Five Great Wine-Themed Drives: California, USA
Hit the road in California in the second of Falstaff's series of wine-themed road trips around the world.
1. Cape Town to Hermanus, South AfricaYou could drive from Cape Town to Hermanus in just an hour and a half, but you’d be missing some treats. First of all, be sure to make the most of the city’s many highlights, from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens to fine dining at La Colombe or a more casual dive into the region’s most exciting independent wine producers at downtown bar Publik.
Once you finally hit the road, take the N2 east out of town, wrestling with the temptation to make a short diversion into the wine nirvana that is Stellenbosch. Just a very short detour off the main road is Journey’s End, home to serious wine and, more quirkily, a fully functioning medieval trebuchet.
As you hit the road again, keep your eyes firmly on the road as you climb the dramatic bends over Sir Lowry’s Pass with its sweeping view over False Bay. On the other side lies Elgin, long famous for its apples but more recently for beautiful cool climate expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Paul Cluver is a major pioneer worth visiting here, or disappear truly off the beaten track with a visit to Iona, whose elegant wines are matched by dreamy views and eye-catching art.
It’s worth loitering in Bot River to taste the Beaumont wines, especially their old vine Chenin Blanc. From here you’re probably ready to head straight to Hermanus and a well-earned sundowner at Pear Tree Restaurant, looking out for Southern Right whales basking in Walker Bay.
The next day, fuelled by a leisurely brunch at The Gallery Café, head back west out of Hermanus and turn right up the Hemel en Aarde Valley. The name translates as “Heaven on Earth”, and it won’t take long to see why. Scenery aside, within the space of just a few kilometres this valley houses a cluster of South Africa’s most serious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialists. Visit pioneers such as Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson before continuing up the valley to newer stars including Newton Johnson and Ataraxia. Drink in the breath-taking view from the latter’s Wine Lounge, a converted chapel perched high on the hillside, and try not to think about heading home.
Route 101, California, USAForget Highway 66, for wine lovers it’s all about Route 101. Running from Los Angeles right up to Olympia in Washington State, Route 101’s Californian leg brings a steady procession of enticingly familiar names.
Escape LA and after an hour and a half’s drive north you’ll arrive in Santa Barbara, whose wines have gained a celebrity status to match many of the residents here thanks to the book and subsequent film, Sideways. One of the region’s top producers, Au Bon Climat, helpfully has a tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara, but after that warm up head into the rolling hills of Santa Ynez Valley. Pinot Noir may have put this place on the map, but don’t overlook the support acts: just try the Syrah from Piedrasassi or Qupé, also masters of Marsanne. Then there’s the new-wave Californian Chardonnay from Sandhi. Tuck into serious steak and more Pinot at legendary destination The Hitching Post in Buellton.
Another couple of hours up the 101 lies Paso Robles. There’s a mind-boggling array of grapes and blends here, but Cabernet blends, Rhône styles and that Californian specialism Zinfandel stand out from the crowd. Test that theory for yourself with visits to Daou, Tablas Creek – a joint venture with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel – and Turley respectively. Make sure you’re eating the finest local produce too by booking a table at popular farm-to-table restaurant Thomas Hill Organics.
Don’t be tempted to head straight to San Francisco from here. The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is a highlight of the Monterey County wine scene, home to exciting producers including Morgan and hotly sought after Pisoni Vineyards. Then there’s the Santa Cruz Mountains, where you’ll find Ridge’s famous Montebello estate. Many Sonoma-based big names also source fruit here: Kutch, Ghostwriter and Ceritas to name a few.
It’s never possible to visit every vineyard on your list, but San Francisco is a great place to fill in the gaps. Head to Arlequin Wines for one of the best curated selections in town. Either enjoy the bottle in the store’s hidden courtyard garden or check the corkage policy at your chosen restaurant – many places here charge a fairly modest fee.
At last, it’s time to head over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the wine paradise that is Sonoma. Base yourself in Healdsburg and eat at The Matheson, where you can wash down beautifully presented local produce with some of the 88 wines available by the glass. Producers such as Littorai, Hirsch and Williams-Selyem more than justify this region’s Pinot reputation, but Sonoma is no one-trick pony. Just try Zinfandel from Seghesio, Cabernet from Laurel Glen and the dazzling smorgasbord of varieties united under the Bedrock Wine Co label. Somehow still thirsty? The 101 will carry you on up to Mendocino for a hit of Italian-American wine heritage and a glass of fine fizz from Anderson Valley: the perfect end to an epic trip. Unless, of course, you decide to push on to Oregon...
3. Great Eastern Drive, Tasmania, AustraliaDon’t be tempted to squeeze this 220km trip along Tasmania’s glorious East Coast region into a single weekend. The journey between Orford in the south to St Helen’s at the northern end of the drive is littered with reasons to linger and explore, not least the invigorating array of cool climate wines made in this far flung corner of the world.
Australians are masters of the cellar door experience. Make sure you stop off at Spring Vale to taste their Pinot Noir, treat yourself to a thirst-quenching rosé or decadent iced Riesling at Milton Vineyard, and then of course there’s all the fizz that is Tasmania’s calling card. Make sure you don’t miss the wines of Freycinet Vineyards, the pioneers who founded this region’s first commercial winery back in 1979.
Tours here are by appointment only, but you can always take a deep dive into these wines and many other local stars at The Farm Shed in Bicheno. With 90 wines from 22 wineries listed, and 24 wines available to taste, this is a perfect spot to immerse yourself. Don’t forget to sample the state’s excellent gin and whisky too.
The Great Eastern Drive has no shortage of excellent accommodation options for every budget and inclination, but a highlight has to be the four star Freycinet Lodge, the only place it’s permitted to stay in the Freycinet National Park. The wine list here is a true celebration of Tasmanian wine, and a perfect match for the equally local treats on the menu.
The dramatic peaks of the Dolomites are captivating in winter, but come back in summer without your skis for a scenic vinous adventure. Right in the heart of Europe, this is a route that incorporates three regions – Veneto, Alto-Adige or Südtirol and Trentino – each with their own distinctive wines and charmingly impenetrable local dialects. There are so many routes to choose, but why not start not in the mountains but in the perpetually captivating city of Venice.
4. Dolomites, Italy
After getting your fix of Tintoretto, Vivaldi and Cicchetti, swap the vaporetto for a motor vehicle and head for the hills. First stop is the rolling landscape of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, home to the top DOCG Prosecco producers. Visit Ruggeri to remind yourself of the delightfully floral freshness that characterises the best examples of this sparkling style.
Head on north to the fashionable resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo with its suitably stylish array of restaurants. For a less flashy, more wine-centric dining experience dive into the Enoteca Cortina and explore its extensive selection of bottles, both from the local region and well beyond.
Take in the panoramic vistas that reward all those twisting alpine hairpin bends until you reach Bolzano, heart of the Alto Adige region. This is the place to immerse yourself in proper Pinot Grigio and mountain fresh Pinot Bianco, as well as local red specialities such as Lagrein and Teroldego. Cantine Tramin, J Hofstätter, Elena Walch and Foradori are just some of the top names for your itinerary.
Follow the road south into Trentino and the traditional method sparkling wines of Trentodoc. Ferrari is one of the most dynamic, high quality stars putting this lesser known appellation on the international wine map.
When was the last time you had some proper Valpolicella? Not that thin, acidic staple of your local Italian restaurant but the lively, sour cherry, mouth-watering style that typifies the finest examples. Head for the vineyards around Verona at the base of Lake Garda to reacquaint yourself with this style, not forgetting its richer ripasso, amarone and recioto siblings. Allegrini, Masi and Tenuta Sant’Antonio are all producers who’ll make sure your trip ends on a high to match all those dizzy mountain passes.
Is this 21st century France or a medieval embodiment of Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Sandwiched between the Vosges mountains and the river Rhine, Alsace has a heritage and geography that sets it apart from the rest of the country. Combine that with the region’s distinctive gastronomy and you have all the ingredients for a truly memorable road trip. The locals have even made it easy and created the 170km Route des Vins, running from Marlenheim near Strasbourg at its northern end via Colmar to the town of Mulhouse, close to the Swiss Border.
5. Route des Vins, Alsace, France
Vines line the whole length of this route, but it is the villages radiating out from Colmar that account for Alsace’s most famous names. Make sure to stop off at the Ribeauvillé tasting room of Trimbach, one of the region’s oldest producers and still at the top of its game. If your budget doesn’t stretch to Trimbach’s famous Clos St Hune then head down the road to the Cave de Hunawihr, an excellent co-operative whose large portfolio includes wines from the same grand cru Rosacker vineyard. It’s worth planning ahead and booking a tour at Hugel, another great name of Alsatian wine whose 16th century cellars lie in the heart of medieval Riquewihr.
Alsace’s low rainfall has helped this region become a world leader in biodynamic viticulture. Taste the results for yourself by booking an appointment at two major pioneers: Zind-Humbrecht in Turckheim and Josmeyer in neighbouring Wintzenheim. As you drive south, the terrain becomes ever steeper. Imagine roping yourself up to harvest from those terraces above Guebwiller and Thann, then take the easy option instead with a tasting at the cellars of nearby Schlumberger estate.
But Alsace isn’t just about wine. This region is also a major place of pilgrimage for food lovers, boasting one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Begin your trip in style with a night at Le Cerf, a 4* hotel and 1* Michelin restaurant in Marlenheim. After exploring Colmar, the spiritual and commercial hub of the Alsatian wine community, dine at Wistub Brenner for an atmospheric, authentic rendition of specialities including onion tart, choucroute and local Munster cheese, a star partner with Alsace’s heady Gewürztraminer.
If you still have space, celebrate the end of your trip with a final Michelin-starred feast at 18th century coaching inn Auberge St Laurent in Sierentz. Alternatively, you might want to mark the end of that gourmet marathon with a simple, cleansing beer. Thankfully it’s yet another local specialism. Eighth generation family business Meteor has a brewing heritage as proud as any of the winemakers here.