Winemaking in America was established by early European colonists. It was greatly shaken by Prohibition in the 1930s, which saw the ripping up of many prized vineyards and it was not until the 1960s that a number of pioneering winemakers began to show the world what America could do.
So read on and explore the amazing variety of styles and grape varieties that this fascinating wineland has to offer.
California is by far the biggest producer of wine in the States producing around 90% of the country's total output. Vitis vinifera vines (those suitable for making wine) were brought here in the 1700s by Franciscan missionaries. The gold rush of the following century helped fuel demand for wine and was actively encouraged by the state. Even as early as the 1880s research was being carried out to establish the best regions for growing grapes with a special faculty set up at the University of California (now the world-famous Davis campus).
In more recent times, the late Robert Mondavi is credited with educating Americans on the benefits of good wine and good food, and the pristine, visitor-friendly wineries in California, particularly in Napa, are now the model for wine tourism across the world.
California has been stereotyped as a producer of big, blockbuster-style reds and ripe, oaky whites, and while these wines do exist, elegance and subtlety also play their part, helped by the cool Pacific winds and fog that blow in from the west, with a cooling effect on vineyards as far as 50 miles inland. The most appetising styles come from these cooler regions.
Napa and Sonoma are two regions that dominate Californian wine, but other regions are gaining in reputation, particularly those south of San Francisco, such as Paso Robles, Monterey, Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Maria Valley.
California's star grape varieties are cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, with good support from pinot noir, chardonnay and a number of Rhône varieties, too.
The Society believes that buying ubiquitous, bland - if well-made - brands is not the way to go, and that finding and following producers you respect and trust is the safer and more rewarding route.
Producers to look out for:
- Sonoma: Ravenswood, Ridge, Pedroncelli, Joseph Swan
- Napa: Dominus, Frog's Leap, Corrison, Silveroak
- Santa Maria: Au Bon Climat, Sahndi
Read about Au Bon Climat's winemaker owner, Jim Clendenen >
Oregon has a great reputation for pinot noir and aromatic white wines. The region is on the same latitude as Burgundy, but benefits from more consistently sunny summers and very cool nights. The hilly diverse geological landscape is also reminiscent of Burgundy and as such has attracted many French winemakers including Burgundian experts Drouhin and Jadot.
Jason Lett is credited as the first person to truly recognise pinot's possible success in Oregon when he spent his honeymoon planting own-rooted pinot vines in the Dundee Hills in 1965 at The Eyrie Vineyard. Fifty years on there are now more than 400 wineries producing pinot noir in Oregon across many sub regional areas, with the Willamette Valley having the greatest concentration of wineries. The pinot noir produced here has higher natural acidity than those from California. They also often have a savoury characteristic on the nose, but generous red berry tart fruits on the palate. These wines can develop great complexity with age and at their best represent some of the most serious fine wines produced in the USA.
Producers to look out for: Lemleson, Eyrie, Elk Cove, Cristom
The state of Washington in the Pacific northwest is second after California in terms of importance for wine and offers a great diversity of terroirs. All of the wine growing regions are in Eastern Washington where the Cascade Mountain range acts as a rain barrier allowing for vines to grow. The climate is generally continental with hot dry summers and a significant diurnal temperature flux with summer night time temperatures dropping by more than 15 degrees. Washington is becoming recognised globally for the production of fine cabernet, merlot, riesling and chardonnay.
When you think of California, you think of cabernet. Napa cabernet was put firmly on the map in 1976 when a red wine from California (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' SLV Cabernet Sauvignon) beat the best of Bordeaux in the now-legendary wine tasting, The Judgement of Paris. From that moment on, people took Cal-cabs seriously, not least the French, who were left feeling highly embarrassed - especially the judge who exclaimed 'Ah, back to France!' as he sipped a Napa chardonnay during the tasting.
The Society chooses to skip the ultra-ripe, heavily extracted wines that command ludicrous prices in California, and instead focuses on wines that have been crafted, we believe, more sensibly, with respect to their terroir. Cabernets from Napa are very different from those of Margaret River or Coonawarra in Australia, or those from Chile or South Africa, but it is too simplistic to talk of a generic Napa style.
While it is true that most Napa cabs possess bold black-fruit flavours with strong tannins, there is a noticeable variation in Napa's sub-regions (AVAs - American Viticultural Areas), which include Rutherford, Oakville, St Helena, Howell Mountain, and Stags Leap. And if you see a label with the word 'Meritage' (an amalgam of 'merit' and 'heritage'), it is merely a synonym for a Bordeaux blend. The term was chosen from about 6,000 entries during a contest in the late 1980s. (Thankfully, another entry, 'Tutti Cali Frutti', was unsuccessful.) Many of California's (and indeed the world's) finest Bordeaux-style reds, such as Ridge and Dominus, choose not to use the term.
The origins of zinfandel have recently been traced back to Croatia's obscure crljenak kastelanski grape (an ancestor of Italy's primitivo), which arrived in the United States in 1824. Indeed, The Society was listing California zinfandel as far back as 1883, so its fame had obviously spread far and wide. By the 1880s it had made its way to California where it has made a home. Zinfandel (also known as 'zin') offers rich, fruity, spicy, no-holds-barred flavours. While the big brands continue to churn out sickly-sweet 'blush' zinfandel rosés, thankfully there are plenty of winemakers in California, such as Joel Peterson at Ravenswood who recognises the quality of this variety and treats it seriously.
The zinfandel grape is surprisingly capricious for one that produces such robust red wine. It does not ripen evenly - at least not without a lot of work in the vineyard - and the winemaker's holy grail of full physiological ripeness can be hard to achieve without reaching high sugar levels and, therefore, alcohol. The best wines, often made from the lowest viable yields, will have an intensity of fruit that more than handles the higher alcohol. Older or particularly well-balanced vineyards, notably at Frog's Leap, whose wines have long been produced organically, tend to achieve good levels of ripeness at lower alcohol levels.
The grape's reputation has been knocked somewhat by certain growers favouring quantity over quality with plantings in unsuitably hot climates and yields that were more than was good for it. But in the right hands the grape can really excel across all price levels, producing wine that is muscular, intense, spicy and juicy, yet structured and abundantly fruity. A true California exclusive.
More progress has been made with pinot noir in California in recent years than any other variety. It is certainly the fastest-growing in terms of popularity, thanks mainly to the 2004 film Sideways. In the past, Californian pinots had a tendency to be rather jammy and alcoholic, but winemakers are finding the right spots to plant pinot vines, and the results are impressive, with elegant red fruits and delicious perfume. Au Bon Climat in the Santa Maria Valley, south of San Francisco, is a perfect example. Other good spots for pinot are Russian River Valley and Carneros, both in Sonoma.
Other white grapes do exist in California, but chardonnay has been the dominant force since the 1990s, and shows no signs of slipping. It is the most-planted grape in California, with around 100,000 acres of vineyards. The beauty of chardonnay is its rather neutral character, giving winemakers ample opportunity to put their stamp on it. Styles vary enormously from Burgundian to distinctly generous New World and all stops in between. Thankfully, winemakers are using far less oak than 10-20 years ago, allowing the tropical fruit flavours to shine. Chardonnay fans should look to regions like Monterey, which makes subtle, elegant versions, and also the Sonoma Coast for slightly richer, fuller examples.
It may never recover from the mauling it received in Sideways, but merlot is a more characterful grape than people give it credit for - as St Emilion and Pomerol producers have proven for years. Merlot may lack the delicacy of pinot noir, but actually, it offers what many wine drinkers are looking for: soft, rich, creamy fruit flavours with no hard edges. It also works brilliantly with cabernet, the latter offering a tannic backbone to merlot's easy charm.
Syrah is becoming more popular in the States, as are Rhône varieties generally, with innovative winemakers like Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon experimenting with marsanne, roussanne, viognier, and mourvèdre, among others. A word of warning: if you find a bottle of petite sirah, do not expect it to be a lighter version of syrah/shiraz. Petite sirah (aka durif in Australia) is a dark, tannic variety that produces uncompromising (but very good) wines. Syrah seems to have found its home in Paso Robles.