by Jane Garvey
Winemaking in the United States is evolving at a rapid pace and taking on new challenges as it explodes in new regions. After early phases when everybody planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (whether it made sense for the region or not but because that’s what customers wanted) vintners seem to be settling down to planting their special grapes that are appropriate to the terroir. Today, although there are some fine examples of Cabernet Sauvignon in Oregon, the grape is about sixth from the top of the heap in that state. Oregon has hooked its viticultural star to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, although you can also find well-made wines from other varieties as well, for example: Arneis at Ponzi, Tempranillo at Abacela; Riesling at Argyle, Müller-Thurgau & Gewürztraminer at Henry Estate.
The “League Leader,” California, is nearly synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but other varieties have their regions. Sonoma Coast does splendid Pinot Noir, not to forget Carneros, Russian River Valley, Monterey County; and Santa Barbara County for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Napa Valley is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon (see Hess Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon) and Chardonnay, but Sauvignon Blanc is a major performer here as well. Anderson Valley is sparkling wine country. Shenandoah Valley (Amador and El Dorado counties), Lodi and Paso Robles stand out for their Zinfandel wines. But other varieties are coming on strong, too. I loved the Barberas I found in the Shenandoah Valley on my 2009 visit and the Rhône varieties in Paso Robles. And in San Luis Obispo County, Claiborne & Churchill’s Dry Gewürztraminer blew me away.
With more than 740 wineries and 40,000 planted acres, Washington State is the second largest producer of wines in the United States after California. In 1981, there were only 19 wineries there! Riesling does magnificently in Washington, and in fact is the leading white wine grape in the state. When I think of “hidden gem” Washington State reds, Lemberger, known in Austria as Blaufrankisch, leaps to mind. (See Steele’s Shooting Star Blue Franc.) Certainly, no other state gives it as much attention.
But Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot top the list respectively. By some experts’ reckoning, Leonetti does America’s best Merlot.
America’s best Semillon in my view is produced at L’Ecole No. 41, and don’t turn down a bottle of that winery’s Merlot. Washington State’s whites outstrip its reds in production 55%-45%, but its lead red is Cabernet Sauvignon, and I must confess, when I visited there some time ago, the state gave me a whole new–and positive–perspective on the grape. A 2000 Columbia Winery Otis Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that I opened a short time ago showed real poise and depth, proving their cellarability. Life’s been good lately to Washington State, which hit a record harvest in 2010, and picked up a 12th AVA–Naches Heights–in 2011.
East Coast wineries always seem to be playing catch-up to the West Coast rivals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t stellar wines being made here. Winemaking in New York State is as old as the French Huguenots who settled there in the 17th century (New Rochelle). Rochelle, France, which launched them, was a Huguenot stronghold. And Dutch settlers had grapes growing as well. Today, the state ranks third after California and Washington State, with most wine growing around the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Valley and the North Fork of Long Island (although there are three stalwarts on the South Fork).
New York‘s Pleasant Valley Winery (a/k/a Great Western) is U.S. Bonded Winery no. 1 (1860), and the oldest continuously operating winery in the United States, Brotherhood Winery, is located in the Hudson River Valley AVA.
Most of New York winemaking is devoted to Vitis Labrusca (native varieties such as Catawba, Niagara, Concord and Delaware). But Vitis Vinifera has its adherents, and among those grapes Riesling and Merlot are the stand-outs, although I have also had some excellent Cabernet Franc (Martha Clara’s on Long Island) and knock-out Gewürztraminer (Lenz, also on Long Island). And Long Island’s Wölffer Estate, founded by a German and still with a German winemaker, does excellent sparkling wine and Merlot, among other well-crafted wines.
Then in the Southern US, the icon grape is Muscadine/Scuppernong, actually the same grape. This is Vitis rotundifolia (round leaf), and these grapes do not grow in bunches. Muscadine offers some important nutrients, such as quercetin, which may be useful as an anti-inflammatory. Advocates have noted the grape’s high levels of resveratrol, but recent research has questioned this assertion. Like any other grape, Muscadine may be made in a dry style playing down its “foxy” character (see Georgia’s Still Pond dry white Musadine or any of the Horse Creek Muscadines) or unabashedly showcase that Muscadine character (Warm Springs Winery).
But there are other grapes emerging as potentially iconic to the South as Southern viticulture changes and grows with amazing speed, with North Carolina now numbering more than 100 wineries. Emerging as important there (as well as North Georgia) are two grapes of Italian descent: Barbera (North Carolina‘s Grassy Creek), and Sangiovese (Georgia’s BlackStock Vineyard & Winery). Among Vitis vinifera grapes, Merlot has long been iconic to Virginia, and now Petit Verdot is proving its mettle. Cabernet Franc could well be the icon red wine for the entire East Coast, all the way to North Georgia. Among white wine grapes, Viognier leads as the prime candidate for iconic white wine on the East Coast, although Petit Manseng is showing its stuff, especially from Virginia (Horton and Chrysalis) to North Georgia (Tiger Mountain and Cavender Creek).
Then, let’s look at the French American hybrids, mostly now banned in France (except Baco Blanc used to make Armagnac). Most important of those are Seyval, which can make a lovely crisp, dry or dessert white wine (see the one from Crane Creek in North Georgia), and I‘ve seen it as sparkling wine in Quebec (Vignoble de l‘Orpailleur).
Chambourcin, now most widely planted in Australia and very popular on the East Coast of the United States (Georgia‘s Habersham Dessert Chambourcin); and Traminette, one of whose parents is Gewürztraminer (see Crane Creek and Serenity Cellars of North Georgia, although the latter uses New York juice). Indiana has chosen Traminette as its signature grape. Another that shows real promise is Chardonnel, grown from Missouri to North Georgia (Crane Creek).
Two grapes that are likely to become iconic in the South are LeNoir and Blanc du Bois, developed for Florida viticulture. Blanc du Bois, named for Frenchman Emile du Bois who was in the wine making business in the Tallahassee area in the late 19th century, makes a really lovely white wine with plenty of citrus/grapefruit character. Raymond Haak in Texas makes the best one I’ve ever tasted (the dry Blanc du Bois), but it’s being planted in Georgia and the results could be very interesting. LeNoir also is getting attention in Georgia, which could, in fact, be its original home state.
When you look at the figures over the last 30 years of American winemaking, the growth is absolutely stunning. While one has to wonder where it would be by now had Prohibition not interrupted its progress, one thing we do have to celebrate this fourth of July is the speed of its recovery since the 1970s. At one point in the state of Washington, they were opening a new winery every 13 days!! Staggering.
While brief by European standards, America has a rich, vinous history, and now seeing its “2nd Golden Age of Wine,” it seems to have claimed a position among the world-class producers.