Great Wines from The United States
THE UNITED STATES
There is hardly a state in the Union nowadays that does not harbour a vineyard, but commercial wine production is concentrated on the West Coast and in New York State. The Eastern wine industry has been based on native American vines that give a strange animal-like flavour to the wines which can be off-putting to those not reared on them. European vines are increasingly being planted in the East, but even if they take over, the major US wine exporter will probably continue to be California.
Of the many people who have made exciting new plantings of vines in the second half of this century, the Californians have publicized themselves most actively. And, indeed, they have a great deal to be proud of. The 1970s saw investment on a huge scale in planting premium European grape varieties (not always on the ideal site!) and building the best-equipped wineries in the world. All this investment bore fruit, and California more than any other region has given the wincmakers of France and Germany a jolt by showing such exciting potential for top-quality wine. The 1980s have seen a period of consolidation for the Californian wine industry, by trying to match grape varieties to the right vineyard and by establishing a suitable pricing policy.
The hot San Joaquin Valley supplies most of California’s basic wines, often called ‘jug wine’. The whites tend to be dependable if unexciting and to be considerably sweeter than French white table wine. All that sunshine can be tasted in some fairly sweet, full basic reds too.
Most of the medium- to top-quality wines are sold as ‘varietals’, named after the principal grape variety from which they were made. Cabernet Sauvignon has been the most acclaimed of the reds and, given a luxurious upbringing in small oak casks imported from Bordeaux, the wines it produces can easily be confused with fine claret from a very ripe vintage. The Napa Valley, just an hour’s drive to the north of San Francisco, has earned itself a reputation as ‘the Medoc of California’ on the strength of some of its Cabernets.
So much of California’s own special red grape, Zinfandel, is grown that it is most readily associated with everyday blends of varying styles but with a ripe berry flavour in common. However, Zinfandel from old vines can be deliciously concentrated. Attempts with the red Burgundy grape, Pinot Noir, have as yet been much less successful, though there are some excellent Merlots. Petite Si rah is a deep-coloured everyday red unrelated to France’s Syrah.
Most of the stunning white wines have been made from Chardonnay, but tend to be much more alcoholic and less steely than their Burgundian counterparts. Sauvignon Blanc has never looked back in terms of popularity since wine-maker Robert Mondavi renamed it Fume Blanc and re minded all his customers it was the grape of the Pouilly Fume. The German Riesling is called Johannisberg Riesling here and, although fuller in body, can be quite as excitingly racy and fragrant. Napa’s rival, Sonoma County, has produced some stunning whites — and some excellent reds too. Colombard and Chenin Blanc are usually used for medium-dry inexpensive wines.
The Californians have evolved a wine vocabulary all of their own. Wine is made, naturally enough, at a ‘winery’ and, if it is a small one (and most of the most quality-conscious ones are), it might even be called a ‘boutique winery’.
Vineyards are now being planted the full length of the West Coast, as far south as San Diego and right up through Oregon to Washington State. Oregon has the coolest vineyards and shows great promise with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while Washington State grows a wide variety of premium varietals in the irrigated Columbia Basin.
Grapes are grown throughout the more temperate zones of South America, as far north as the higher reaches of Mexico. Argentina is the fourth largest producer of wine in the world. The reds tend to be robust and taste slightly sweet, and there have been a number of plantings of classic European grape varieties. Chile shows the greatest potential as a top quality wine producer. The vines are not grafted because phylloxera has never struck in Chile and this gives all the wines a noticeably intense fruity flavour. Cabernet has always been Chile’s most successful red wine, though there are now interesting experiments with Sauvignon Blanc.