When it comes to wine-themed tourism, certain destinations come to mind immediately: France's Rhone Valley, Australia's Yarra Valley, California's Napa Valley. But great wines are also made where you may least expect them. Here's the lowdown on wine production in five unexpected destinations, many of which are already popular among tourists for other reasons.
Known abroad for its craft beers, the European nation also produces quality wines. Found in both Wallonia and Flanders, the country's vineyards cover a total area of 370 acres and are owned by around 90 winemakers, most of whom are Flemish. Belgium produces around 500,000 bottles of wine per year using up to 34 different grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.
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Reds account for just 20 percent of the country's total production, and the white wine production consists of around half still, half sparkling. For a taste of Belgian bubbly, look for the "Vlaamse Mousserende Kwaliteitswijn" label. A tour of Belgian wine country might start with a trip to Genoels-Elderen, the country's largest winery, which spans 54 acres.
Italy, Spain and France are not the only Mediterranean countries with long and rich winemaking traditions. In fact, the land of the cedars is thought to be one of the oldest wine production sites on the planet. Tourists will find several scenic vineyards in the Bekaa Plain to the east, close to the Syrian and Israeli borders. In recent years, the region's producers have been busy restoring their vines to health in the aftermath of various conflicts.
The influence of French winemaking, and particularly of the Bordeaux region, is clearly felt among Lebanese producers, with a focus on growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes. The country also boasts its own indigenous varieties, such as Obeideh and Merwah, which are slowly beginning to make a comeback. Newcomers to Lebanese wine can start by getting to know Château Ksara, Lebanon's oldest winery, which was founded by Jesuits in 1857. Its 6,670 acres of vineyards enjoy close to 300 days of sunlight annually and relatively stable temperatures thanks to the nearby sea.
Once best known internationally as the site of devastating famine and other humanitarian disasters, Ethiopia has since acquired a different image abroad thanks to its rich cuisine and culture. Now the country's wines are also making their way around the globe.
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It may come as a surprise, but certain grapes actually thrive in the arid West African climate. The soil is sandy and the rainy season is short, at least at the location chosen by the French wine company Castel Group for its first production site in the country, in Ziway.The relatively new vineyard will launch to market its first wines this year, primarily to customers abroad. Around 1.2 million bottles will be produced and sold under two different brands: the Rift Valley line of red and white varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay), and the Acacia blended wine.
Rice isn't the only crop cultivated in the land of smiles. When tending to their vines in northeast Thailand's Loei region, growers must contend with a volatile and particularly rainy climate. But the site also has its advantages for grape growers, namely plenty of sunshine and warm summers. Travelers will also find grapes growing in the regions to the east of Bangkok and in the Chao Phraya delta.
The varieties grown include Syrah and Chenin Blanc as well as indigenous grapes such as Malaga and Pokdum. An introduction to Thai wines might begin at the Château de Loei, which planted its first vines in 1991 in northeast Thailand at 2000 feet above sea level.
While Japanese whisky and sake are well-known among spirits connoisseurs, few oenophiles know that the land of the rising sun also produces Western-style vintages. And not just since yesterday. Since around 1850, Japanese producers have developed growing methods to cope with local weather conditions in the region of Yamanashi, at the foot of the famed Mount Fuji.
Here, the climate is warm and the summers are wet. Like their French counterparts, Japanese winemakers often face mildew problems due to excess rain, which can make the vines susceptible to disease. The moderate amount of sunshine means that the grapes are not too sweet and produce wines with lower alcohol content. There are around 56,800 acres of vineyards, but only 8 percent of these are dedicated to wine production. Among Japan's local grape varieties is Koshu, a large red grape used to make white wines that pair nicely with Asian cuisine, particularly with sweet dishes. Japanese producers also make red wines thanks to the Muscat Bailey A grape, another local variety.