The USA, as a country, is one of the largest wine regions in the world whole though is only fifth largest producer. This is because the majority of wines produced in the USA are found in one state: California. California produces 90% of the USA’s total wine output. The following four regions, largest to smallest, are: Washington, Oregon, New York and Virginia. These are the top five states for wine production and make up roughly 96% of all of the USA’s wine output. It must be noted here that all 50 states are now producing wine – everyone from Alaska to Texas.
As noted above, California is the largest wine region in the country and naturally is the oldest. Wines have been made here since the early 17th century – though the wine regions and marketplace that we know today has flourished from the 1930/40s onwards.
USA has a long history of planting non-wine grape vines and making them into wines. These sorts of vines are from the vine family of Vitis Labrusca, where wine-grape vines are from Vitis Vinifera. Wines made from Labrusca vines are drinkable but are often described as foxy or rank and make wines of very low quality. Winemakers across America have used Vitis Labrusca vines over the last few hundred years, and still do, as they are American vines and are often best suited to the often harsh or extreme climates that America has to offer – climates that European (vitis Vinifera) vines can not grow in.
The USA has come a long way and now produce a wide variety of wines made from many different grapes in a wide variety of styles. One of the best words to describe the overall wine scene of the USA is: dynamic. The leading wineries of the USA are shaping wine styles and are often helping out the wine world by reviving old styles and grapes, as well as producing some very fine wines. The USA also is the largest consumer of wine in the world – both domestic wines and international.
Main Grapes or styles
Chardonnay – is grown in all of the five leading states but is most important in the California wine scene. The Chardonnays produced here can vary in style from light, citrusy and refreshing to big, tropical oak and butter-filled wines. Also very important for the sparkling wine production across California and New York states.
Sauvignon Blanc – is grown across California in the more coastal regions of Sonoma County and the coolest parts of the Napa Valley. Sauvignon Blanc will be riper than the classic-Marlborough style with more tropical and stone-fruit flavours. Fume-Blanc refers to a Sauvignon Blanc that has been aged in oak.
Cabernet Sauvignon – easily the most important grape variety of California, in particular in the regions of Napa Valley and along the Central Coast. It is equally important in Washington State and is growing in plantings in New York State’s Long Island region. California Cabernet Sauvignons are ripe, juicy, full-bodied reds with concentrated flavours of blackcurrant and black berry flavours.
Merlot – was once an unpopular grape variety and used purely to fill out cheap red blends, now it is made in top spots by top producers. It is incredibly important throughout California and Washington, it is also the ‘Napa Cabernet’ to New York’s Long Island. It produces ripe, velvety red wines with plum, chocolate and blackberry flavours.
Zinfandel – is the grape of California. Here it is grown in the warmest parts of Sonoma Valley and across the Central Coast regions. It is so important in California as it is seen as the only red that has a traditional-home in California – which it does but it should be mentioned it is also known as Primitivo and planted across southern Italy. Nonetheless the wines are quintessentially American with boisterous black and purple fruit flavours, full-bodies and often high in alcohol.
Pinot Noir – is grown throughout all five leading regions. In California it is produced in a riper, more fruit-forward style and is planted in the regions of Sonoma County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County. However in Oregon, Pinot Noir makes up nearly 90% of the states total vineyard area. Here it is produced a more French-style with a focus on a more savoury and floral side to Pinot Noir.
Riesling – is the leading white grape variety of New York state, mainly of the Finger Lakes region in the north of the state. It is also very important in Washington, and to a lesser extent in Oregon.
California – is the leading wine-producing state out of them all and produces 90% of all of the USAs wine. California is home to some of the cheapest (home of ‘2 Buck Chuck’) and the most expensive, fine and rare, and everything in between. Due to the hot climate throughout California it is home, primarily, to big juicy reds made from Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as some very ripe, oaky Chardonnays. The cooler pockets are reserved for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and grapes like Viognier and Syrah.
The leading sub-regions are the Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara County and Monterey Bay.
Washington – is the second largest wine producing state and possibly the most varied. It is home to all of the leading varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay but has made the grapes of Syrah and Riesling some of the states favourites. Washington State is unique that half of it, the eastern side, is covered in desert, and the western coastline is rather cold and for half the year is covered in frost.
The leading sub-regions are Columbia Valley and the Horse Heaven Hills.
Oregon – is the home to Pinot Noir and arguably some of the best examples outside of Burgundy in France. It doesn’t make much wine but it does get a lot of publicity for the wines they do produce. It is a rather small state that has found its climate is perfectly suited to the wines of Burgundy and Alsace, being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Pinot Noir is by far the majority – making up close to 90% of the vineyards.
The leading sub-regions are Willamette Valley and the Rogue Valley.
New York – is a rather large state with two leading sub-regions. New York has burst onto the wine scene through making a name for itself in producing some of the world’s leading examples of Rieslings. These Rieslings are found in the Finger Lakes region in the north, by the Canadian border. The other leading sub-region is Long Island which is significantly warmer and is making a name for itself through Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Climate and its effect on the wines made here
The USA, being rather spread out, has a large variation of climates. As a general rule: California and Washington are warm to hot climates producing ripe juicy whites and red wines. Oregon and New York state are cooler producing more aromatic white wines and light reds.