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A guide to USA wine regions
By BBC Maestro
When you think of American wine, you probably think of Californian wine. After all, the Golden State is the country’s biggest – and most famous – producer of wine. But did you know that wine is made in all 50 states?
If you’re intrigued to find out more, here’s everything you need to know about USA wine regions, including the best of California wine regions – and beyond.
An introduction to American winemaking
In Europe, we might typically reach for classic Old World wines, like a good bottle of French Burgundy or a fresh, bright Italian Pinot Grigio – and we might be inclined to ignore the shelves of New World wines, including those from the USA.
But the United States is actually one of the world’s biggest producers of wine, meaning there’s a huge amount to explore – and this wine region shouldn’t be ignored when you’re searching for the perfect bottle.
People have been making wine in the United States since the 1500s, and wine is produced in all 50 states – although California is by far the most famous (and prolific) of all the states, accounting for 85% of all US wine production, according to the National Association of American Wineries.
Because the USA is so big, there is a huge variety of different wines produced across the country. Jancis Robinson explains in her BBC Maestro course, An Understanding of Wine:
“In the USA, there are 260 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), grape growing regions that sometimes (but by no means always) have unique geological and geographical features. These can be enormous – the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA crosses four states and covers 7.7 million hectares – while the tiny Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino County, California, is only 25 hectares.”
That means there’s really something for everyone when it comes to American wines, whether you prefer the classic flavours of the big Californian winemakers, artisanal bottles from small, family-run businesses, or want to try something different like vegan wine or orange wine.
Wine regions in the United States
With such a varied landscape across the country, there is something different to be found in each of the USA’s wine regions. From the well-known California wines to up-and-coming wine regions, here are the USA wine regions you need to know about.
Napa Valley, California
You can’t talk about American wine without mentioning Napa Valley. It is the most famous wine region in the United States – even though, as Jancis Robinson explains – “it produces a tiny fraction of all the wine made in America, and even a tiny fraction of all the wine made in California, which is the equivalent of a country really, even as far as wine production is concerned.”
She goes on to explain why Napa Valley is known around the world:
“Napa Valley is the most famous because it achieves the highest prices, it’s been around for longer than most as a fine wine region, it is beautiful, it’s kept itself beautiful, it’s a tourist destination, and it’s got all those Silicon Valley millionaires prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for a cult wine, for a big name.”
When it comes to wine, Napa Valley is undeniably the home of Cabernet Sauvignon. The summers in California are hot – although nights can be cooler thanks to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. That means that a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a little different to those made in Bordeaux. The alcohol levels tend to be higher, meaning the wines are riper and sweeter – a great choice if you’re looking for a full-bodied red wine.
Central Coast, California
The Napa Valley isn’t the only winemaking region in California. The coastal regions also produce excellent wines, thanks to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. As Jancis Robinson explains:
“The Pacific Ocean has huge impact on the world of wine and its cooling influence on the coast of California transforms the normally hot California vineyard into something much cooler, brings in fog and lowers the temperature.”
That means that, she goes on to say, “All along the coast of California, you’ve got little pockets of viticulture producing some pretty sophisticated wine that’s much, much lighter and with more acidity than the stereotypical California wine.”
It’s in the central coast area that the film Sideways was shot, in which two middle-aged friends take a trip through California wine country. The film kickstarted an obsession with California Pinot Noir, increasing sales across the country and in the UK.
One of the top regions to look out for within the central coast is Santa Rita Hills. It is, as Jancis explains, “just inland from the Pacific and is making some very, very cool – literally, in every sense – wines, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
Directly to the north of California is Oregon state, which has a much cooler climate than its southern neighbour. That means that Oregon better replicates the traditional climate of Burgundy, with Pinot Noir as its signature grape, particularly from around the Willamette Valley. It’s a popular grape, but as Jancis explains “because the world is in love with red Burgundy, it doesn’t do any harm to be making much less expensive versions of it, which is what Oregon can offer us.”
California has a lot of big wine producers, but in Oregon, they tend to be smaller, artisanal operations, which until recently have been mostly family-run. In recent years, there has been a lot of investment in Oregon wine, as Jancis explains “both from California, where it’s getting a bit too hot for comfort, and significantly, from Burgundy because they can see the similarities between Oregon and Burgundy.”
Despite the rainy weather in Oregon, winemakers in the state have been very good at adopting organic practices and making biodynamic wines, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of Oregon with even more investment.
To the north of Oregon is Washington state, known for its wet and windy climate. It’s the second biggest producer of wine in the USA, second only to California, and is famous for its red wine, particularly Merlot.
American Merlot doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation, suffering from – as Jancis explains “the very ordinary quality and excessive sweetness of inexpensive California Merlot, which presumably explained the scorn for it in the film 'Sideways’.”
However, she goes on to explain that “it has a proven track record in Washington State where its charms are attractively balanced by crisp acidity and good colour.”
But it’s not all about Merlot in Washington. You’ll also find good quality Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in Washington, as well as a smaller number of white wines, the most prevalent of which are Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer.
Finger Lakes, New York
The west coast dominates the American wine scene, but there is a smaller haven of top-quality wine regions over on the east coast, too. The most notable of these is Finger Lakes in New York State.
The deep glacial lakes in the region create a microclimate that’s perfect for growing vines. The steep slopes of the lakes keep cold air moving in winter, so it never gets seriously cold, and helps to prevent spring frost.
This region is known for one wine above all others: Riesling. As Jancis says, “Riesling is quite clearly the most successful variety in the Finger Lakes region of New York state where some extremely delicate Rieslings are produced.”
These four wine regions are just some of the areas producing top wine in the USA. Every single state produces wine, so whether you want to try something from Alabama or Wisconsin, you’ll find plenty of choice.
And if you want to find out more about wine in general, sign up for Jancis Robinson’s BBC Maestro course, An Understanding of Wine. From the history of wine to practical tips on choosing the perfect bottle, this course is perfect for wine novices and wine buffs alike.