Sep. 5, 2012 at 9:51 AM ET
Switzerland’s Valais canton is home to more than 40 ruggedly magnificent 4,000-meter peaks that make up the mountainous Imperial Crown, including the Matterhorn, Dents du Midi and Monte Rosa. But just below those snowy Alpine teeth sits the sunny, agricultural Rhône Valley, a bicycling paradise filled with wildflower-strewn meadows and grazing Alpine cows. It is also home to Switzerland’s röstigraben, the invisible line that separates the German- and French-speaking parts of the country, and the Swiss-Italian border.
The rugged trilingual region yields nine endemic and rare old-world wine varietals, like Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge, which grow nowhere else. What’s more, the Valais’s steep 800-year-old terraces, which export only 2 percent of its wine, have always been difficult to access. But the introduction of battery-enhanced electronic bikes (or e-bikes) have helped the area’s high-perched vintners, and now tasting rooms from Sierre to Leuk are seeing a boom of cyclists sipping stony Swiss whites.
Cycling and wine have long captured the imaginations of American travelers with dreams of gliding through verdant, château-dotted valleys with a baguette and a bottle of Cabernet Franc. But cycling through wine country is no longer an activity reserved for the French (or Francophiles). Wine regions from Africa to Argentina are opening new cycling paths and offering programs for bike enthusiasts — a cleaner, healthier and more in-depth way to taste the terroir of a region. Tour operators have jumped on this faster than you can say santé, offering a litany of wine-centric cycling excursions around the world.
“There’s no better way to experience South Africa’s stunning landscapes and warm hospitality than by biking the Cape Town Winelands,” says Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, a luxury outfitter specializing in Africa and bush safaris. “We show today’s sophisticated traveler the fiber of the land and its people in an unfiltered, honest way.”
Existing bike-tour companies like Butterfield & Robinson have been hosting vineyard bike tours since 1966. Though new destinations are added annually, trips through tried-and-true wine regions like Bordeaux and Tuscany are popular. But new outfitters like DuVine Adventures — whose motto is “Bike. Eat. Drink. Sleep.” — are jumping into the game with more adventurous excursions to untapped areas like Alentejo, Portugal, and Slovenia’s Gorizia Hills on the Italian border, as well as more typical destinations like France’s Burgundy and Spain’s Rioja.
Like Micato, several other small luxury tour agencies have pumped up bike-tour offerings, including walking outfitters like Country Walkers and Mountain Travel Sobek, which traditionally offers walking tours of rarefied destinations like Japan, Bhutan and Scotland but launched a bike tour this year in Argentina that travels from Mendoza to Salta in the Uco Valley. All these tours afford guests a hassle-free way to explore wine regions by assisting with luggage transfers, arranging private barrel tastings and scouting independently run vineyards and wine-oriented restaurants and hotels.
In many cases, one doesn’t even need to leave the city to access vineyards and tasting rooms. Frankfurt; Vienna; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Switzerland’s UNESCO-inscribed Lavaux have urban vineyards or offer wine regions that are easily reached from major metro areas and ideal for evening or half-day trips. And though drinking too much and cycling is not advised, biking through wine country is an easy way to add a few calorie- and carbon-neutral sips to your vacation.
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