United States of America as a Wine Region (U.S.)
To attempt to describe the wines of what is virtually a large continent in a small space risks making dangerous generalisations. Separate entries deal with the main regions and the more important wineries. The earliest explorers named the country ‘Vinland’ because of the quantities of wild vines they found when Norseman Leif Erikson arrived from Greenland around the year A.D. 1000. These vines, however, were native varieties and not Vitis vinifera. The later settlers both made wine from these and attempted to plant vineyards with European vines, some even bringing over workers from French vineyards. William Penn imported French and Spanish rootstocks in 1683, and Thomas Jefferson had a vineyard of European vines at his Monticello estate in 1773. All these plantings failed, however, because the vines did not adjust to the differences in climate in the east; so the local vines continued to be used for winemaking (see Scuppernong). It should be remembered that the use of wine for disinfectant, dietary and medicinal purposes as well as for its social properties was of great importance, so many attempts were made to increase vineyard plantings and winemaking.
The first Vitis vinifera plantings were made in California around 1769, when the Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra, brought cuttings from Mexico; the chain of Franciscan missions gave the name of Mission to this grape variety and wine was made for the use of the religious establishments from this time. But the authorities were well aware of the need to make ordinary wine if possible and extensive plantations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana were established with a type of native grape, so as to form the original commercial vineyards in the early 1800s. Although there were considerable ups and downs, the vineyards increased in size and extent. By 1880 a special report, which is cited by the authoritative Leon M. Adams, named Georgia. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan. Mississippi, New Jersey. New Mexico, New Vork, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia as making wine in fair quantities. Meanwhile the California vineyards were increasing: by the middle of the 19th century, at least one producer there was exporting to Russia, China, Germany, Australia and Britain. U.S. Wines won many awards at the Paris Exposition of 1900.
The devastation of the vineyards caused by the Phylloxera affected all Vitis vinifera plantings in the U. S. as well as elsewhere, although the native varieties of wine vine continued to produce. The advent of Prohibition, however, was a more serious blow. Vineyards everywhere went out of production or at best were seriously neglected, because only a very small amount of wine for sacramental and medical purposes could be made (see Communion wines). The advocates of Prohibition even got references to ‘wine’ in the Bible altered to ‘cakes of raisins’, in a version of the Scriptures specially brought out at this time! Some growers of grapes, however, were able to remain in production for table grapes and fruit juices. The skills of the winemaker were forgotten during the 13 wholly ‘dry’ years while abuses of strong drink, appalling mixtures and gangsterdom dominated the U.S. Liquorscene. It was apparently only as recently as 1968 that north Americans were beginning to accept table wines as part of civilised living. Immediately after Repeal, they tended to concentrate on drinking wines of a higher alcoholic content, such as the fortified wines. The wealthier bought imported wines.
Fortunately the skills of scientists, such as those in the wine department of Davis, at the University of California, were able to supply advanced knowledge when vineyards did return to production and gradually winemaking became big business. Today wine consumption is rising steadily, along with production, and the quality of the top wines made in California is equal to any in the world. Tastings are often misleading when they take place (often unwisely referred to as ‘Olympics’ or using similar names) between U.S. and European wines. Where the tasting is held will certainly affect the way in which the tasters – whoever they are – taste, because usually a wine tastes at its best in its own region. The sometimes claimed ‘victories’ for U.S. wines over those of the classic regions are not fair verdicts. What is certain, however, is that good U.S. wines are as good as any anywhere, if quality is compared with like quality. National and regional tastes differ and, as wine is something that has to be sold, it is the bulk wines that make up most U.S. production. Only a very small percentage of the total comes into the fine wine range and these are not easy to find, even on their home ground, because they are inevitably in short supply.
There are still many eastern wineries making use of the native vinestocks. However the flavour of the wines made. Often described as ‘foxy’ as far as those made from Vitis labrusca are concerned, would seem to be definite and likely to appeal only to a few outsiders. European travellers often deplore the way in which north American hosts may pay large sums for European wines to entertain visitors, yet seldom offer U.S. wines: it is not only the quality but the individuality of these that fascinate any wine lover.
Although the cost of U.S. wines of the higher qualities to Europeans and indeed many export markets must put them at a price disadvantage, the enormous interest in wine that is continually growing in the U.S. is a stimulant to both their quality and variety. In addition to the blends, and ‘varietals’ as the Americans call the single grape wines, there is the odd Zinfandel, possibly a native grape but still of debatable origin. It is also to be remembered that the classic grapes – such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and others – inevitably undergo changes in some way when grown and treated in vineyards so very different from those in Europe, in which the wines they make have been known for centuries.
U.S. regulations are unfortunately complicated as far as wine is concerned and do not coincide with those of the EEC, so that interpretation of U. S. labels may be occasionally difficult – as witness the use of the term ‘Champagne’ for certain sparkling wines. Although top quality wines from the best wineries usually only bear the name of a single grape variety, if the wine is truly 100% made from that grape, the proportion – although it is being increased from as little as 81 to 85% – need not legally be wholly that of the grape named on the label at the time of writing. This is all the more reason why European and other wine lovers should acquaint themselves as thoroughly as possible with U.S. Wines and the authoritative opinions of those qualified to pronounce on them.
Most important is California, because it makes the highest proportion of wine of any U.S. Region. Huge amounts ofjug or everyday bulk wines and also the finest wines of all are made there. The commercial fortunes of California’s wines were founded by a Bordelais, with the appropriate name of Jean-Louis Vignes, who planted cuttings of Vitis vinifera at El Aliso (today part of Los Angeles) in the 1830s. Europeans thinking about California wines (the word is preferred in this form rather than with a final V) must bear in mind that the area is both extensive and extremely varied as to climate and soils; one large winery may make a huge range of table, fortified and sparkling wines. There are only a few that make wines solely from the grapes grown on the winery’s own estate. The comment of one American visitor to Bordeaux – ‘And where do you make the sherry wines?’ – is therefore quite comprehensible. The important areas of California as far as wine is concerned are: the Napa Valley, Sonoma, the San Joaquin, Santa Clara, and Livermore Valleys, Monterey, Mendocino, Alameda, Lodi, Sacramento and southern California.
New York State is the second most productive wine region, with the Finger Lakes district the most important. The work of many experienced winemakers in recent years has resulted in interesting developments as regards vines as well as actual wine production. Experiments have been carried out with grapes to encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea, for example.
Other states becoming increasingly concerned in winemaking include Michigan, Washington, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Texas and Arkansas. There are also small plantations in Idaho and Denver, Colorado and doubtless, by the time this appears in print, these will have increased in size and others have been established. United Vintners The wine section of the huge Heublein organisation. They own numerous wineries, including 8 in California. The largest, in the San Joaquin Valley at Madera, handles the wines from most of the wineries in the organisation, except for those made by Beaulieu and Inglenook. Their main winery is that of the Italian-Swiss Colony. The majority of the wines appear to be those intended for everyday drinking.
Varietal, Variety of Grape Wines in the USA
The American expression for ‘grape variety’. A wine named according to its varietal is that named after the grape from which it is made. The nomenclature of wines is often according to grape variety in the U.S.
However the wines do not have to contain 100% of the grape named. At the time of writing the permitted proportion is being increased to 85%, but the wineries making the finest wines often make their wines only from 100% of the single variety. It is probably this that has caused some U.S writers on wine and, presumably, some American drinkers to believe that ‘straight varietal’ wines must be, somehow ‘better’ than those made from several grape varieties.
I have read an account of how one traveller in St Emilion understood a peasant proprietor to say that ‘This region’s wines are superior to those of Medoc – being made solely from the Bouschet’! (Local name in the St Emilionnais for the Merlot.) Of course this is not so: for lovers of claret, it is the skilful adaptation of the proportions of the vines planted according to the terrain that makes the individuality of the wines of the different estates. Indeed, I see no reason why this should be something limited to claret, especially as I find many straight Cabernet Sauvignon wines somewhat unyielding and up-and-down in style. These straight-backed wines might, as my notes often read, ‘be so much better with even a small percentage of Merlot’.
What does seem important is that, when a wine is labelled with a single grape variety – varietal, cultivar or whatever the local name for this may be – then the wine should be made only from that one grape. Even a very small percentage of another grape can completely alter the bouquet, flavour and overall proportions of the wine, so that it is impossible to compare wines so as to note differences due to climate, soil or anything else, if the grape variety is not wholly the same. On the other hand, that small proportion of another grape can be the factor that makes a good wine out of rather an ordinary one. This is especially so with wines that, up to now, have been made from local grapes which can only make wines with predominantly local appeal. The matter is complex and worth thinking about by any serious lover of wine.
A wine, flavoured with herbs, spices, barks and flowers by various methods: infusion, maceration and distillation. It is possibly the oldest form of wine in the world, because Hippocrates, Father of Medicine, made an aromatised wine in the 5th century B.C. Forms of vermouth have been made, for medicinal and digestive purposes, since the earliest records of wine, wherever wine was made. The name comes from that of the wormwood plant, Artemisia absinthium, called vermut in German, which was an ingredient of most vermouth recipes.
Vermouth began to be made commercially in Turin in the 18th century, and at the end of this century vermouth establishments were started in Marseilles and later in Chambery. These three places are the centres of major vermouth production today, although vermouth can be made anywhere that wine is made. Different methods of production are used and different formulae used by the various vermouth houses, and each of the great vermouth establishments now makes a range of vermouth. It is incorrect to assume that ‘French’ is dry and ‘Italian’ sweet; although the methods of production in Italy do differ from those of France. White bianco vermouth, however, is particularly an Italian product – it is slightly sweet in general – and Chambery, a very light, delicate vermouth, possesses a character of its own. Recently several firms have produced pink or rose’ vermouth.
All vermouth was originally intended to be drunk neat, or in a combination of dry and sweet mixed, and it is interesting nowadays that the trend for straight vermouth is very definite. The Americano is perhaps the best-known mixed drink, apart from the dry martini. The usefulness of vermouth in the context of drinking fine wine is that, being ‘grape’ and not ‘grain’, it makes a good aperitif. Although vermouth is only very slightly stronger than table wine, it is a wine and it is important to remember that, once the bottle is opened, the wine will deteriorate after two or three weeks.
Cinzano. Martini & Rossi, Noilly Prat are the big names in vermouth manufacture, although there are many other firms making vermouth. Especially in Italy, these are the concerns that have often achieved great improvements by their benevolent encouragement of good table wine production.