Everyone has heard of Napa, the quintessential US wine region, or has seen the film Sideways where two men in their forties head off on a road trip to Santa Barbara County. However, there is more to American wine than California, the largest and most important USA wine region.
Although California alone produces five times more than the combined total of Washington, Oregon and New York, the three next most important wine-producing states.
Wine has been made in the US for several centuries, but it has only really begun to gain global respect in the last forty years or so. Wine grapes are grown in all US states to some extent and the country is home to many less-well known wine regions which are now producing high quality wines. Yet the four most important states together make up 95% of the country’s entire production, and much of the wine produced outside the big four is intended mostly for local consumption.
The three American wine regions outside California which should be on every wine lover’s radar are Washington and Oregon on the West Coast and New York State on the East.
Washington State is divided in two by the Cascade Mountains, with Western Washington’s climate tempered by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean and the Puget Sound. Only a limited amount of viticulture takes place here in its one AVA, Puget Sound. Eastern Washington, on the other hand, is a vast desert with hot, dry summers and freezing winters and much of the state’s wine production occurs here in the Columbia River AVA and its many sub-AVAs. Viticulture is only possible here thanks to irrigation from the local rivers and their moderating effect on both summer and winter temperatures.
The main varieties grown in Washington are Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The state initially garnered praise for its reds, but it also grows exceptional Riesling, for both dry and sweet late-harvest or botrytised versions. Its wines are distinguished from their Californian counterparts by their relatively crisp acidity and bright, crunchy fruit.
This state in the Pacific Northwest is a young, but promising American wine region, which, thanks to its Pinot Noirs in particular, is increasingly regarded as world class. Classic Oregon Pinot, especially that from the Willamette Valley AVA, is reminiscent of spicy black cherry, strawberry jam and fresh mushrooms. A number of top Burgundian houses have even invested in the region, confirming the high quality of the reds produced in this US wine region. Oregon Pinot Gris, the second most planted variety, although far behind its cousin Pinot Noir, is also winning fans along with popular cool-climate varieties Riesling and Chardonnay.
Oregon is a relative newcomer with many small, family-run boutique wineries, but it is starting to make a real impact on the world wine map.
The finest wines of this USA wine region, ranking third in volume after Washington, come from the vineyards around the Finger Lakes, which help to temper the severity of winter frosts. Indeed, most of New York’s vineyards are nestled close to rivers, various lakes or the coast to benefit from their thermal mass, otherwise vines would simply not be able to survive in this cool climate.
The best New York wines are made from cool-climate-friendly Riesling, which produces both crisp, dry whites and lusciously sweet ice wine. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot are also grown successfully here, along with hybrid varieties such as hardy Vidal or Concord, the most extensively planted grape in the eastern US, introducing many Americans to wine and the grape used to produce one of New York’s special niches - sweet Kosher wine.
If you’d like to voyage beyond Napa, our local wine experts at Wine Paths can help you get to grips with key American wine regions and guide you through the maze of local AVAs.
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