Over 84% of the U.S.’s wine production comes from California, 5% from Washington, 3% from New York, 1½% from each of Oregon and Pennsylvania, and the balance from the rest of the nation. Surprisingly there are 41 wine producing states.
The U.S. follows the Appellation System, similar to France and Italy, whereby there are currently 242 American Viticultural Areas (AVA). 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 that particular appellation.
I have elected to discuss in more detail the wines of California, Washington, and Oregon as these are the wines that are available from Canadian retailers. For whatever reason wines from New York, though having higher production levels than Oregon, are not as readily available to much of Canada.
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 be from California for a wine labeled as such, and Washington requires 95% of the grapes in a Washington wine to be grown in Washington.
For bottles labeled with a varietal, at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine must be of that varietal. In Oregon, the requirement is 90% for certain varietals, such as pinot noir. The requirement is a minimum of 95% in California.
California has been stereotyped as a producer of big, blockbuster-style reds and ripe, oaky whites. However, while these wines do exist, elegance and subtlety also play their part.
Napa and Sonoma are two regions that dominate Californian wine, but other regions are gaining in reputation, particularly those south of San Francisco, such as Paso Robles, Monterey, Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Maria Valley. The wine must be from a particular vintage for that year to appear on the label.
California’s most renowned grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. However, there are significant amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as lesser amounts of a number of French varieties, such as Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and Mourvèdre.
Oregon has a great reputation for Pinot Noir and aromatic white wines, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The region is on the same latitude as Burgundy, but benefits from more consistently sunny summers and very cool nights.
There are now more than 400 wineries producing pinot noir in Oregon across many sub regional areas, with the Willamette Valley having the greatest concentration of wineries. The Pinot Noir produced there has higher natural acidity than those from California. They also often have a savoury characteristic on the nose, but generous red berry tart fruits on the palate. These wines can develop great complexity with age and at their best represent some of the most serious fine wines produced in the USA.
The state of Washington is second after California in terms of importance for wine and offers a great diversity of terroirs. All of the wine growing regions are in Eastern Washington where the Cascade Mountain range acts as a rain barrier allowing for vines to grow. The climate is generally continental with hot dry summers and a significant diurnal temperature flux with summer night time temperatures dropping by more than 15 degrees. Washington is becoming recognised globally for the production of fine Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay.
The one grape varietal that is pretty much exclusive to the U.S. and California in particular, is the Zinfandel. The Zinfandel grape is very challenging to grow. It does not ripen evenly and full ripeness can be hard to achieve without reaching high sugar levels and, therefore, alcohol. The best wines, often made from the lowest viable yields, will have an intensity of fruit that more than handles the higher alcohol. Older or particularly well-balanced vineyards tend to achieve good levels of ripeness at lower alcohol levels.
The grape’s reputation has been knocked somewhat by certain growers favouring quantity over quality with plantings in unsuitably hot climates and yields that were more than was good for it. But in the right hands the grape can really excel across all price levels, producing wine that is muscular, intense and spicy, yet structured and abundantly fruity.
With regards to American wines, Zinfandel is well worth a try, and if you like big and bold wine, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay may be to your liking. My personal favourites would include Oregon’s Pinot Noir. Oregon Pinot is more expensive than similar wines from California or Washington, and often more difficult to find, but in my opinion the flavour difference is worth the extra effort and cost to acquire one.