From Alabama to Wyoming, from the big-city buzz of the east coast to the laid-back vibes of the west, from the fruit-driven Symphony varietals of Hawaii to the salmonberry ‘wine’ of Alaska, across each of America’s fifty states, the cultivation and vinification of fruit is practised in one form or another. However, one state reigns supreme above all others. Accounting for nearly 90% of national production, California is credited with almost single-handedly propelling the US wine industry to greatness.
But the road to commercial success has been rocky to say the least. Imported European varieties initially suffered in this foreign environment, with viticultural pests such Phylloxera having a destructive impact on the vine. In the 1920s, Prohibition brought a constitutional ban on production and consumption of all alcoholic beverages, thus essentially closing down the wine industry. And, at the end of the decade, the famous Wall Street crash ushered in the Great Depression, which meant that even once prohibition was repealed in 1933, demand for wine remained limited, and production largely consisted of cheap, so-called ‘jug wine’ for the masses. Only really during the last half century, has the industry begun to develop the high-quality varietals and blends for which it is now internationally renowned.
Today, the United States is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain. Its growers cultivate an area of around 445,000 hectares which subsequently produce in excess of 18 million hectolitres of wine per year. As well as the acclaimed Californian AVAs (American Viticultural Areas - essentially the US equivalent of the European appellation), Washington and Oregon in the west, and New York in the east, are also home to a number of truly world class wine regions.
Non-surprisingly, given its size as well as its topographical and climatic diversity, a huge number of different grapes thrive in America’s vineyards. Chardonnay remains the most planted of the winemaking varieties with large representations in California, where it produces wines strikingly different to the French offerings from the same grape. It is also distinctive in that it is the only one of the top five grapes which is used to make white wines. The remaining four (in order of vine share) - Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel - all produce reds. Cabernet Sauvignon - the variety which established America’s reputation as a serious wine nation - dominates red plantings particularly in California where it delivers both exquisite varietals and blends in a typical Bordeaux style. Notoriously difficult to cultivate, Pinot Noir has seen its plantings (and sales) continue to increase in the cooler regions of the west coast (perhaps owing to its being the ‘love interest’ of Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways); Merlot (maybe on account of the same film) is in slight decline having seen significant growth in the 1980s and early 1990s - it remains however, the fourth most planted grape nationwide. In addition to the plethora of European varieties which now flourish here (often grafted onto native rootstock), the US has also engineered a number of hybrid grapes which are largely disease-resistant and / or can grow in particularly hostile environments.
Over the last few decades, the United States has secured its status as one of the world’s great wine nations. And whilst it’s international reputation rests largely on the rapid growth and success of the premier Californian regions such as Napa Valley, other less well-known AVAs are beginning to rise to prominence.
The golden state of California - so named for its Golden Gate Bridge, fields of golden poppies and perhaps most significantly, the 1848 discovery of gold which led to the rapid population growth of the region - is also the golden child of the US wine family. Accounting for nearly 90% of the country’s production, the area delivers world renowned mono-varietals and blends from the principal grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Admitted to the union on August 21st 1959, Hawaii is America’s fiftieth state and the world’s most isolated population centre. Renowned for their dramatic coastline, verdant landscape and unrivalled surf, the islands of Hawaii also boast a fledgling wine industry which produces floral and fruity wines from the Symphony grape variety.
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Canadian border, New York state is America’s third most productive wine region, and the flag-bearer for east coast wines. The cooler climate of the state’s northern latitude has proved particularly favourable for cultivating the Riesling grape.
The evergreen state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest, is the United States’ second largest wine-producing region. Unlike neighbouring Oregon, which is renowned chiefly for its Pinot Noir varietals, Washington produces high quality wines from almost seventy different grapes.