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12 Lovely Small Towns in European Wine Country

By Sarah Bray

Sep 24, 2019

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Vacation among the vines at these small-in-size but big-on-wine destinations in France, Italy, Portugal, and beyond.

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What’s better than a perfect pour of vino? Enjoying it in a scenic wine-centric European town or village, where you’ll feel like you’ve wandered off the path just enough to have been let in on a wonderful secret. Hit any of these 12 small-scale spots for the best of the continent’s riches—history, art, food, local tradition, and, of course, the vineyard backdrops and nectar of the gods you need to truly satisfy your wine-fueled wanderlust. (Take note: Appointments when visiting European wineries are advised.)

Cassis

Provence, France

Steeply sloping vineyards dotted with bush vines trace the winding road down to this tiny French fishing village near Marseilles. Perched on a promontory between the turquoise Mediterranean and the iron-red Cap Canaille headland, Cassis’s scenery—including its dramatic calanques (coves)—has inspired bathers, painters, and luminaries for centuries.

What to Drink: There are only a small number of wineries within this petite wine region, but their bottles are greatly beloved by locals (and they pair perfectly with the fish-based regional specialty bouillabaisse). The white wines from these terraces are fresh, saline, and bright, and the rosés are as fruity and minerally as anything you might expect of Provence. Château de Fontcreuse is a local favorite, amply poured at the restaurants that line the colorful harbor, while Clos Sainte Magdeleine’s rosé and whites are best enjoyed at the property itself, which juts into the Bay of Cassis.

South of Lisbon, the historic town of Évora pairs wine production with sites of antiquity, including a 1st-century Roman temple.

Évora

Alentejo, Portugal

Under a two-hour drive south of Lisbon, the best base from which to explore the sunny and culture- and gastronomy-rich Alentejo region is Évora. This historic town boasts some of the oldest architectural sites on the Iberian peninsula—its 1st-century Roman temple and 13th-century cathedral are particular highlights. Don’t miss a tour of the local cork museum, and be sure to indulge your sweet tooth at one of the town’s many pastelarias (pastry shops).

What to Drink: Try FitaPreta Vinhos, an old monastery that’s been converted to a winery, which showcases some of the wide variety of native grapes grown throughout Portugal. About 40 minutes inland, Herdade do Esporão is one of the country’s leading innovators in wine production, featuring local grapes—pop in to taste fruity and bright white wines sourced from antão vaz, perrum, and roupeiro, and deep, bold red wines made from touriga nacional, aragonez, syrah, and trincadeira.

Mád

Tokaj, Hungary

Hungary’s Tokaj region, with its rolling hillsides covered with vines, is home to one of the most delicious sweet wines on the planet: tokaji. It’s made from the local white grapes furmint, hárslevelű, and muscat de lunel. (The area’s dry wines, sourced from the same grapes, stand out, as well.) The small village of Mád is a perfect hub for visiting the region, with its historic village center (home to a rare example of Hungarian synagogue architecture) and proximity to some of Tokaj’s best vineyards.

What to Drink: Taste tokaji at Oreg Király Dülö (Old King’s Vineyard), a centuries-old terraced vineyard in town, where you can learn more about the region’s vine-growing traditions. Royal Tokaji, with an eye toward the great winemaking history of Hungary, is another must visit; try its late harvest and limited “Essencia” wines, all traditional sweet wines. For a modern take, book a tasting at Lenkey for top-quality dry whites produced from grapes like the local furmint variety. Wrap up a day of tasting with a meal at Percze, with its innovative Hungarian cuisine using top local ingredients—best paired with tokaji, of course.

Medieval Montepulciano, in Tuscany, is known for its red wines, made from the sangiovese grape.

Montepulciano

Tuscany, Italy

Set atop a hillside in southeastern Tuscany, the medieval village of Montepulciano claims a premier location that’s been inhabited since Etruscan times. The walled settlement sits above the sweeping tracts of vineyards for its eponymous DOC Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, red wines made from the sangiovese grape. The streets of Montepulciano—artfully lit come evening time—teem with unique leather shops like Maledetti Toscani and enotecas (wine stores) like La Dolce Vita.

What to Drink: Poliziano and Avignonesi, open to visits by appointment, are the top Vino Nobile di Montepulcian producers of the region. La Grotta turns out excellent Tuscan fare like pappa al pomodoro (tomato-bread soup) and homemade pici (a type of hand-rolled spaghetti) in ragù, alongside regional wines, while the best wine list south of Siena is available at the casual Tuscan eatery La Botte Piena in the village of Montefollonico, a 10-minute drive away.

The microclimate of Lake Neusiedl, which Rust fronts, affords prime conditions for the region’s unique sweet wine production.

Rust

Burgenland, Austria

The Austrian town of Rust sits on the western shore of Lake Neusiedl, on the border of Austria and Hungary. This is one of the warmest parts of central Europe, with a temperate climate around the lake that helps to turn out the local sweet wine, called ausbruch. Only produced here, ausbruch is distinguished by its distinct marmalade character; the high level of sugars found in the grapes used are owed to the effects of the so-called “noble rot” botrytis (a type of fungus), which concentrates their sweetness on the vine ahead of harvesting. Indeed, the whole town was purpose built for the wine industry, and it maintains its original 18th-century character to this day. Between tastings, pick up a paddle for a kayak or paddleboard and go out on the lake, and grab your binoculars to see the town’s famed storks.

What to Drink: The Heidi Schröck winery offers a great introduction to what makes ausbruch so special, or sip it at the unassuming Seehotel’s restaurant, with its magnificent lakefront views. It also pairs well with the seasonal Austrian fare at Taubenkobel, with its focus on local ingredients, down to the herbs that grow on the lake’s shore.

Haro was the historic wine hub of the Rioja region of Spain, as evidenced by old, majestic cellars like this one at Lopez de Heredia.

Haro

Rioja, Spain

The historic center for the Rioja region’s wine trade, which boomed in the latter half of the 1800s, wine-obsessed Haro today still boasts a wide variety of tasting rooms for its white and red riojas from top regional producers. While the wine-transporting railroads that once ran here are no more, the town’s history as a railroad shipping hub remains in evidence today; for instance, in the cellars of some of Haro’s wineries, such as López de Heredia, the long-abandoned tracks are visible.

What to Drink: The Haro Station District—consisting of seven wineries, including López de Heredia and La Rioja Alta—forms the heart of the region’s production, each with tasting rooms open to the public. After your tastings, dine at the casual Restaurant Terete, known for its suckling lamb, which you can enjoy with a glass of local rioja, naturally.

Sancerre

Loire Valley, France

Home of the wine of the same appellation, the picturesque winemaking town of Sancerre is a two-hour drive from Paris. Start your Sancerre wine education at the engaging La Maison des Sancerre, an interpretive center where you’ll learn more about the area’s elegant sauvignon blancs and, increasingly, its affordable pinot noirs. A stroll along the cobblestones of the quiet medieval hilltop town rewards visitors with excellent views of the region’s rolling hillside and Loire River landscapes.

What to Drink: The town center is full of tasting rooms, with options like Cave Serge Laloue or Domaine Alphonse Mellot. Grab a bite at the bistro La Bouteille Rouge, where you can taste the local goat cheese crottin de chavignol, paired with sancerre, or at bar à vins newcomer Momento, with its creative French cuisine, excellent wine list, and vineyard views.

In Csopak, sample local wines at Murci, Hungary’s first natural wine bar.

Csopak

Balaton, Hungary

Located on Lake Balaton—central Europe’s largest lake—the village of Csopak offers appealing boardwalk-fronted beaches and proximity to excellent wineries. The grapes of this region might seem hard to pronounce—say hárslevelű (a full-bodied white) or olaszrizling (another regional white varietal) three times fast—but that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious.

What to Drink: St. Donat Estate would be a perfect place to start your Hungarian wine education; its refreshing, white, furmint grape–based wines offer great fruit, body, and acidity. Try its restaurant Marga Bisztró for Hungarian cuisine paired with scenic views of the lake. Murci, Hungary’s first natural wine bar, is well worth a visit, too, as is the Gilvesy winery, where you can sample a plethora of white wines made of olaszrizling, pinot gris, furmint, and sauvignon blanc, all grown on the same basalt soils.

The landscapes of Pinhão, in Portugal’s Douro Valley, are defined by hills and vine-covered terraces (like this view from the Quinta do Vallado winery).

Pinhão

Douro Valley, Portugal

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Pinhão is tucked into one of the bends of the winding Douro River, in the heart of port production territory and surrounded by steeply rising hillsides, with their vine-covered schist terraces. A stay at the Vintage House hotel is a must, its old-school elegance a perfect complement to the river snaking alongside it; or at least enjoy a glass of port in the atmospheric library bar. Nearby on the river harbor, you can join a sightseeing cruise or hire a kayak to explore the river’s bends up close.

What to Drink: Discover how the region’s classic fortified wine is made via the tasting room and tours at Pinhão winery Quinta do Bomfim. Or head 30 minutes west to Quinta do Vallado for the architectural experience of a winery that’s built from the same schist as the hillsides surrounding it. For a taste of the unfortified wines of the valley, make an appointment with Luis Seabra Vinhos (about 40 minutes away, in Vila Seca), a rising star in the wine world for its work with the native varieties of Portugal.

Oestrich-Winkel

Rheingau, Germany

Perched on the Rhine River, between the pretty river towns of Kiedrich and Geisenheim (the latter is home to one of Europe’s most important oenology universities), lesser-visited Oestrich-Winkel sits in the heart of wine country—yet it’s only a half-hour drive from Frankfurt’s airport. Central to many of the area’s vineyards, it’s also home to some historic sites (like the restored 18th-century aristocratic house, Brentanohaus), as well as to river-fronting hiking trails through the densely forested valley.

What to Drink: From Oestrich-Winkel, it’s a short hop to the Rheingau (15 minutes by car) and Nahe (40 minutes) wine regions, which are particularly known for their drier styles of riesling, including standard-bearing producers like Weingut Robert Weil (Rheingau) and Kruger-Rumpf (Nahe). A visit to Schloss Johannisburg, perched above the town itself, includes a tour of its 17th-century castle in addition to a winetasting. On Oestrich-Winkel’s outskirts, book a stay at the elegant Hotel Kroenenschlösschen—its cellars are some of the most impressive on the Rhine River, offering a selection of new and vintage pours, by the glass.

Hugging the hillsides of Mt. Etna, wineries abound in Linguaglossa; try the region’s volcanic reds and whites at spots like Tenuta di Fessina.

Linguaglossa

Sicily, Italy

On the volcanic hillsides of Mt. Etna, Linguaglossa is the first town on the Etna wine route; base your stay here to discover what makes this region’s volcanic reds and whites unique. The town’s name refers to the flows of lava that cut through the landscape (Linguaglossa is built atop one dating to the mid-16th century), and it’s characterized by its distinctive 17th-century architecture hewn from black lava rock. Companies like Alternativetna lead hikes up the volcano that leave from town, customized for all ability levels.

What to Drink: Fuel up on a pistachio granita—a specialty regional flavor—at the local coffee/sweets bar Wunderbar, then grab a pizza at Cave Ox (known for its deep and varied wine list) before hitting the wine trail. Try winery Tenuta di Fessina to taste Etna wines made of grapes like carricante, nerello cappuccio, or nerello mascalese, or for an in-depth wine tour, book an outing with Etna Wine School and dive deep into the effects of lavic soils and altitude on the wines.

France's historic Saint-Émilion claims a viticultural history dating to Roman times.

Saint-Émilion

Bordeaux, France

Vines were first planted here, on the banks of the Dordogne River, by the Romans; those vineyards, along with Saint-Émilion’s medieval hilltop setting, still dominate the landscape to this day. The town is protected by UNESCO for both its wine heritage and rich history, and its bell tower, in the main plaza, exhibits both: Climb to the top for sweeping vineyard views, then seek out the monolithic church that’s carved inside the rock at its base.

What to Drink: Today, just over 200 people live in the historic town center, but it’s a great spot to sample the plush merlot and cabernet franc blends for which the greater Bordeaux region is famous, grown on the limestone hills and gravelly plains that define Saint-Émilion’s terroir. Producers to look for include Château Ausone, Château Angélus, Château Cheval Blanc, Château-Figeac, and Chȃteau Quintus. Try iconic wine bar L’Envers du Décor, and taste a selection of wines at one of the many cavistes (wine shops) in town, such as La Grande Cave de Saint-Émilion.

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