As Culinary Director of Italiaoutdoors, I visit Italy several times a year and always make time to discover new venues for our wine and bike tours. Finding wineries to visit that reflect the culture and traditional wines of the individual regions we visit is one of my goals; our preferred producers are off the beaten path, small, and family operated, using varietals little known outside the region. Check out my list of the Top 10 Undiscovered Wines of Northeastern Italy to get feel for what you can discover on a visit to these wine regions. Here are some tips based on my travels, for those of you who want to do some exploring on your own!
1. If you are serious about finding small, family run producers, do your homework.
Using wine guides such as Slow Foods, Gambero Rosso, and the internet can help you identify some of these, and learn a little about them. Get their names and street addresses. Keep in mind if you want to taste, you are looking for the cantina. In some cases, the cantina is located at the vineyard, but not always.
Another good place to start is with the Strade del Vino, or Wine Roads, in Italy. These are official routes located in wine regions all over the country. We’ve done several bike rides along these, and there are plenty of wineries all along these routes to visit. They are well marked, and wind their way through the vineyards of a particular region. This link will bring you to a list of all of them, by region.
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2. The local tourist office is a great source of information.
They will have maps and someone who speaks english that can recommend a route. Just take care to check the hours; they are not always open every day, and often only in the mornings.
3. Have a GPS or smart phone with google maps, or at least a really good map.
If you bring your own GPS, make sure it is loaded beforehand with the appropriate maps; your US based GPS may not carry maps of Italy. Don’t rely on internet access in your hotel in Italy to download the maps the night before - my experience is that WiFi there is not particularly reliable. Also, even the best GPS can still lead you astray, especially in some of the rural areas, or during a cloudy day. So don’t become totally dependent upon them - know where you are, and where you are headed.
4. Route numbers in Italy are hard to read, and not always easy to find. Know your route by names of towns.
I note the name of the town I’m headed to, and a couple of major towns between your current location and your destination; then follow the signs to the towns you know are in the right direction. This is when a map, and, even better, a traveling companion that can read a map, come in handy.
5. Larger producers are located along the main streets through the towns, along the base of the hills.
If you are just looking to taste a few wines, and feel most comfortable with someone that speaks english, these may be best for you. They are very easy to spot, with large signs, a big building and parking lot.
6. Smaller producers are located higher up in the hills, be prepared for narrow roads and lots of turns.
They are located in private homes, and they are going about their daily business, not waiting around for customers to arrive. Many do not speak a lot of English, but all seem very happy to introduce me to their wines when I stammer out my few words of Italian. Approaching one of these for the first time can be a bit intimidating, but well worth the effort when you get a chance to connect with a family who have been doing this for generations.
7. Be aware of the hours of riposo.
After 12pm, and before 3-5 pm, most businesses in Italy close. You won’t be welcome between those hours. Some smaller vineyards I’ve found are only open in the morning.
8. Buy something - even if it is their cheapest bottle.
Larger wineries often charge 10 euros or so per person for a tasting, but smaller family run ones do not. So I usually purchase a bottle or so as thanks. They usually have a price list you can ask for, so you can plan what you would like to purchase. These families aren’t making an exorbitant living producing wine, and I like to do what I can to preserve and support their businesses. When we visit one on our tours, we usually buy several bottles or even a case, which we taste later on with the group.
9. Learn to spit.
You are driving in an unfamiliar area, up some challenging roads with some aggressive local drivers. You don’t need to finish off that fourth ‘taste’ of an Amarone with 18% alcohol, even if it is fantastic.
10. Don’t plan on buying cases to ship back.
Shipping to the US is quite expensive - 17 to 22 euros per bottle of wine. It doesn’t make sense to ship home a case of that 5 euro bottle of basic Bardolino, but perhaps that case of 20 euro Amarone might make sense! Check beforehand whether your state in the US allows delivery of alcoholic beverages to homes; not all do, and I’d hate to pay shipping in Italy just to have your state authorities here in the US turn it away.