There are a few reasons why great wine regions and great beauty go hand in hand. First, wine lands tend to exist in wonderful climates, where the weather’s never too hot or too cold, and rain is infrequent. Second, grapevines love hills, slopes, valleys and mountains, the same compelling topography that make for an entertaining trip through the countryside. Third, the vineyards themselves offer breathtaking scenery, as their beautifully combed rows create arresting visual tension with the natural features of the land.
And, perhaps the most important part is when your tour’s driver stops the vehicle so you can concentrate on the local vintages and food. Great wine regions produce great wine. As a bonus, that also means they almost always produce good food, and many provide lodging and transportation, so you can enjoy the fruits of your travel. Thanks to the quality of tourists attracted by wine, in almost every wine region of note, there are small towns with restaurants offering food and drink at a level of sophistication well beyond what villages that tiny would otherwise offer.
It’s more than just great scenery, though. The level of wine produced must be world-class. Many scenic vineyards produce only middling wine. That backdrop can make for a nice visit, but the frisson is more stirring when you know the fields you’re passing might sell for a million dollars or more an acre, hallowed ground that produces some of the world’s most sought-after wines. For those who love delicious wines and gorgeous scenery enjoyed from the passenger seats, here are five of the greatest vineyard regions in the world. These are offered as places of unsurpassed beauty and thrilling topography that happen to pass through some of the most holy wine soils on the planet.
1. Route des Grands Crus, Burgundy, France
Arguably the greatest wine region in the world, Burgundy also has a lyric appeal few other places possess. Considering the staggering sums that wines like those produced by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti command, Burgundy has a surprisingly unassuming rustic and modest style. There are many great touring roads here, especially in the hautes côtes, the upper plateau of the region.
Head from Vezelay’s remarkable Romanesque basilica southeast toward Saulieu. Keep heading east through wonderful old towns and marvelous forested hillsides to Dijon. From Dijon, head south to Marsannay-la-Côte, the most northern of Burgundy’s great wine towns. Here, hop onto the tiny farm road, the Route des Grands Crus, a 60 km (37.3-mile) jaunt through the world’s greatest vineyards, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. You’ll pass Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée, two villages producing the most expensive Pinot Noir on the planet. South of Beaune, you’ll pass by Montrachet, which produces the world’s most expensive Chardonnay. Small variant roads pass through the vineyards themselves.
2. Mosel Valley, Germany
For spectacular vineyards, almost no place on Earth rivals Germany’s Mosel River Valley. In wine, it’s famous for the world’s longest-lived, saintly Riesling, made from vines that grow on pure slate cliffs. Some vineyards are so steep that workers are strapped in, almost rappelling down the sides to work the vines on cliffs that shoot hundreds and hundreds of feet up from the river valley.
Start in the ancient town of Koblenz, where the Mosel meets the mighty Rhine River, which you can follow south and west to Trier, the oldest city in Germany. Along the way, you’ll pass through epic vineyard sites like Bernkastel-Kues and also by a host of iconic medieval sites like the breathtaking castle of Eltz.
3. Silverado Trail, Napa Valley, California, United States
The winding Silverado Trail is like a path through a bucolic dream. Start just north of the town of Napa, and go north through America’s most famous wine regions—Stag’s Leap, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena—all the way to its northern terminus at Calistoga. All along the way, you’ll pass familiar wineries that produce the country’s most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignons, everything from Sinskey to Dalla Valle to Vine Cliff. You’re sure to see wonderfully contoured hillside vineyards, narrow stone bridges, and stands of California forest.
4. The Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Up in Italy’s northwest corner, poised just over an hour from the Italian Riviera to the south and the alpine foothills of Turin is the Langhe region, home to two of Italy’s most epic wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. These two reds made from the Nebbiolo grape are also the perfect accompaniment to the kinds of food you can find in every trattoria you’ll encounter on your tour: taglierini pasta served with sage and butter or a meat sauce or, better yet, in winter, you’ll see your pasta and everything else covered in a pile of shaved white truffles.
But truly spectacular are the vineyards and villages themselves. Here, the vine-covered hillsides are hardly rolling but are instead massively bounding and bulging from narrow interior valleys. Starting from the cobblestone streets of Barolo, you can go through Alba and its winding, shop-strewn old town up through the steep hillsides of Barbaresco, where a dish of pasta and a glass of red wine will be most satiating.
5. Douro River, Portugal
Perhaps the only wine scenery as spectacular as Germany’s Mosel Valley resides on the western edge of the continent in northern Portugal. Here, the densely packed hills of the town of Porto are followed by the spine-tingling curves and precipitous climbs of the meandering path of the Iberian Peninsula’s great Douro River.
Alongside the river are the sheer rock slopes out of which grow the sunbaked vines that produce Port, one of the world’s greatest and longest-lived sweet wines. You’ll pass through hundreds of vineyards, rustic stone villages and crumbling old villas. Sometimes you’ll see the river glinting thousands of feet below, and at other times, you’ll travel alongside it. Plan on finishing your night’s meal with a bottle of old Port and a cigar on the veranda in the cool air of night.