Wine has been produced in the United States since the 1500s, with the first widespread production beginning in New Mexico in 1628.Today, wine production is undertaken in all fifty states, with California producing 89 percent of all US wine. The North American continent is home to several native species of grape, including Vitis labrusca, Vitis r...
Wine has been produced in the United States since the 1500s, with the first widespread production beginning in New Mexico in 1628.Today, wine production is undertaken in all fifty states, with California producing 89 percent of all US wine. The North American continent is home to several native species of grape, including Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, and Vitis vulpina, but the wine-making industry is based almost entirely on the cultivation of the European Vitis vinifera, which was introduced by European settlers.With more than 1,100,000 acres (4,500 km2) under vine, the United States is the fourth-largest wine producing country in the world, after Italy, Spain, and France.
There are nearly 3,000 commercial vineyards in the United States, and at least one winery in each of the 50 states.
West Coast – More than 90% of the total American wine production occurs in the states of California, Washington, and Oregon.
Southwestern United States – Notably New Mexico and Arizona
Rocky Mountain Region – Notably Idaho and Colorado
Southern United States – Notably Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama
Midwestern United States – Notably Missouri and Illinois
Great Lakes region – Notably Michigan, New York, and Ohio
East Coast of the United States – Notably eastern Long Island in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida
Appellation labeling laws
In order to have an AVA appear on a wine label, at least 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have been grown in the AVA.
For a state or county appellation to appear on the wine label, 75% of the grapes used must be from that state or county. Some states have stricter requirements. For example, California requires 100% of the grapes used to be from California for a wine labeled as such, and Washington requires 95% of the grapes in a Washington wine be grown in Washington. If grapes are from two or three contiguous counties or states, a label can have a multi-county or multi-state designation so long as the percentages used from each county or state are specified on the label.
American wine or United States is a rarely used appellation that classifies a wine made from anywhere in the United States, including Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.. Wines with this designation are similar to the French wine vin de table, and can not include a vintage year. By law, this is the only appellation allowed for bulk wines exported to other counties.
An example of American wines using semi-generic labels of burgundy, chablis, etc.
U.S. laws formerly allowed American made wines to be labeled as "American Burgundy" or "California champagne", even though these names are restricted in Europe. U.S. laws required usage to include the qualifying area of origin to go with these semi-generic names. Other semi-generic names in the United States include Claret, Chablis, Chianti, Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Rhine wine, Sauternes (often spelled on U.S. wine labels as Sauterne or Haut Sauterne), Sherry, and Tokay.The practice largely ceased in 2006 with the Wine Trade Agreement, though brands that were already using the terms can continue the practice, considered grandfathered in.
USA Red Wines
Like any wine-country on the warm side of temperate, California is more at home with red wines than with white. Technology has vastly increased the possibilities with white wines. But with red they were there already.
Traditionally it is the wine-country just north of San Francisco Bay which is the red-wine area the lush valleys of Napa and Sonoma. Today, in fact, red and white plantings are more or less evenly distributed over all the fine vineyards, north, south and east of the Bay, but it is still in the Napa valley, above all, that the finest red wines are found.
The many wineries of the Napa valley consider themselves the best in the State, and certainly the finest Californian red wines which have come from Napa and the beautiful mountains round.
Napa is an Indian word for plenty. The upper part of the Napa valley, where civilization barely seems to have penetrated, is a sort of earthly paradise, so fruitful and green, so sculpted from the hills for protection
and privacy and peacefulness does it seem to be. The broad valley floor is planted for mile after mile with vines, interrupted only for a big stone winery building in a grove of gigantic oak trees, or a quiet white house with sprinklers hissing arcs of water on a green lawn.
The hills on either side are covered mainly with oak, or pine, or sometimes the bushy manzanita with its blood-red limbs. Only occasionally has the high ground been cleared to make way for a ramp, or a mound, or an amphitheatre of vine plants, which stand each on its own, like trees in an orchard, not staked and wired into hedges as they are in France. There is evidence, nonetheless, that the hills may give the best wine. Certainly any European wine-grower would expect it to be so. It is only sad to think that what may drive the wine-maker to plant in the hills in California is the encroaching of housing subdivisions on his flat land.
Cabernet Sauvignon: The great vine of Napa is the Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the Napa Cabernets are in no way inferior to fine clarets, some of them are better than most clarets, and a few are almost as complex, subtle, scented and extraordinary as a first-growth claret of a fine vintage.
The same qualifications, however, apply to Californian red wine as to French: it is only the work of a fine and painstaking wine-maker which can ever come into this category—and his work will always be on a small scale. Furthermore, the wine needs time to mature just as French wine does. There is, therefore, a chronic shortage of the best Californian red wine in mature condition, and the greater part of it never reaches this condition at all.
Only one or two wineries in the whole State keep the wine themselves until they really consider it ready to drink; the rest sell it shortly after it is bottled, as the French do. There is a difference, though, between the French and the Californian practice. Claret is bought from a chateau straight after bottling in the full knowledge that it is not ready to drink, and will not be ready for several years. A merchant buys it and either keeps it himself while it matures, or sells it to a customer who will keep it. The American public, though, expects its wineries to sell everything in the condition to be drunk immediately.
They blame it on the winery, therefore, when it sells its Cabernets at three or four years old, saying (quite rightly) that they are not ready to drink. The market is therefore running on unaged wine, which has no prospect of being mature before it is drunk. Nor is there much prospect of it catching up with stocks of mature wine—for the demand is growing the whole time. The answer, I need hardly say, is for the customer to start a cellar, fill it with fine red wine and be patient.
Of the small quantity of well-made Californian Cabernet which does reach maturity, then, this can be said: it is one of the finest red wines in the world. It is interesting to compare it with a great Medoc or St-Emilion, for the grape is the same, though the conditions of growing it are very different. What is more, California uses the great character-giving claret grape on its own, without blending, whereas red Bordeaux is all made with a quantity of Merlot and Malbec grapes to modify its extreme hardness and strength of character.
In California, therefore, you find wine which typifies the Cabernet more than claret does. It is the Cabernet which gives the spiciness, the cigar-box scent, the warmth and richness of claret, as well as the astringent, grimace-making hardness of its early years. In California these qualities come triumphantly forward. The wine does start hard —though less unpleasantly so than in Bordeaux—but it finishes rich. The best of Napa valley Cabernets has wonderful warmth and fullness, through which its flavour comes with marvellous vividness.
If it lacks anything it is the sort of complexity of flavour which makes a great Bordeaux so endlessly worth tasting. One might hazard a guess that unrelenting varietal-mindedness has something to do with this. If Chateau Latour were made without its component 20 per cent of Merlot and Cabernet Franc who can doubt that it would be a less complex and subtle wine? They are in a small minority.
But the role of the secondary varieties is not yet defined in terms of the secondary flavours they can contribute. A Californian Cabernet is supposed to exhibit Cabernet character, not the character of a carefully thought-out blend.
The competition is very stiff indeed, with some of the best wines coming from new and tiny wineries. It is obviously more prudent to stick to well-established classics, like Louis Martini's, Beaulieu's Special Reserve, or the immensely full-flavoured Cabernet of Joe Heitz, perhaps the most distinguished single wine-maker of the whole Napa valley.
The Salinas Valley of Napa remains the heart of the Cabernet country. But it never had a valley monopoly, and even its lead in volume terms has disappeared in the vast new planting spree of the last few years.
The new area which has caused most excitement is considerably south of the classic Bay region, in a valley which has turned out to be like a climatic fault-line running inland and southwards from Monterey Bay.
The first moves in this direction were made, almost in desperation, by wineries like Almaden which were being elbowed out of their home-ground by the southwards spread of the complex of Bay cities. On the face of it they were moving nearer to the desert, and could only expect hotter weather.
But California's coastal climate has its own rules. The mouth of the Salinas valley acts (like the Golden Gate) as an entry point for cool ocean air. The planters found themselves with a problem they didn't expect: the near-gale off the Pacific as the day wore on and the land warmed up. Instead of concentrating on the sun they had to align their vine-rows to moderate the effects of this heat-tempering wind.
The most successful area to date has been the Carneros AVA, a cool district straddling Napa and Sonoma Counties and benefiting from the coastal fogs that waft in from San Francisco Bay. The afternoons and early evenings in Carneros are sufficiently warm to endow the developing grapes with the exciting flavours of ripe red fruits that are characteristic of the best Pinot wines. At the same time, the cooling influence of those thick mists, which often hang around until mid morning, ensure adequate levels of fresh acidity, so the wines are impeccably balanced and capable of aging.
Of course Oregon is equally important because of its cooler, damper climate, this Pacific territory when the search for appropriate vineyard sites began to gather momentum. Climatically, it is indubitably much closer to Burgundy than most of California, and there are indeed now some stunning wines. Oregon's premier cru region is the Willamette Valley AVA, which lies to the west of the Cascade Mountains. The style is generally lighter than in most of California, less meaty but more accentuated strawberry fruit, and generally approachable sooner.
Grape-growing in the Salinas valley was started by migrating wineries; Almaden, Paul Masson, Wente Bros, and Mirassou in particular. But the lettuce-farmers who were there already were not slow to get the idea. Within less than a decade, starting from scratch, the new wine valley will have about as many acres of vineyards as the Cote d'Or; all of them "premium varietals"; quite a bit of the total Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of course Pinot Noir oddly enough the great burgundy grape, the Pinot Noir, makes a comparatively undistinguished wine in California. It is still a premium wine, indeed possibly the next best after the Cabernet—but it never (or very rarely) approaches the quality of a fine burgundy in the way that a Cabernet draws near to Bordeaux. It makes, at best, a fairly light wine with a powerful and almost slightly fierce flavour. It is more like a light Rhone wine than a burgundy. Pinot Noirs, of course, vary from producer to producer as much as any wine.
Before all other grapes of any kind, however, in popularity and sheer quantity of production, California grows the Zinfandel, a kind unknown in Europe. Zinfandel is, as it were, California's own Beaujolais. Its price is low; it can be drunk young; it is seen everywhere. Like the best Beaujolais, too, the best Zinfandel gains distinction with age. Zinfandel has its devotees who find in it every virtue. It is an agreeable, light-coloured, slightly spicy wine, sometimes a little fiery. As a lunch- or supper-time wine, to accompany cold meat or a stew, it is perfect.
The Gamay of Beaujolais, in comparison with the Zinfandel, is little grown. The wine it makes (which is known as Gamay Noir) come across as one of California's best roses.Several Italian grape-varieties are grown, chiefly by the Italian families who introduced them to the country. The most successful is the Barbera of Piedmont, which makes as good a wine in California as it does in its native land; a strong wine, full of purple colour and flavour, but inclining to be sharp—ideal, in fact, for rich Italian food.
Its fellow-countryman, the Grignolino, is also cultivated; though largely, it seems, for old time's sake.The most successful innovation of the University of California's grape-breeding programme, which is aimed primarily at finding good grapes for table wine in very hot areas, has been the Ruby Cabernet, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and one of the classic vines of vin ordinaire, the Carignane.
Enough of the character and flavour of the Cabernet has been kept to make a table wine of real individuality, while the Carignane parentage means huge crops happy in the heat. Paul Masson's Rubion is a Ruby Cabernet wine: its sweetness is the wine-maker's decision, not the grape's The reformation which is either due or actually in progress in the south of France (it is sometimes hard to tell which) should consider the Ruby Cabernet as a working compromise.
The great mistake in thinking of California wine, red or white but above all red, is to fall into the varietal trap. There is such obvious snob-appeal about varietals to a huge public still learning the ropes that any marketing-man is likely to be tempted. There is no absolute virtue in grape-names. Alsace wine is not better than Loire because it puts Riesling or Sylvaner on the label. Ultimately the best wine California produces, when the industry has had another century or two to shake down, may well be a blended wine without a varietal name. For that matter some of the best wine she produces today may lurk under the unfashionable title of Burgundy, or just plain old Mountain Red.
USA White Wines
Popular varieties list of Californian white wines is longer than that of list of reds. The white grapes of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Germany, the Loire and the north of Italy—though not, strangely enough, of southern Italy or Spain,are all grown with considerable success. One grape above all, though, gives wine as good as any but the greatest of its native land and even that qualification is in doubt. The grape is the Pinot Chardonnay, or just plain Chardonnay, the white grape of Burgundy. It is almost always the most expensive Californian white wine, for the yield of grapes per acre is small, and farmers in the past were reluctant to plant the variety.In richness and freshness of scent, in savouriness and complexity of taste, and in balanced and appetizing dryness, however, the Chardonnay is so outstanding that vast new plantings have been made to increase the supply.
It is grown in the beautiful and fertile Napa and Sonoma valleys north of the Bay, the Livermore valley east of the Bay, and Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties to the south all the best areas of the State. It is commonly thought to reach its very best in Napa and Sonoma, in the hands of such small-scale wineries as Hanzell, Heitz, Freemark Abbey and Stony Hill.
Recently Chalone vineyards in Monterey county, however, have brought it to astonishing perfection. But wines like these are rare and expensive. They are seriously to be compared, in value and price, with fine Meursaults and even Montrachets. The wines made on a more commercial scale by the best of the larger wineries—Beaulieu, Wente, Charles Krug and Louis Martini are perhaps the best examples are far more widely available, and less distinguished only in the proportion that a good plain Meursault comes below, let us say, a Meursault Perrieres.
On a mass-market level Almaden and Paul Masson also present the true Chardonnay scaled down, to keep the analogy going, to something on the Macon Blanc level. In other words, by no means to be sneezed at. The taste of oak with Chardonnay, more than any other grape, California vintners have found that they can not only compete with, but they can really mimic, French wine. The secret of the flavour of white burgundy, they have discovered, lies not only in the grapes but in the barrels. Few Europeans, even Burgundians, realize just how much of the characteristic rich, dry white burgundy flavour is really the taste of
Limousin or Nevers oak.
But Californians found out, by going to Europe and buying the same barrels for themselves. Not all Californian vintners approve, some are too proud of the wine flavour to mask it with tannin and vanillin, the barrels' contribution. Their wines are considerably less burgundian in style though not necessarily less good, by any means. As one cellar-master put it, in California all the wine makers watch each other's experiments with scepticism, have a good laugh, and then try the same thing themselves.
Next in prestige to Chardonnay comes the white Riesling, or Johannisberg Riesling, the Riesling of the Rhine and Moselle. There is no danger here of confusing the Californian with the European wine. In this climate the Riesling ripens uniformly and fully, giving a rounder, softer and above all more alcoholic and "winy" wine than in Germany, unless, perhaps, one compares it with the few Rieslings of Baden. At its best it achieves very considerable delicacy and complexity, but of a different kind.
Despite this apparent lack of acidity (relative, that is, to German wine) the good California Rieslings can do with a little time in bottle to develop character. If they are good young, they are noble after two or three years, gaining the deep, almost sour smell only old Riesling achieves. Again, the Napa valley is the classic Riesling area, butagain, it is being challenged today by new plantings to both north and south.
Sauvignon Blanc the other white grape which is, or can be, on equal footing with France in California is the Sauvignon Blanc. Bordeaux has one (or two) ideas about the Sauvignon. Basically it likes its wine strong, broad and either dry or very very sweet. The Loire, on the other hand, emphasizes its potential for flinty, sometimes piercingly flinty, freshness. Both styles have their adherents in California, and both do exceedingly well. It is only those that are half-heartedly sweet that fail.
The classic California Sauvignon Blanc was that of Emerald Wente Bros, made in the peculiar conditions of the gravelly but fertile Livermore valley just east and inland of the Bay. In its heyday it was California's best easily obtainable white wine- golden and smooth but austere, of a quality rarely achieved in Graves,for it was a white Graves it most resembled. The other dry Sauvignon style, that of Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre, was brought to California by Robert Mondavi who left Charles Krug to start his own ultra-modern Napa winery. He called his version Fume Blanc.
Perhaps the safest of the whites, because it wanders so little from its peculiar path, is the Gewtirztraminer, the grape that is almost synonymous with Alsace. Its pungent spiciness, a cousin of the Muscat flavour, is recognizable anywhere. In Alsace it is firm, dry, highly seasoned; an almost aggressive wine. California tames it down to a smoother and softer character. The least Californian of the Californian Gewurztraminers, in this sense, are Louis Martini's, for long the leader of the field, and the recently introduced Mirassou wine.
The Chenin Blanc is one of the latest white grapes to have come into fashion. Its name is little known in Europe. Touraine and Anjou are its headquarters, and its products those mid-Loire whites, Vouvray; Saumur and the Layon wines, which hesitate between sweet, very sweet and sweet-sour. Sourness (which comes from under ripe grapes) is never a problem in California. Without it, however, the Chenin Blanc can make rather wishy-washy wine. The best California versions, therefore, take steps to keep something like a European balance, creating a general effect rather like a German wine. The Christian Brothers make one like this, lightly sweet and very pleasant. Paul Masson makes another. Charles Krug's version (called, for some reason, White Pinot) is rather drier. The new Chappellet winery in the hills above the Napa valley has made one with an intensity and depth of flavour which would have done credit to a Vouvray. But these are examples almost at random from a wide and growing field. Chenin Blanc is clearly going to be a Californian standard.
Semillon is probably slowly fading from the scene. Its best wines are sweet—it is, after all, the nobly rotting grape of Sauternes. But Europe makes no wine from Semillon on its own, unblended with other grapes. Sauternes is a mixture of Sauvignon and Semillon, with or without a little Muscatel as well. California, having adopted the varietal idea, seems reluctant to make the blends which give so much complexity and subtlety to Europe's wine. It is the same story with Cabernet Sauvignon, as we shall see when we come to California's reds. Semillon waits for an inspired compromise. Straight, it sticks.
There are other old-guard white varieties on California labels. There is Pinot Blanc from Burgundy, Grey Riesling whose ancestry reputedly lies in the Jura, Sylvaner from Germany. It is hard to get excited about the wine of any of these grapes. They may well, indeed, be allowed in due course to die out. The zones to watch are the new- Emerald Riesling guard grapes which are peculiar to California, of which Emerald Riesling is the best so far, and one or two minor European grapes whose Californian potential is only just emerging, notably the French Colombard and Folle Blanche. What these varieties have in common is plenty of acidity. Any grape that can ripen in the Central valley and still make a fresh white wine has a future in California.
The Eastern States wines of California are all made of European vines—or at least from varieties of the European vine species, Vitis vinifera. But America has its native vines, too. The wild vines whose exuberance made the first Norse discoverers of the continent christen it Vinland have been selected and bred for wine-making since Colonial times. There is a basic difference in flavour between their wine and that of Vitis vinifera it finds few admirers among those who are accustomed to European-style wine. But native vines have the advantage of thriving in the fiercely extreme climate of the eastern States, where Vitis vinifera has never (at least until recently) flourished. The important New York State wine industry round the Finger Lakes in the far north-west corner of the State was based on American vines originally, overwhelmingly, the dark juiced Concord. Today it still uses them and their hybrids for nearly all its wine.
"Champagne" - The most acceptable of the traditional New York wines to a European-wine drinker are the "champagnes". In the context of a sparkling wine the odd scented flavour of American grapes technically known as "foxiness") is less striking. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company's Great Western and Charles Fournier's Blanc de Blancs are good examples. Also Dr Frank has an interesting interesting development in the area (again, to a European- wine drinker) is the work of Dr Konstantin Frank, the founder of the The old tray Vinifera Wine Cellars at Hammondsport on Lake Keuka. Dr Frank comes from Russia, where winters even colder than those in New York fail to kill vinifera wines. He was employed in the early 1950s by Charles Fournier (himself a native of Champagne; former wine- maker of Veuve Clicquot), to try to vindicate vinifera vines in New York. He planted Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and others with complete success—even discovering that the Finger Lakes climate is conducive to "noble rot": he has made a Riesling Trocken Beerenauslese.
The industry, however, to his chagrin, has been unwilling to follow him. Instead, it has temporized and either planted hybrid vines, crosses between the European and American species, or stuck to its old ones. Knowing that fine wine can never come from either, Dr Frank believes that New York State is throwing away its chance of ever becoming a great vineyard. The truth seems to be that America has two co-existing markets for wine, and that the wineries who supply the strictly "American" one would be rash to give it up and compete in the other. Widmer's, another big Finger Lakes wine company, who recently planted five hundred acres of vineyard in Sonoma county, California, clearly believe that it is possible to have the best of both worlds.
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