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Of all the New World wine countries, perhaps the one which has demonstrated the most flair for producing high quality wines - using a combination of traditional and forward-thinking contemporary methods - has been the United States of America. For the past couple of centuries, the United States has set about transforming much of its suitable land into vast vineyards, capable of supporting a wide variety of world-class grape varietals which thrive on both the Atlantic and the Pacific coastlines. Of course, we immediately think of sun-drenched California in regards to American wines, with its enormous vineyards responsible for the New World's finest examples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines, but many other states have taken to viticulture in a big way, with impressive results. Oregon, Washington State and New York have all developed sophisticated and technologically advanced wine cultures of their own, and the output of U.S wineries is increasing each year as more and more people are converted to their produce.
The United States wine industry can trace its origins on two coasts. When the Spanish missionaries came to the New World with the conquistadores they brought with them Christianity and grapevines. The first Spanish vines are thought to have been planted as early as the 17th century, around colonial settlements in what are now New Mexico and Texas. The earliest California grapevines were planted in what is now downtown Los Angeles. As the padres blazed a trail up the coast of California, they planted grapes at each of their missions in order to make sacramental wine. These so-called mission grapes were the beginning of the California wine industry.
On the East Coast, early American settlers attempted to grow the European species Vitus vinifera, only to see their vines die from disease and severe climate. Although they experimented with wines from the native varieties such as Vitus rupestris and Vitus labrusca, the berries made strong-tasting, foxy-flavored wine. American grape growers of the 19th century discovered that by grafting European varieties to American rootstock, they could produce not only hardy vines, but good-tasting wines. Prior to the start of the 20th century, American viticulture and wine making had been established in many Eastern states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Missouri, and eventually south to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas.
Meanwhile, back on the sunny West Coast, California wines were being fueled by the fire of European immigration. As people flocked to California in search of gold in the mid 19th century, many brought with them the viticulture and winemaking traditions of their native countries, principally Italy, but also Germany, Hungary and Switzerland. A wine industry was born, concentrated in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and the Sierra Foothills. In 1920, national Prohibition was established, and although home winemaking was allowed, the commercial wine industry was essentially destroyed. After repeal, the twin blows of Depression and World War II did further damage. With notable exceptions, the industry post World War II was basically comprised of bulk bottlers who mass-produced lines of generic wines with more attention to volume than quality.
Spurred by a number of social and economic changes, the wine industry dusted itself off in the late 1960's and early 1970's. An American wine Renaissance began, concentrated in California. New wineries, both large and small, were created, and new vineyards were planted matching grape varieties to place in the European tradition. Innovation and investment in technology were mantras; quality, on a par with (or surpassing) the French, the Holy Grail. A consumer culture eager to learn about and experiment with wine as part of the "good life" added fuel to the fire. Table wine consumption rose dramatically, awards were won, a parallel food revolution ignited, and the world began to take notice.
Varietal Information Varietal or Appellation: Varietal labeling as a concept helped define California wines and indeed that of most New World wines. Before the repeal of Prohibition, American wines were loosely labeled more or less by style, with generic categories such as "Burgundy" or "Chablis" meaning respectively hearty red and light white wine of indeterminate varietal origin. After Prohibition, Americans began to change their attitude about wines. Indiscriminate blending and generic labeling was replaced with honest appellations and most importantly, true varietal names. Today, appellation names are noted on the label, but are secondary in importance to the name of the varietal (as opposed to France, where the site where the grapes were grown is preeminent). Some quick guidelines:
American wines labeled with a grape variety must be at least 75% that variety. Wines with an AVA indicated must have 85% of grapes from that AVA in the blend. Wines with vintage years must have 95% of grapes from that year in the blend.
Individual vineyards within an appellation can be named on the label, provided that 95% of the grapes for the wine is sourced from that vineyard.
Today, although every U.S. state except Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota make wine, and commercial wine production is an important industry in five: California (leader by far), New York, Texas, Washington State and Oregon. An appellation system for wines somewhat similar to the French AOC exists. But the U.S. system of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) delimits geographical wine zone boundaries only. It does not dictate which varieties can be grown where, maximum yield per acre or other rules related to place, so in that sense is somewhat less rigid than the European models. There are currently 137 AVAs in the United States; 81 in the state of California alone.
CALIFORNIA: Napa Valley, Sonoma, Central Coast, North Coast, Santa Cruz, Central Valley, Sierra Foothills, South Coast, Paso Robles.
NEW YORK: Long Island, Hudson River Valley, Finger Lakes, Erie
OREGON: Willamette Valley, Rogue River Valley .
WASHINGTON STATE: Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley.
OTHER US REGIONS
The Garden State has long been known for tasty peaches and berries, but increasingly New Jersey also has aspirations as a wine growing region. Already an enthusiastic table wine customer with the country's fifth highest per capita consumption, New Jersey now has a growing number of vintners striving to create modern wines that will appeal to enthusiasts beyond local markets. The state's seventeen wineries are distributed among eight counties. Moderate-size vineyards, typically of 15-50 acres, bottle approximately 84,000 cases per year, adding an estimated $10 million to the state's economy. Native grapes have been cultivated in New Jersey for decades but are often unacceptable to modern palates. The chief challenge to advanced viticulture is summer humidity. With spraying not always successful against fungi and bacteria, vintners' traditional remedy has been to plant French-American hybrid vines, which are hardier than the Europeans while still offering some sophisticated flavors. Several of these, including Vidal, Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc, have become mainstays of the New Jersey industry.
The latest generation of winemakers are also taking on the challenge of managing French, German and Italian varietals with modern techniques within their terroir. When this effort succeeds, the larger choice of materials affords greater potential for good winemaking. New Jersey's southern viticultural region dates back to the 1800's, when the native grape juice industry grew up around Vineland, Atlantic County (the original Welch's Concord juice and jelly concern started nearby in Landisville).
The topography includes flat or low hills and sandy soil, and a maritime climate moderated by ocean and Delaware Bay breezes. Northern viticultural regions have been developed within the last twenty years. The terrain here is hilly, with limestone or shale soils on hillside vineyards, and includes New Jersey's first Approved Viticultural Area (AVA) completely within the state, designated in 1988 in Warren County. The wine industry continues to stretch boundaries here, with steadily growing vineyards and technology. With its native varietals, hybrids, and classic Europeans, New Jersey cultivates over forty different grapes -- and wines of every imaginable style, from sweet aperitifs to dry dinner wines, dessert and port styles, sparkling wines, and cordials.
The most common New Jersey wines are simple, fruity everyday drinking wines at very moderate prices. Locals still seem to need coaxing when it comes to dry wines, and many offerings are sweetish and forgettable (though correspondingly priced). However, sophistication is increasing. Today's vintners have studied stainless steel and barrel fermentation, carbonic maceration and especially barrel aging in American and French oak, and are learning to apply improved technology to the local grapes.
While interest in fruit wines (cherry, plum, peach, raspberry, blackberry, and cranberry) remains strong, the ambitious New Jersey wine industry has added serious dinner wines to the portfolio, including Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon. Germanic and Italian influences are seen in Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio plantings.
To the casual observer Missouri doesn't seem like an obvious site for making wine, but it does have a successful wine producing history dating back as early as 1837. Wine growers around the town of Hermann in the German-influenced "Missouri Rhineland" produced about 3 million gallons per annum by 1904, but as in other areas around the country, Prohibition, starting in 1920, destroyed most wine enterprises, with vineyards uprooted and equipment sold off. In the last forty years, over thirty producers in the central and southern parts of the state, including the Ozark Mountains and Highlands, have revived Missouri winemaking efforts.
The state can have searing summers and frigid winters, so most vineyards are located near the Missouri, Gasconade and Mississippi Rivers, where the water's presence protects vines from early spring frosts and moderates summer heat by as much as 25 degrees. Recognized American Viticultural Areas include Augusta (in 1980, the first recognized American AVA), Hermann, Ozark Mountains and Ozark Highlands.
Ohio winemaking can be traced back to the early 1800's, when an attorney from the Cincinnati area planted native Catawba grapes and the resulting light, semisweet wines became popular. Wine production grew to over 300,000 gallons per year, making Ohio the country's largest wine producer by 1860, but after that grape growing died out due to Civil War and crop disease. In the late 1800's and early 1900's a new vineyard area emerged in the Lake Erie Islands and the southern shore of Lake Erie, where frigid winter temperatures and spring frosts are mitigated by the presence of the lake. Dozens of small concerns there produced native wines, only to be struck down by Prohibition and population changes that appropriated former vineyard land for industrial and housing tracts. In the early 1960's, Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster encouraged the planting of several French-American hybrids in southern Ohio. This successful effort was soon followed by further plantings in the Lake Erie Grape Belt. Since 1965 more than 60 new wineries have been established across the state, and today Ohio has 5 viticultural appellations and several sub-appellations. The AVA's are Lake Erie East, Lake Erie West, Central Ohio, Ohio Heartland, and Ohio River Valley.
In response to a shortage of local grapes, the state of Ohio initiated a successful campaign in the 1990's to support vineyard expansion. Sweet native and fruit wines are still available, but French-American hybrids such as Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin are more popular today, and many in the industry are pinning high hopes on French and German vinifera, including Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and even Cabernet Sauvignon. Ohio table wines, particularly whites, have begun to show well in major US wine competitions, and the industry continues to grow enthusiastically.
Winemaking efforts have reappeared in Tennessee since 1973, when several individual growers formed together to create the Tennessee Viticultural and Oenological Society. In 1982, newly-licensed commercial wineries banded together to create the Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Association, which now has around two dozen small wineries in operation.
Most Tennessee wines are made in semi-sweet or dessert styles, but there are also a few dry dinner wines. A variety of grapes is used, including European varietals Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but the majority are hybrids such as Vidal, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin and native varietals such as Muscadine, Catawba and Niagara. Most wineries grow at least some of their own grapes, but the climate is not ideal for viticulture, and importing juice from other states is also common.
With a wine industry dating most recently from the 1970's, Texas is the United States' fifth largest wine state. It has around 40 producing wineries. Most are small operations, with the exception of Ste. Genevieve in West Texas, by far the largest grower and producer, and responsible for around nine-tenths of Texas wine. The state's substantial appetite accommodates most (95%) of the more than one million gallons produced per annum, so at present not much wine leaves the state.
Well-traveled, enthusiastic ownership, university-trained winemakers and modern winemaking necessities such as controlled fermentation tanks, modern clones, and oak aging bode well for the quality and future of the industry, which has been compared to that of California in the 1970's. But though a surprisingly high 41% of consumers say they drink wine, Texas wine law is still in transition. For the moment it retains a number of Bible belt restrictions, principally regarding conditions of sale, which hardly encourage the majority of small wineries, which together produce only ten percent of Texas wine. As a wine producer, Texas is still establishing an identity. The industry wisely emphasizes the connection between wine and food, so dry and off-dry table wines are spotlighted in many events. Styles from sparkling wines to blush, fortified and port styles are also offered from French, Italian, German and even Spanish varietals. The most common red varietal is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, and even Pinot Noir. Among whites, Chardonnay predominates, followed by Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and others.
In national competitions, Texas wines have shown well. Texas AVA's include Texas High Plains, Mesilla Valley, Escondido Valley, Texas Davis Mountains, and the country's second largest AVA, Texas Hill Country, which at 15,000 square miles also encompasses Bell Mountain and Fredericksburg.
Virginia has always aspired to create fine wines. English colonists planted grapevines here as early as the 1600's, and the wine-loving Thomas Jefferson hoped to make viticulture a viable alternative to the ubiquitous tobacco. But despite early experiments with European and native varietals, satisfying results eluded vintners for a long time. Humid summers, indigenous pests, civil war and even seasonal hurricanes overwhelmed the early vineyards, which produced disappointing wines from native grapes and succumbed to fungus among imported vines. In the 1960's and 70's, new efforts with French hybrids and European varietals allowed a mammoth leap forward in grape quality. In the last fifteen years, more vigorous vines, new consumer interest and modern spraying programs allowed the revived wine industry to flower and grow to over $40 million dollars per annum. Assisted by dedicated trade organizations and ambitious owners, Virginia wine production grew from 75,000 cases yearly in the 1980's to over 293,000 cases today, with the number of wineries increasing from a tiny six in 1979 to over seventy. The most popular wines are Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, supplemented by other old world varieties; a number have been favorably reviewed in national competitions. The native Norton and hybrids Seyval and Vidal are also still produced. Six American Viticultural Areas established in the 1980's and 90's are Monticello [Thomas Jefferson's estate], North Fork of Roanoke, Northern Neck/George Washington Birthplace, Rocky Knob, Shenandoah Valley, and Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Numerous Virginia state policies support excellence in the industry. Under the Farm Winery Law of 1980, wineries that make at least 51% of their wine from their own grapes may sell at wholesale and retail levels without additional licenses. The dynamic Virginia Wine Marketing Office works with the State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to expedite local commerce and promote wine (www.virginiawines.org/). Wine tourism, which has become a popular weekend pastime, supports over 250 festivals throughout the state.
OTHER US REGIONS
Among the other states to look for are: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Since it began in the 1820s, wine-production in Washington state has gone from strength to strength, with many of the finest United States wines coming out over the past twenty years hailing from this region. Today, the state is the second largest US producer of wines, behind California, with over forty thousand acres under vine. The state itself is split into two distinct wine regions, separated by the Cascade Range, which casts an important rain shadow over much of the area. As such, the vast majority of vines are grown and cultivated in the dry, arid desert-like area in the eastern half of the state, with the western half producing less than one percent of the state's wines where it is considerably wetter. Washington state is famed for producing many of the most accessible wines of the country, with Merlot and Chardonnay varietal grapes leading the way, and much experimentation with other varietals characterizing the state's produce in the twenty-first century.