines, the City of Napa is a great place go on a wine journey. The downtown area of the city, with buildings dating from the late 1800s, offers numerous wine shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. You can start your day with breakfast at the Model Bakery in the Oxbow Public Market. Then just wander around the market to sample some local cheeses and products before venturing down Main Street into Back Room Wines, a wine shop specializing in small production artisan wines that are hard to get anywhere else — like Scholium Project and August West. Back Room also offers tastings and cheese plates and is a great place to go to discover wines that you may not be able to find back home.
There are also at least 10 winery-sponsored tasting rooms in the downtown area of Napa, all within walking distance of each other. Of course, all that wine tasting will work up an appetite and the city has plenty of dining options, both casual and fine-dining establishments. One of my favorite casual spots is the Bounty Hunter, where they pair hard-to-find wines with barbecue. Their wine list changes frequently, but their staff is always helpful with pairing suggestions. If you’re looking for a challenge, look on the menu board for their unofficial blind tasting challenge, where they pour you a mystery wine and if you can identify it, you get a free glass. For a more elegant dining option, try the Michelin-starred La Toque.
4. Yountville, USA
Take Highway 29 north from Napa, and you’ll end up in Yountville, a little gem of a city tucked into the heart of the Napa Valley. Yountville is home to some of the finest restaurants in the entire area and is actually called the “Culinary Capital of the Napa Valley.” It has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in North America, three stars for French Laundry and one star for Bouchon. Within Yountville, there are 14 tasting rooms where you can sample the best offerings of many of Napa’s wineries. For example, Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley pours wines from more than a dozen local boutique wineries. Others not to miss include Domaine Chandon, Girard, Hope and Grace, and Priest Ranch.
5. Reims, France
Located only a 35-minute train ride from Paris, Reims is a charming escape into the heart of Champagne. If you like sparkling wine, this is the place for you. Reims is home to 10 of the world’s great champagne houses, including Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart, and Taittinger. The champagne houses offer tasting experiences ranging from a simple sampling of wines to four-course dinners down in their caves, where each course is paired with a different cuvee of their champagne. Also near Reims is one of the most unique wine bars I’ve ever visited, The Perching Bar, where you climb a rope bridge into a tree house that serves only champagne.
6. Beaune, France
Located within the Burgundy wine region in France is the charming walled town of Beaune. Beaune is surrounded by the vineyards of the famous Cote d’Or appellation, famous for its Pinot Noir-based wines. Every November, the town is filled with wine lovers, professionals, and connoisseurs for the annual Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction. The rest of the year, Beaune offers numerous opportunities for wine lovers to taste and enjoy the wines of the region.
Although you should explore the surrounding wine country on your visit, the town of Beaune itself offers several wine-tasting rooms where you can sample the best wines from the region. Notable ones include Maison Bouchard Ainé & Fils and the Marche aux Vins. This town caters to wine lovers and a quick stroll will yield numerous cafes and shops where you can indulge your wine habit. Before you leave, don’t miss a taste of a kir royale, a cocktail made with crème de cassis and local white wine, Aligote.
7. Paris, France
Is there a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris with a cheese plate and a glass of Rose? In Paris, wine is just part of everyday life and Parisians drink wine at lunch and dinner. On my last visit, I discovered a few interesting wine bars. My favorite is Le Garde Robe, with several locations in Paris. They serve small plates of cheese and charcuterie and specialize in natural wines. Another option is Willi’s Wine Bar, a casual place to taste hand-selected wines that you won’t find on a lot of wine lists. But Paris has any number of cafes hidden down small narrow streets where you can find a great meal and a bottle of Burgundy, and part of the fun is discovering them on your own.
8. Montalcino, Italy
Montalcino is a medieval hill town located in the heart of the Val d’Orcia wine region and is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino. Every February the town hosts its annual Brunello festival, which celebrates the release of new vintages onto the market. The cafes and restaurants offer opportunities to sample the Brunello wine, but a visit to the area is incomplete without a visit to one or two wineries.
For a tasting with lunch, I recommend a visit to the Castello Banfi, where you can enjoy a five-course wine-paired lunch before touring the winery’s state-of-the-art facility. Contrast this with a visit to the smaller winery Poggio Rubino, where the winemaker will take you on a walk through the grounds and let you smell the terroir that goes into his elegant Brunello.
9. Barolo, Italy
Nestled in the vineyard-covered hills of Piedmont is one of the most charming wine towns in Italy, Barolo. Barolo is home to what some in Italy refer to as the King of Wines, a powerful and elegant red wine crafted from the Nebbiolo grapes that grow here. The town of Barolo itself is a small hilltop village crowned by Castello Falleti. Within the castle, you will find the Enoteca Regionale, where you can buy and taste Barolo wines from the best wine producers in the region. Walking down the hill into the center of town you will find cafes and shops and numerous opportunities to sample the wines. I also highly recommend a stop at Marchesi di Barolo’s tasting room for samples of their current vintage and a great selection of wines for purchase.