Harvest is a special time in wine country. Trucks loaded with grapes chug down narrow country roads, optimism and anxiety are abundant in equal parts, and wine lovers flock to the scene to observe history, and wine, in the making.
The heavy lifting of the 2018 harvest in the northern hemisphere is all but over except for the handful of late-ripening grape varieties still hanging on the vines. The grapes are in the cellar, the pungent smell of fermenting wine hangs heavy in the air, and the fruit flies are everywhere.
It's the best time of year for a wine country visit. This week's "Wine Talk" takes a look at three of the world's most popular wine harvest destinations, including recommendations for accommodations and dining spots that I can personally and enthusiastically recommend.
This is a vast region surrounding the city of Bordeaux, with a large population center and many fine hotels and restaurants. Saint-Emilion, about a half-hour from the city center on the right bank of the Gironde estuary, is perhaps the most charming wine village in the entire region and certainly is worth a visit. Le Relais de Franc Mayne, located on the estate at Chateau Franc Mayne, is surrounded by vineyards and an easy walk into the village. If sleeping among the vines is your thing, Les Sources de Caudalie is another excellent option. The world famous spa and hotel sits across the street from Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, in the left bank commune of Pessac-Leognan, and boasts a restaurant with one Michelin star. On the other side of the city, in the left bank commune of Pauillac, Cordeillan-Bages, offers excellent accommodations and also a Michelin one-star restaurant. Cordeillan-Bages is owned by the family of Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages fame.
And for sheer luxury and convenience, Le Grand Hotel in the center of Bordeaux is a majestic option. Close to the tram, shopping and the many charming cafes that line the riverfront, Le Grand Hotel is the most opulent hotel option in the Bordeaux region. It's also close to the rustic La Tupina, which serves up grilled meats cooked over a wood fire, complemented by a lengthy list of fine Bordeaux wines.
Beaune has its finger on the pulse of all things Burgundy. While a much smaller city than Bordeaux, it does not lack for excellent hotel and restaurant options. And the center of the village is both charming and walkable. Right in the heart of Beaune the best hotel options are Le Cep and Le Cedre. Both are intimate and charming, with a small bar and lounge area complete with wood-burning fireplace. Le Cep is next door to Loiseau des Vignes, a Michelin-starred restaurant that offers an affordable three-course menu option daily, accompanied by the finest wine-by-the-glass program in the region. Both hotels are within walking distance of top-notch Burgundy negociants such as Bouchard or Maison Joseph Drouhin.
A bevy of fine restaurants are also steps away. My favorites include Ma Cuisine, Caveau des Arches, Le Benaton (one Michelin star) and Le Conty, a casual spot with superb food and a fine wine list.
I'm old enough to remember when a harvest trip to the Napa Valley would have been sleepy getaway with few good hotels and even fewer top-notch restaurants. That hasn't been the case for several decades. Now Napa Valley is the prime harvest destination for wine lovers. The hotels book up quickly and reservations at the top restaurants are highly recommended. For posh accommodations, The Meadowood is hard to beat. And its restaurant has three Michelin stars. If you want something full of charm but a bit more low-key, the Rancho Caymus Inn, next door to Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford, is the perfect place to spend a chilly autumn evening or two. Most of the rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and the popular Rutherford Grill is next door.
The Napa Valley has become a mecca for wine country cuisine, led by Thomas Keller's three Yountville restaurants: The French Laundry, Bouchon and Ad Hoc. Yountville also boasts the fine Bistro Jeanty, steered by the brilliant chef Phillipe Jeanty, and Bottega Napa Valley, presided over by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. Per capita, with fewer than 3,000 residents, Yountville is perhaps the restaurant capital of the world.
My personal favorites include two in the city of Napa, La Toque (one Michelin star) and Bistro Don Giovanni, more casual but perhaps with more charm. Don Giovanni also offers a sensational list of Italian wines at moderate prices. Mustards in Oakville is a local treasure and harks back to the era when the Napa Valley wine culture began to take its food seriously, too.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.