America’s wine country

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Napa Valley – Image: Heidi Butzine

When Europeans first arrived on the shores of America, they discovered a native grape growing in America.  They were disappointed to find that the local grapes did not produce very good wine.  Later, when the East was getting fairly populated, there were attempts to import grape cuttings from France, but this failed as well, as the grapes did not grow well in the colder climate.

It wasn’t until after Europeans immigrated to the west that winemaking really started in America.  Finding that the climate in California is similar to that of Italy and France, grape vines were imported from both of these regions and planted along the west coast.

Unfortunately, prohibition came about just as winemaking was getting on its feet.  The lost years destroyed all progress that had been made.  It took another thirty or forty years before American winemaking was finally back on its feet.

America’s wines were vindicated in 1976 when, for the first time, a California wine won over French wines in a blind taste test.  The French judges were amazed to have found they picked a new world wine, and American wine has continued to grow in quality since that time.

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley is considered the Bordeaux of America.  Much of France’s wine making success is due to its climate, which is both mild and varied.  California shares this unique characteristic, which makes it an especially good place to make wine.

Most major types of grapes are grown in Napa.  Some of the most popular grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir.  Of these, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most popular.  Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa is a full bodied fruity wine.  Merlot is velvety, with low tannin.  Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, and produces a complex white wine.  Zinfandel grows very well in California, and makes a signature spicy red wine.

There are hundreds of wineries in the Napa Valley, which extends for only 35 miles.  Most of the wineries offer tours year round, but the best times to go are April and October.

Sonoma, California

Sonoma lies to the west of Napa Valley, in between it and the Pacific Ocean.  The ocean gives Sonoma a cooler climate than Napa, allowing it to grow a wide variety of grapes.  In Sonoma you will find all California’s main grapes, both red and white.  These include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel.

Sonoma is home to the most prestigious of California’s wineries, as well as the oldest.  Some of these include Chateau St. Jean, Clos du Bois, Ferrari-Carano, Iron Horse, Sebastiani Vineyards, Simi Winery, and F. Korbel, which was started in 1882.  It is also home to Gallo, which is one of the biggest wineries in the world.

Zinfandel is one of the most famous of the California wines, in large part because the grapes grow so well in California.  Traditionally Zinfandel is a spicy red wine, but it can have a wide variety of different characters. It can be slightly sweet and fruity, elegant with blackberry flavors, or lighter, and more chill.

 The central coast of California

The Central Coast of California is a large stretch of land along the Pacific Ocean.  It goes from Santa Barbara in the south up to Santa Cruz in the north.  The coolness and humidity of the ocean combined with heat from the central valley provide numerous micro-climates, allowing the growing of a large variety of grapes.  The contrast between temperatures of land facing the ocean, and land on the other side of the hill is enormous.

Up in the north, towards Santa Cruz, grapes that require a cool climate, such as Pinot Noir, prosper.  Cabernet and Chardonnay are both plentiful in all areas along the central coast.  South of Santa Cruz, Monterey County grows all the main varieties for grapes, but especially Cabernet.  Further south are San Luis Obispo and Santa Ynez, which are known for Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.  At the south end, Santa Barbara grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Sparkling Wines

Although nothing made outside of the French region of Champagne is allowed to be called Champagne, that doesn’t mean that American champagne (with a small “c”) can be dismissed.  Many wineries in the U.S. use the same techniques as the French wineries in Champagne do to produce sparkling wine.

There are also new techniques used in American sparkling wines.  One of these is called vat process.  This method of fermentation involves fermenting wine in pressurized tanks, which doesn’t allow the carbon dioxide created during the fermentation to escape.

Sparkling wines are usually best when made from grapes that are slightly under-ripe, and highly acidic.  Usually these are grapes that are grown in cooler regions.  In the U.S., sparkling wines typically originate from either California or New York.

Oregon and Washington

In Oregon, the wine region is known mostly for Pinot Noir, which is grown along the coast south of Portland.  The coastal breeze is vital to growing Pinot Noir.  Oregon also grows Chardonnay, but to a much lesser extent.  As far as white wines go Oregon is much more famous for its Pinot Gris than for its Chardonnay.

Washington is located directly north of Oregon, but the grape growing regions of Washington are vastly different.  Rather than coastal vineyards, most of Washington’s vineyards are inland, in the drier eastern portion of the state.  While Washington also grows all of the standard red and white grapes, it is most well known for Merlot.  Washington Merlot is a velvety soft wine.

New York

New York is home to the oldest wineries in America.  Grapes were first grown in New York by creating a hybrid between the traditional European wine grapes and more hardy grapes that can survive the colder climate.  Along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, New York wineries grow some varieties of grapes native to America.  These include Catawba, Delaware, and Niagara.

Just as the innovative spirit of America moved early winemakers to persevere, this passion and dedication to quality continues today in keeping the country’s reputation as a leader in the wine-making world.

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