In wine, location does matter. The French have a word, terroir, that succinctly expresses the theory that grapes farmed for wine are what they are, for better or worse, because of the soil, climate, elevation and exposure to the sun at the vineyard site.
Thus, grapes from a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy will produce a better wine than grapes from a premier cru vineyard planted lower on the same hillside, all else (the winemaker's hand) being equal.
The wisdom of the French was largely ignored when the vineyards of America were planted, and mistakes were made. Cabernet Sauvignon ended up in the ground in climates too cool to ripen the grapes sufficiently, and Chardonnay was planted all too often in areas too warm to produce Chardonnay with verve and backbone.
Through trial and error and old-fashioned common sense, the greatest mistakes in American viticulture have been corrected. Today, there are numerous wine regions from coast-to-coast that are well known for success with specific grape varieties. Knowing which regions do best with each popular varietal wine is no small advantage for consumers.
For example, a person need not be familiar with every producer in the Napa Valley to lock onto a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few regions on earth are as adept with Cabernet Sauvignon, so choosing a Cab from Napa usually boils down to a matter of price or style — there simply aren't too many bad Cabs coming off the bottling line. It would be difficult even for a novice to go wrong buying Napa Valley Cabernet.
With this in mind, I suggest wine consumers consider the source when choosing a wine. If you have nothing else to go on (such as prior experience or a positive review), at least you can make a purchase confident that the region of origin has a solid reputation for the wine you have your eye on.
Here are a few pointers for some of the most common wines on the market:
Cabernet Franc — This grape variety is the foundation of the great Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. Used primarily for blending in the New World, there have been recent sightings of Cabernet Franc as a stand-alone varietal wine, with the best being made in Virginia, Long Island and the Napa Valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon — Napa Valley is undoubtedly the top AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the United States for Cabernet Sauvignon, but various AVAs in nearby Sonoma County, particularly the Alexander Valley, are not that far behind. Sonoma Valley also produces quality Cabernet sauvignon, as does the Paso Robles region in California's Central Coast. Washington also has excellent success with Cabernet Sauvignon in the Yakima Valley, Red Hills and the Columbia Valley. Virginia has produced some fine Cabernet Sauvignon, but the quality is inconsistent from vintage to vintage.
Chardonnay — This grape likes a cool climate, which keeps acidity fresh, so the coastal valleys of California (Russian River Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Edna Valley) are ideal. Other California appellations known for quality Chardonnay include Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands and the Sta. Rita Hills in the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley. Washington's Columbia Valley also now has a solid reputation for top-notch Chardonnay. You will even find good Chardonnay in Virginia and Long Island, New York.
Pinot Noir — Oregon and California's coastal valleys are the most consistent sources for exceptional pinot noir, and that's because the grape thrives on cool temps and wilts under extreme heat. Pinot Noir made in a warm climate simply isn't very good. So the go-to spots are Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's Russian River and Anderson valleys, and the Sta. Rita Hills. You may well find good pinot from other locales, but the aforementioned have the best record over time. I have never tasted a Pinot made in the Eastern United States that I though was very good.
Riesling - This regal white grape variety from Germany has found a home in New York's Finger Lakes region, where America's finest Rieslings are produced. There are also good Rieslings being made in Washington's Yakima Valley and the Central Coast of California around Monterey, but only a handful of those compare favorably to the best Riesling from the Finger Lakes.
Sauvignon Blanc - In my humble opinion, Sonoma County and the Napa Valley produce the most interesting and classy sauvignon blanc in America and no one else is really close. The predominant Sonoma style of Sauvignon is a crisp white that mirrors the wines of the Loire Valley of France, while the better Napa Valley Sauvignons tend to reflect more of the richness and depth you might find in a good Bordeaux blanc.
Syrah — This grape variety does extremely well in Washington's Yakima Valley and California's Paso Robles AVA. There are two distinct styles of Syrah made in the United States. The most common is a warm-climate Syrah that is rich and ripe, with supple tannins and typically elevated alcohol levels (similar to what you might find in an Australian Shiraz). That's the Paso style. Then there is the cool-climate Syrah that is notable for its firm tannins, notes of black and white pepper, and the ability to improve with cellar age.