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The Kind of Wine They Make
By Marguerite Thomas
Nov 28, 2017
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“They make wine in Virginia?” a puzzled California acquaintance asked me recently.   “What kind of wine can they make in places like that?”

Since California produces about 85% of the nation’s wine, it seems reasonable to assume that most people reading this column drink mostly wine from California.  So maybe you open a bottle from Washington State or Oregon once in awhile, but when’s the last time you’ve uncorked an Albariño from Maryland, or a Chardonnay from North Carolina?  It’s true that a great deal of wine from non-western states is mediocre, and, okay, some of it can be downright awful, but the overall quality of wines made in the eastern section of the nation continues an upward trajectory.  I urge you to expand your wine knowledge in the coming new year by seeking out wines from places like New York, Virginia, and Michigan.  With that in mind, I’m offering a brief primer here to get you started on your American wine odyssey.

New York is the largest and fastest growing wine state in the east, with 420 wineries and ten AVAs, of which the Finger Lakes and Long Island are the most important.

Among the leading Finger Lakes wineries are Anthony Road, where you’ll find first-rate dry and semi-dry Rieslings as well as outstanding Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Grüner Vetliner, and Pinot Noir; Dr.  Frank, one of the country’s leading Riesling producers, also turns out very fine Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Grüner Vetliner, Rkatsiteli, and old vine Pinot Noir, plus impressive Chateau Frank sparkling wines; Ravines, with notable Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, plus a sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend (Ravinous Kitchen offers delicious, light fare); Weimer, established in 1979, turns out world-class Riesling as well as notable Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and superlative sparkling wines.

Long Island leaders include Bedell, whose prominent winemaker turns out a classy white blend plus admirable Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot and wonderful Bordeaux style red blends; from vineyards thriving on a former potato field, Martha Clara produces premium Merlot and Malbec as well as excellent Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc; McCall makes praiseworthy red blends from Cabernet Franc, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties, as well as good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the estate is also home to a herd of Charolais cattle); Paumanok, one of Long Island’s earliest wineries (founded 1986), makes a succulent Chenin Blanc as well as admirable Chardonnay, Riesling, Rosé, Merlot Cabernet Franc and red blends; Sparkling Pointe, focuses entirely on sparkling wines, including delicious Brut, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs.

On Long Island’s South Fork, in the ritzy Hamptons, Channing Daughters offers iconoclastic wines such as Lagrein, Dornfelder, Ribolla Gialla and a range of Petillants, plus good Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah; Wolffer Estate is known for serious Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and immensely popular Rosé.

The scenic Hudson River AVA, a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, boasts 40 wineries, whose leaders include Benmarl, Hudson-Chatham, Whitecliff, Fjord, Milea, Millbrook, Nostrano, Robibero, and Tousey.  Among the best wines look for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir.

Virginia now includes 280 wineries, with several more in the wings.  The wine industry contributes some $1.37 billion to the state’s economy, an 82% increase since 2010.  Growth is driven mostly by small estates, and the industry’s profile is being heightened by increasingly sophisticated winemaking.  Top producers include Barboursville (founded in 1976 by Italy’s Zonin family), with sophisticated Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Petit Verdot, plus superb Bordeaux-style reds such as “Octagon,” and luscious dessert wines (the estate also includes an elegant restaurant and inn located on a property once frequented by Thomas Jefferson); Linden, 60-some miles from Washington DC, where widely admired winemaker Jim Law turns out exceptional high-altitude wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and complex Bordeaux-style red blends;  M. Shaps, an innovative vintner (who also owns an estate in Burgundy) makes luscious Viognier and Petit Manseng, plus tasty Chardonnay, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Meritage, and lush, late-harvest Raisin d’Etre.

Pennsylvania now has more than 220 wineries, many of which offer deftly made Chardonnay, Grüner Vetliner, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Bordeaux- style red blends.  Leading estates include Allegro, Blair, Briar Valley, Galen Glen, Galer Estate, Karamoor, Manatawny Creek, Mazza, Nimble Hill, Penns Woods, Pinnacle Ridge, Seven Mountains, The Vineyard at Grandview, Waltz, VaLa, and Vox Vineti.

North Carolina has 200 wineries.  In the early days of European colonization 17th century, vintners relied on Scuppernong, a native grape in the Muscadine family that produces sweet wine, but today almost all wine in the state is made from European Vitis vinifera grapes including Chardonnay, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc.  Top producers:  Biltmore, Childress, Cypress Bend (for Muscadine), Duplin (also for Muscadine), Grandfather, Hanover Park, Jones von Drehle, Laurel Gray, McRitchie, Old North State, Ragapple Lassie, RayLen, Saint Paul Mountain, Shelton.

Maryland, a state roughly the size of Belgium, has 88 wineries, led by Boordy, Big Cork, Black Ankle, Bordeleau, Dodon, Knob Hall, Old Westminster, Port of Leonardtown, and Surgarloaf.

Michigan has become an impressive wine producing state despite suffering occasionally disastrous winter weather.  Pinot Noir is the Michigan’s most widely planted red grape.  Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinto Gris are also strong.  With 136 wineries, top producers include Bel Lago, Black Star, Boathouse, Bowers Harbor, Brys, Chateau Chantal, Chateau Fontaine, Chateau Grand Traverse, 12 Corners, Fenn Valley, Hawthorne, 2 Lads, Laurentide, Lawton Ridge, Left Foot Charley, L Mawby, Mari, 45 North, Rove Estate, St. Ambrose Cellars, St Julian, Tabor Hill, WaterFire.

New Jersey has 50 wineries.  Look especially for recent vintages of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.  Leading estates are Alba, Beneduce, Cape May, and Unionville Vineyards.

One way to measure the success of east-of-the-west-coast wineries is by the number of awards many of them have recently been garnering in national and international wine competitions.  Consider, for example, the numerous Platinum and Gold medals awarded to some of these estates at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in 2017:

Barboursville (Virginia):  Gold -- 2014 “Octagon”; Gold -- 2014 Nebbiolo Reserve; Gold -- 2015 Sauvignon Blanc 

Brys Estate (Michigan):  Platinum -- 2106 Dry Riesling; Gold -- 2015 Cabernet Franc; Gold -- 2016 Gewurztraminer; Gold -- 2016 Pinot Blanc

Frogtown Cellars (Georgia):  Gold -- NV “Applause, 3rd Standing Ovation”

Fulkerson (Finger Lakes, NY):  Gold-2016 Grüner Vetliner

McPherson (Texas):  Platinum -- 2016 “La Herencia” Rosa, Dry; Gold -- 2015 Sangiovese

Narmada (Virginia):  Gold -- 2013 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Swedish Hill (Finger Lakes, NY):  Gold -- 2016 “Blue Waters” Riesling; Gold -- 2016 Riesling

Wagner (Finger Lakes, NY):  Gold -- 2014 Riesling, Caywood East Vineyard; Gold --  2015 Riesling, Semi-Dry

So, circling back to my puzzled California acquaintance, this is the kind of wine they’re making in "places like that."