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A wine geek's ultimate road trip

A wine trip through Germany includes stops at historic wineries, such as Maximin GrĂ½nhaus near the town of Trier.

I blame it on the fact that I grew up in Texas. By which I mean, at some point it occurred to me that driving from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of France’s greatest wine regions, to Piedmont, one of Italy’s greatest wine regions, would be only a slightly longer trip than driving from Houston to Dallas. (Not to mention that at the end I’d be in Piedmont, a more appealing place than Dallas.) After that, the mental dominoes fell into place: What if I flew to Europe and hit the road, visiting five iconic wineries, in five great wine regions, in five different countries, in five days: the Priorat in Spain, Châteauneuf, Piedmont, Germany’s Mosel and finally Austria’s Wachau. I’d visit five legendary wineries, and I’d also have the pleasure of founding an entirely new pursuit — extreme wine tourism — in the process.

Slideshow: America’s best road trips

Mile 0: Spain

My starting point was Alvaro Palacios’eponymous winery in Spain’s Priorat. The Priorat, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Barcelona, is a steep, severe place that produces some of Spain’s most sought-after red wines. People have grown grapes here for hundreds of years, but the region only recently came to prominence.

Palacios was one of the small group of winemakers that recognized the Priorat’s potential back in the 1980s, and he is now its most famous producer. His top wine, one of Spain’s greatest reds, is called L’Ermita. The grapes come from a single, old, steep vineyard in the shadow of a 16th-century hermitage (it’s still in use; apparently, there’s even a waiting list to be the resident hermit). L’Ermita is a stunning expression of Grenache, a grape that reaches a pinnacle in the Priorat. “It’s one of the few grapes that can transform heat and aridity into something vibrant and refreshing,” Palacios said.

As I walked that morning in L’Ermita’s vineyard, there was certainly no lack of heat and aridity. With each step, I crunched through gravelly schist, kicking up red and brown dust; the sun was fierce. Palacios farms L’Ermita with mules, as the slope is too steep for tractors. As I hiked back up the slope, sweating, I felt fortunate not to have their job.

Palacios’ winery is a spare, modernist structure, its big glass windows looking past the town of Gratallops to hills scored by the terraces of old vineyards. We tasted a number of his wines, ending with the 2009 and 2010 L’Ermitas, which cost roughly $800 a bottle. The ’09, from a warm year, was a study in power, with immense tannins under its dark fruit; the ’10 was even better — extravagantly aromatic, perfectly balanced. They were both wines to sit with and ponder; wines for long, lingering, unhurried reflection. Instead, I checked my watch. “Uh-oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, Alvaro. I’ve got to get out of here!”

Mile 359: France

The drive from the Priorat to Châteauneuf-du-Pape takes you from dusty and scruffy (Gratallops) to drab and industrial (the northern outskirts of Barcelona) to sunlit and idyllic (France’s Mediterranean coast). Four hours in, I was sailing along the E15 past Nîmes, under a glorious Provençal sun. To my right was the pastel-blue Mediterranean; to my left, maniacal French drivers, rocketing past me with fine Gallic disregard, even though I was doing 90 miles per hour.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape shares three important things with the Priorat: the sun, the Mediterranean and Grenache. The Priorat is a hardscrabble, impoverished region, despite the success of its wines; in contrast, the southern Rhône Valley, home to Châteauneuf, feels like an extension of Provence, all sparkling light, picture-postcard villages and gentle hills. The place is charming, not harsh. If a local farmer from the Priorat were to wake up here, he’d think he’d gone to heaven. At least until he realized everyone was speaking French.

I spent the night at a bed-and-breakfast; the next morning, I drove to Château de Beaucastel, one of the greatest producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Marc Perrin, a lanky 41-year-old whose family owns Beaucastel, looked surprisingly relaxed — surprising since it was the middle of harvest and his wife had had a baby three weeks before. “I’m not getting much sleep,” he admitted.

Beaucastel, unlike Palacios, is open to visitors by appointment, and the Perrins also own L’Oustalet, a tree-shaded restaurant with a great wine list in the nearby town of Gigondas. I had a superb alfresco lunch there with Perrin, but even so, the transcendent moment of this visit for me was back at the winery, tasting five vintages of Beaucastel’s great Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We tasted the 2009, 2008, 2001, 2000 and 1990. All were remarkable, but the 1990 soared above the rest. It had a transparent, dark ruby hue, with a tremendously complex flavor that kept sounding different notes: truffle, sandalwood, black cherry, cured meat, a little bit of black olive.

“There have been vines growing here since Roman times,” Perrin told me, “but my family purchased the estate in 1909. We’ve been organic since 1950, and working biodynamically since 1974, but we never claim it on the bottle. It’s like something my uncle used to say: ‘Some people go to church just to be seen at church, and others go simply because they believe.’”

Mile 676: Italy

Heading north out of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I skipped the rest of the Rhône — St-Joseph! Hermitage! Côte Rôtie! Oh well! — then stopped for croissants and coffee at a bar overlooking the Isère River in Grenoble. From there, the road curved up into the Alps, then down into Italy and to Piedmont.

I’ve always harbored a fantasy of moving to Piedmont, so it was extremely convenient to find that the 17th-century castle at the top of the hill in Castiglione Falletto, next door to the Vietti winery, was currently for sale, according to Vietti’s Luca Currado. And only $2,500,000 for an entire castle! “But you have to maintain it,” Currado added. This was a good point; for instance, one might have to repair scratches to the exterior walls caused by people (like me) who drive by without paying attention to how far their side mirrors stick out.

Currado’s family has grown Nebbiolograpes in Piedmont since the 1600s; today, they own vineyards in all nine villages of the Barolo region. They also produce some of the region’s most acclaimed wines, like the 2007 Vietti Barolo Rocche that I tasted with Currado over dinner in Alba that night, a polished, luscious red with tea leaf and dark cherry notes. Currado mentioned that when Alba was a Roman town, the emperor talked about “the fog grape” (nebbiais Italian for fog; hence, Nebbiolo). “In Tuscany, they have ‘under the Tuscan sun,’” he said with a shrug. “In Piedmont, we have ‘under Piedmontese fog.’”

“I’m still blown away by that castle being for sale,” I said.

“You know, in old times, the owner of a castle had the right to spend the first night with the bride of anyone who got married in the village,” Currado said thoughtfully. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore, though.”

Mile 1,191: Germany

Switzerland's mountains are scenic, its water is pure, and I have fond memories of falling asleep one time in a Swiss meadow and waking up surrounded by cows (different story). But when you’re trying to drive swiftly from Italy to Germany, Switzerland is just a big, mountain-filled problem.

Nevertheless, nine hours after leaving Piedmont, I arrived at the gates of Maximin Grúnhaus. One of Germany’s greatest estates, it’s in the Ruwer valley region (Germany’s Mosel wine region is made up of a trio of river valleys — the Mosel, the Saar and the Ruwer). Dr. Carl von Schubert’s family has owned Grýnhaus for five generations; originally it belonged to the Abbey of Saint Maximin, and there are written records of the property that date back more than a thousand years.

The Ruwer is known for delicate, precise Rieslings, which is especially true in the 2010 vintage. The 2010 Maximin Grýnhaus Abtsberg Kabinett I tasted that evening (along with 15 other wines) was a sublime German Riesling — fragrant and polished, its sweetness and acidity in perfect balance. It was unexpectedly good with the wild boar stew that von Schubert served to me and the 25 wine salespeople from New Jersey who happened to arrive via minibus exactly when I did. (I suppose, from their point of view, I was the interloper.)

“I used to shoot about three boar per year in the vineyards,” von Schubert said as we ate. “Now it’s about 60. Perhaps it has to do with global warming.”

“They destroy the vines?” I asked.

“They love the sweetest grapes. But if they penetrate the vineyard, they have to risk ending their lives as salami.”

Mile 1,707: Austria

This was my fifth and final day. When I pulled up at Nikolaihof, in Austria’s Wachau region, I’d driven more than 1,700 miles and spent nearly 35 hours behind the wheel.

Nikolaihof is ancient. The oldest winery in Austria, it was a Celtic holy place, then a Roman fortress until 511 AD. Then the Romans left and, as Nikolaus Saahs, whose family now owns it, told me, “after that, the history is unknown until 777 AD, when a monastery was founded here.”

Hearing the story of Nikolaihof brought something home to me. Every single region I’d hit on my five-day journey shared one specific thing, which was that Romans had been the first to cultivate wine grapes there. (After 1,700 miles of driving, it also struck me as amazing that the Romans held together their empire with no mode of travel other than foot and horse.) All different countries, all different cultures, but a single unifying thread: wine. It was heartening, somehow.

Over a seemingly endless succession of Austrian dishesat the winery’s restaurant that night — Saahs’s mother, Christine, is a well-known Austrian chef — I tasted the Nikolaihof wines. If I had to pick a favorite, it would most likely be the family’s Vinothek Grýner Veltliner, which is only bottled after it has aged for a decade or more in huge wooden casks. I love the fresh white-peppery spice of Grýner, Austria’s signature grape, and it can last (and improve) for far longer than people realize. The 1993 Vinothek, the current vintage, had intense, lasting flavors, yet was amazingly alive, ending on an ethereal honeysuckle note.

Earlier that day, Saahs had taken me down to the oldest part of Nikolaihof’s cellars, built more than 1,800 years ago. The room had been a wine cellar back then, and it was a wine cellar now. While we were standing there, Saahs said, “I’m just a small part of the history of this house, and I know it. Two thousand years of history, and I’m living here 70 years? That’s nothing.” True, 70 years was nothing. But here we were, in this small stone room, talking about making wine. And 1,800 years ago, two other people had no doubt been standing right here, too, in exactly the same place, talking about making wine. In between, what had there been? Wars, famines, revolutions, discoveries, nations rising and falling, people living their lives, and through all of it, no matter what, in every single place I’d visited, someone making wine.

Iconic bottles

2010 Maximin Grýnhaus Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett ($37). Dr. Carl von Schubert makes several terrific wines from Abtsberg, his top vineyard. This slatey bottling is one of the easiest to find.

2010 Nikolaihof Grýner Veltliner Hefeabzug ($30). A peppery white, it’s a great introduction to Nikolaihof’s Grýners. Also look for the powerful, spicy 1993 Vinothek bottling ($170).

2008 Château de Beaucastel Châteuneuf-du-Pape ($98). Great producers make superb wine even in tough years. This violet-scented, complex red is a perfect example.

2007 Vietti Barolo Castiglione ($48). The ’07 vintage in Barolo is spectacular, something this cuvée shows with its depth and elegance. It’s made with grapes from several grand cruBarolo vineyards.

2009 Alvaro Palacios Finca Dofí ($70). Palacios’s legendary L’Ermita runs $800 a bottle. Dofí costs a fraction of that, yet it’s still world class — powerful yet subtle, with intense fruit and a mineral edge.

How to visit

With the exception of Alvaro Palacios in Spain, each winery on Ray’s tour is open to visitors by appointment (with a fair amount of advance notice).

Chateau de Beaucastel, France
Visits to and tastings at Beaucastel, in Courthézon, can be arranged through its website (beau castel.com). To book a table at L’Oustalet, the Perrin family’s restaurant in the town of Gigondas, go to restaurant oustalet.com.

Vietti, Italy
To arrange guided visits to Vietti’s winery and cellars, in the small town of Castiglione Falletto, go to vietti.com.

Maximin Grýnhaus, Germany
Located near the town of Trier, along the Ruwer river, Grýnhaus offers tours and tastings Monday through Saturday (vonschubert.com).

Nikolaihof Wachau, Austria
At Nikolaihof, in Mautern, visitors can taste wine and try traditional Austrian cuisine at the winery’s tavern (nikolaihof.at).

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