Wine has been part of the human experience for millennia. As early as 8,000 years ago, fledgling winemakers were crushing and fermenting grapes in the rich valleys south of Tbilisi, Georgia. By the Middle Ages, vineyards rippled across hillsides and riverbanks from Portugal to Hungary. Most of these regions have produced wine ever since, buoyed by the memory of those early vineyards, agricultural terraces and winemaking farms.
Saint-Émilion, France, became the first storied wine region to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or place of outstanding value to humanity, in 1999. Almost 25 years later, around a dozen traditional wine-producing areas around the world have earned the same recognition. But while some regions are well known enough to be on the bucket list of every wine lover on the planet—France’s Champagne or Burgundy, for example—most remain under the radar, along with the natural and cultural histories that produced them.
From Stari Grad Plain, the ancient wine region at the center of Croatia’s Hvar Island, to the spectacularly beautiful Alpen foothills of Lavaux, Switzerland, these eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognize wine regions that are just as exceptional as their more popular counterparts, with a fraction of the tourist traffic.
Upper Middle Rhine Valley, Germany
Long before the first of the Rheingau’s 40 medieval castles was built above the banks of the river Rhine, its steep hills bore fruit.
Romans planted the first grapes in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley around the fourth century. But riesling, a light-bodied wine with citrus aromas for which the region is best known, came courtesy of Emperor Charlemagne a few centuries later. Planted in “southerly exposed vineyard sites protected by the Taunus Mountain range and influenced by the Rhine River,” the varietal thrived, says Theresa Breuer, fourth-generation owner of the Georg Breuer winery—and it still does today.
In the region’s winemaking capital, Rüdesheim am Rhein, walking trails form arteries through three miles of vineyards stretching from the 13th-century ruins of Ehrenfels Castle in the west to the wine-producing Eibingen Abbey in the east. Adolf Störzel, a winemaker in Rüdesheim whose eponymous winery is built on a nearly 400-year-old family history, calls the area “the kingdom of the riesling grape.” Each August, its Rüdesheim Wine Festival celebrates the valley’s continued legacy as one of Europe’s best wine producers with five days of wine, food and live music.
Pico Island, Azores, Portugal
Pico Island, the second largest of the volcano-born Azores, is one of the most hard-won wine regions in the world; its grapes could not grow until its rocky basalt landscape was tamed. In the 15th century, farmers on the North Atlantic isle began to mold the severe ecosystem of its coastal plains, building thousands of small, soil-free vineyards and demarcating their boundaries with the black stones of its fiery past. Tenaciously, they erected manor houses, wine cellars and churches across the harsh, wind-swept island, working them generation after generation.
By the 19th century, Pico’s wine industry was at its peak, producing three native white grape varietals: arinto dos Açores, verdelho and terrantez do Pico. But it wasn’t long before disease and desertification destroyed most of the island’s vineyards, nearly putting an end to its wine production. But some of Pico’s winemakers regrouped, centering their operations around the village of Criação Velha, where high-quality grapes could still be grown. While only around 10 percent of Pico’s original vineyards have been restored, the appellation of origin has earned some of the country’s top wine honors.
Visitors can dig into the history of Pico’s wine industry on a tour of its ancient vineyards or a stop at the Wine Museum, housed inside a 16th-century convent where Carmelite friars were once in the business of growing and crushing grapes and bottling wine.
Cape Floral Region, South Africa
South Africa’s Cape Floral Region is the smallest and most biologically robust of the world’s six floral kingdoms—areas plant geographers recognize for their ecological diversity. Between its razorback peaks and deep valleys grow nearly 9,000 species of plants, including the pink, artichoke-like king protea and the critically endangered Clanwilliam cedar. It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that the Dutch introduced a plant of a different sort: wine grapes.
Vineyards planted around the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl have since become part of the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve, a place where the agricultural and industrial activities of the region’s viticulturalists are delicately balanced with the needs of the vital Cape Floral ecosystem. Along with varietals like full-bodied cabernet and spicy pinotage, the region protects 350 years of winemaking heritage. Visitors can ride through its sprawling vineyards on the Franschhoek Wine Tram. With five different hop-on-hop-off routes, each stopping at more than half a dozen modern tasting rooms from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch, it’s the best way to take in the majesty of the Cape Winelands as a whole.
The Wachau wine region occupies the Austrian river valley that rolls along the Danube between the cities of Melk and Krems. “Big wines and big rivers, the two go hand in hand,” says Leo Alzinger, owner and winemaker of Alzinger Winery. “The Danube helps shape the Wachau’s climate, by day absorbing warmth that is given off at night, while funneling the winds entering the valley.”
It was the monks of the area’s ninth-century monasteries who built the first vineyard terraces still visible today, while medieval winegrowing families built the U- and L-shaped farmsteads characteristic of the region. Now, more than 100 vineyards producing citrusy grüner veltliner and refreshing riesling cascade down the region’s steep hills, still bordered by hand-built dry-stone walls that are generations old.
Though the vines must be tended all year round, it is in the warmest months when “the vineyards are lush and full of life,” says Roman Horvath, master of wine and winery director at Domäne Wachau. “For a few weeks every summer, many wineries open the doors to their traditional heurigen [wine taverns], and visitors can fully experience the local culture.” In summer, traditional winemakers set up outdoor terraces or courtyards for sipping alongside a simple meal of meat, bread and cheese. Look for a straw wreath or bunch of branches hung over the door of a rural farmhouse; if the lightbulb above it is on, the heuriger is open for business.
The volcanic slopes and humid wetlands of northeastern Hungary’s Zemplen Mountains are ripe for grape growing. The 1,000-year-old Tokaj wine region is known not just for its distinctive aszu—a sweet, creamy wine Louis XV described as “the wine of kings, the king of wines”—but for its 3,000 subterranean wine cellars, stone grottos that honeycomb the landscape.
In the countryside around its nearly 30 wine-producing villages, Tokaj has changed little since the first vines of furmint and harslevelu were planted. The region is peppered with medieval castles, chateaus, oak forests and historic farms, and more than 600 vintners carry the mantle of Tokaj’s winemaking tradition.
That heritage is celebrated twice a year: at the annual Tokaj Wine Festival in early June, when producers open their cellars to the public and live music fills the air every afternoon, and the Harvest Fest in October, offering traditional processions and demonstrations, open cellars and wine tasting in Tokaj’s main square.
Stari Grad Plain, Croatia
The Croatian island of Hvar, one of the Adriatic Sea’s most stunning jewels, has one of the longest winemaking traditions in the world. Hvar’s first vineyards, located at the crossroads of ancient Greece and Rome, were planted in the rich soils of the Stari Grad Plain at the island’s center in the fourth century B.C.E. That fertile crescent, virtually unchanged for 2,500 years, still produces those original varietals: bright, robust plavac mali; dry, golden bogdanusa; and tropical fruited prc.
Despite centuries of agricultural use, the Stari Grad Plain is “the most preserved Greek landscape in the Mediterranean,” according to Vinko Tarbušković, site manager for the Public Institution for Stari Grad Plain. “Today you can walk along the ancient roads, see the dry wall system with which Greek settlers cultivated the area, and take a walk through the vineyards.” And in the restaurants and taverns of the old city of Stari Grad, where clay-tiled roofs glint red in the Dalmatian Coast sunlight, the flavors of the Stari Grad Plain taste much the same as they have for centuries.
Monks of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries that sprouted from the banks of Lake Geneva in the 11th century were the first to make wine in Switzerland’s Lavaux. Day by day, they steadily coaxed its original rows of pinot noir and gamay up the lower slopes of the towering Alps, slicing terraces into the mountainside for easier growing.
Around 10,000 of those terraces still remain in use today, adding texture to a landscape crisscrossed with walking trails from Lausanne to Montreux. Hospitality and locally made wines, like grand cru salgesch, a beloved variety with a smoky nose and aromas of almond and caramel, flow freely in picture-perfect villages like Saint-Saphorin, Dézaley and Epesses, where narrow alleys are lined with half-timber homes and pintes (tiny restaurants).
Alto Douro, Portugal
Port wine brought fame to Portugal’s Alto Douro, a remote river valley that slices deep through northern Portugal’s Marão and Montemuro mountains, not long after merchants began shipping the sweet, fortified spirit to the English isles in the 17th century. But in the Alto Douro, the complex, long-lasting elixir had already been praised for centuries. The region’s first vines were planted 2,000 years ago, and its agricultural terraces, quintas (winemaking farms), villages and roads are characters in its ongoing winemaking story.
“Its wild and mountainous landscape is dramatic in scale, and, until relatively recently, much of the region was remote and inaccessible,” explains Ana Margarida Morgado, who handles public relations for Quinta de Roêda and Croft Estate, a 200-acre, more than 400-year-old vineyard in Pinhão. Today, some 80 different grape varieties from tempranillo to tinta cão are planted on the steep hillsides of the Alto Douro, but it is still the rich, boozy port wine for which the area is best known. Between tastings, stop in at Régua, the region’s unofficial capital, with Roman ruins, a museum and unparalleled valley views.