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The 10 Best Wine Regions You've Never Heard Of

By Andrea Minarcek
October 3, 2012
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njk1951/myBudgetTravel

Travel writer Stefani Jackenthal spent the past year exploring wine regions around the country for her new book Wanderlust Wining. She hit all the classic regions, of course—Napa, the Finger Lakes—but she also stumbled upon some lesser–known gems. Here are her favorite new discoveries: ten under–the–radar wine regions worth visiting. Get there before the crowds do!

1. Loudoun, VA

Where: Dubbed “D.C.’s Wine Country,” Loudoun is a quick 30–minute drive from the heart of our nation's capital.

Why go: This is the wine region for history buffs. Tasting rooms are sprinkled across historic landscapes, battle sites, and former president’s plantations.

Regional specialties: For reds, you'll find Merlot, Cabernet Sauvigon, and Cabernet Franc, along with a hefty amount of Petit Verdot—a varietal quickly gaining notoriety. For white wine lovers, there’s plenty of Viogner and Chardonnay.

Winery to try: Named the “Best Winery in Loudoun County” for eight consecutive years, the family–owned Tarara Vineyard and Winery (13648 Tarara Lane, Leesburg, VA) is situated on a meticulously manicured 475-acre farm paralleling the Potomac River. They craft crowd–pleasing Charval and Rose’ ($20.00 per bottle).

2. Mendocino, Calif.

Where: About 90 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino is sandwiched between the Mayacamas Mountains and the Coastal Mountain Range. It’s a remote, rugged landscape, with ancient redwood trees, lakes, and rivers.

Why go: Want to sip and save the Earth? This is your place. Mendocino may be the greenest wine region in the country, with nearly 30 percent of the 40–plus wineries here growing certified organic grapes. Many ahdere to biodynamic or fish–friendly farming methods, too.

Regional specialties: Mendocino’s cool climate is best for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. As for reds, look for Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Rhone blends.

Winery to try: True to Mendocino’s reputation as a green winery region, Parducci Wine Cellars was the first “carbon neutral winery” in the country (501 Parducci Road, Ukiah, Calif.). Inside its red–tile roofed tasting room, the redwood–barrel bar and brick walls are a great atmosphere in which to sample their Gold–medal winning Chardonnay and True Grit Petite Sirah (from $30 per bottle).

3. Palisade, CO

Where: Set on the western slope of the sunny Grand Valley region, Palisade is a 12–mile drive east of Grand Junction Airport on Interstate 70.

Why go: The weather here seems made for sipping: Palisade–Grand Mesa averages 290 days of sunshine annually.

Regional specialties: Over the last decade, the area has become known for its lively Riesling, sturdy Syrahs and spicy Cabernet Francs.

Winery to try: Look for the “Chardonnay Chicken” standing guard outside of Plum Creek Winery’s (3708 G Road, Palisade, CO) rustic tasting room. The seven–and–a–half–foot metal fowl is something of a local landmark and was created out of old farm equipment by local artist Lyle Nichols. Inside the bright, lofty barn–turned–tasting room, a redwood tasting bar takes center stage with cozy couches tucked in the corner and a quaint picnic area outback. The award–winning Riesling features peach and fig flavors, while the Merlot ($13 per bottle) is a dark-fruit delights. Winemaker Jenne Baldwin–Eaton is one of a handful of women winemakers in Colorado.

4. Hudson Valley, NY

Where: An hour and a half drive north of New York City, the Hudson River Valley is one of America’s oldest winemaking and grape–growing regions, with some of the country’s oldest vines.

Why go: Concord grapes make up the majority of the varietals harvested here, and most are used in grape juice, jellies, and jams. But the region's wine production has exploded in the last 20 years. There are now more than 25 operating wineries.

Regional specialties: Expect crisp whites, such as Sevyl Blanc, Riesling, and blends. The reds here vary from light and fruity Beajoulais–style to dark fruit Cabernet Sauvignons and Shiraz.

Winery to try: The tasting room and wine bar at Cascade Mountain Winery (835 Cascade Mountain Road, Amenia, NY) sells pate and cheese plates, which are ideal to nibble in their picnic area. Try their snappy Seyval Blanc before moving onto the Riesling, Old Vine Zinfandel ($14 per bottle) and Petite Syrah.

5. Shenandoah Valley, VA

Where: Shenandoah's wine country—or SWX, as it's known locally—starts about an hour’s drive west of Washington D.C. and spans from north of Winchester to south of Roanoke.

Why go: This is a hotspot for endorphin–junky oenophiles! The area has fantastic hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails, while the road cycling is fantastic along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, both in nearby Shenandoah Valley National Park. There is also the one hundred–million–year–old “Natural Bridge” to see, along with an assortment of caverns, such as the famous Luray Caverns, the largest in eastern America.

Regional specialties: The main focus here is on Viogner, Reisling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin, Petit Verdot, and fruit wines.

Winery to try: Nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Crooked Run Cellars’ (1685 Crooked Run Road, Mount Jackson, VA) tasting room is built in an old Pennsylvania Bank Barn dating back to the early 1900’s. The barn has a horseshoe pit, badminton nets, charcoal grills for use, and a quaint picnic area overlooking the estate's 120–acre property. House favorites include the Equitation—a Chianti–style red—Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay.

6. The Southern Region, Ore.

Where: The Southern Region is a rugged mountain valley that stretches 125 miles from south of Eugene to the California border. It's edged by the Cascade Mountain Range to the east and the Coast Range to the west.

Why go: Known for its thunderous waterfalls, covered bridges, diverse wildlife, and awesome overlooks, the Southern region also produces nearly 12 percent of Oregon's wines. Leafy vineyards pepper the green valley, along with majestic mountains, breathtaking volcanic formations, and the 7,000–year–old Crater Lake—the deepest in all of North America.

Regional specialties: Notably warmer than up north in the better known Willamette Valley, the southern region grows rich dark fruit with higher sugar levels and intense flavors. Big, bold beefy reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc do well here. However, there are cooler areas of this region in the higher sections, which produce floral Viogner, crisp Riesling, savory Gewurtzraminer and spicy Syrah.

Winery to try: A boutique family-run winery, J. Scott Cellars (tasting room located at “The Wine Place” on Hwy 101 & 4th street, Eugene, OR) produces hand–crafted, award–winning Viogner, Pinot Blanc ($15.00 per bottle), Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Syrah.

7. New Mexico Wine Country

Where: Who knew they make wine in Albuquerque? New Mexico is actually home to 42 wineries and tastings rooms, most located in the super sunny southern part of the state.

Why go: It's all about the bubbly! Sun–kissed days and cool nights in the high desert climate allows grapes to slowly ripen and chill–out at night to retain essential acids. The area produces some great sparkling wines.

Regional specialties: Along with sparklers, some of the area’s specialties include Chardonnay, Johannisburg Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Winery to try: Established in 1983, Gruet Winery (8400 Pan American Freeway N.E., Albuquerque, NM) was founded by brother and sister duo Nathalie and Laurent Gruet, who are sparkling–wine specialists and originally from the Champagne region of France. Their high–end vintage and reserve bubbly wines will put a dent in the bank, but many of their award–winning non–vintage sparklers like Brut, Rose, and Blanc Noir ($13.75) sell for under $20 and are available at stores and restaurants across the country. They also make terrific Chardonnay, Pinot Noir ($11.00) and Syrah.

8. Wisconsin Wine Country

Where: The Badger State has five diverse wine regions, with 36 wineries across the state. The regions include Northwood in the north, the semi-central Fox Valley, Door County along the east coast, Driftless in the southwest, and Glacial Hill in the southeast.

Why go: Wisconsin winemaking reaches back to the early 1840s, when Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant, established a vineyard and winery overlooking the Wisconsin River. Most tasting rooms are open daily and—not surprisingly—serve local cheese to pair with their wines.

Regional specialties: Many Wisconsin wineries produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Domaine du Sac, a bright Beaujolais–style red.

Winery to try: Wollersheim Winery (7876 State Road 188, Prairie du Sac, WI), in Sauk City, is nestled in the hillside overlooking the Wisconsin River. The fun, friendly tasting room is terrific for swirling, sniffing and sipping Chardonnay, Domaine du Sac ($12.00 per bottle), Prairie Sunburst Red, and Domaine Reserve ($20.00 per bottle).

9. Missouri Wine Country

Where: With over 100 wineries, Missouri wine country is broken into five separate corridors: the Hermann Wine Trail, the Route Du Vin, the Missouri Weinstrasse, the Missouri River Wine Trail, and the Ozark Mountain Wine Trail.

Why go: This is where it all began. Missouri winemaking dates back to the late–1830's, when German settlers arrived and planted grape vines in the town of Hermann, on the flanks of the Missouri River. That makes it the oldest wine region in the country.

Regional specialties: Some of the area’s standouts whites include Chardonnay and sparkling wines. In red, look for the rich, robust, rustic Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot ($39.00 per bottle).

Winery to try: Mount Pleasant Winery (3125 Green Mountain Drive,Branson, MO) is one of the oldest and largest in the state, with over 150 years of winemaking experience. They offer classes, “bottle your own dessert wine” clinics, and daily tastings of their Bethelem Valley Chardonel, Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, and Bethlem Valley Norton ($28 per bottle).

10. Mason-Dixon Wine Trail, York, Penn.

Where: This tasting trail winds through 14 family–owned wineries, from the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania to just south of the Mason–Dixon Line in Maryland.

Why go: At these warm and friendly boutique tasting rooms, the winemaker is often on–hand to answer questions and discuss wines.

Notable wines: Look for Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and fruit wines.

Winery to try: Founded in 1975, Naylor Wine Cellars (4069 Vineyard RoadStewartstown, PA) is the oldest winery in York County. With 35 acres of grapes, their award–winning Intimacy ice wine ($30 per bottle) is a crowd–pleaser as is the Vidal Perfection, Blush, Cabernet Franc, and Chamborcin.

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