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The Rise--and Spread--of American Wine
By Linda Murphy
Mar 26, 2013
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The United States is the world’s largest consumer of wine, having recently surpassed France and Italy to gain the top spot.  We consume 13 percent of all the wine made on earth, and are becoming ever more thirsty for vino, as young adults/Millennials embrace the product of the grape with great enthusiasm--perhaps than their parents showed at such an age.

America’s growing taste for wine has opened the doors to hundreds of new wineries in the last five years or so.  California, Oregon and Washington have seen their share of fledgling grapegrowers and winemakers, but it’s in what my friends Dave McIntyre and Jeff Siegel of DrinkLocalWine.com call “the other 47” where the real boom is being felt.

I have written here before about the nervy, German-like Rieslings of northwestern Michigan, on the Leelaneau and Old Mission peninsulas, and those of New York’s Finger Lakes region, near Rochester.  The cold climate of these Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc super power regions is ideally suited to German/Alsatian grape varieties, with Lake Michigan and the Finger Lakes themselves warming vines in winter and keeping them cool in summer.

Long Island’s growing region is New York state’s version of Bordeaux, excelling particularly with Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  There are also some gorgeous Rieslings made here, but what many might not know is that Long Island is also home to some producers of exceptional sparkling wines. Among my favorites are Sparkling Pointe and Lenz Winery.  Upstate in the Finger Lakes region, Chateau Frank and Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars do a fabulous job with their bubblies, using the traditional Champagne technique of secondary bottle fermentation and bottle aging.
Most wine lovers are aware that Virginia not only produces wine, but also some damn fine wine.  Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Viognier grow happily in the Commonwealth State, and truly dedicated and patient vintners are having success with the tricky-to-grow-in-Virginia Cabernet Sauvignon (RdV Vineyards and Linden Vineyards come quickly to mind as great Cab makers).  Barboursville, an Italian-owned (Zonin) winery in Charlottesville, is a must-stop for any appreciator of fine wine, and is achieving new success with Vermentino, as well as the usual Virginia suspects.

And don’t forget Norton, a grape native to Virginia and Missouri.  Dr. Daniel Norton, after much trial and error, crossed various wild vine species to come up with the Norton variety.  It produced a red wine more in line with the French clarets and German Rieslings that the 1600s English settlers were accustomed to drinking, and lacked the feral, foxy, musky character of other native grapes such as Muscadine.   When carefully grown and vinified, Norton today can produce a lush, fruity red wine with palate-cleansing acidity.  Never had one?  Try any one of the four Nortons produced by Jenni McCloud at Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia.

I’m often asked, “Which states most surprised you when you began following the wines of all 50 states?”  The answer that raises the most eyebrows is New Jersey.  I’d had a Jersey wine or two over the years, but the revelation came in summer of 2012, when I was a taster at the “Judgment of Princeton” event at Princeton University.

At this tasting, New Jersey red wines went toe-to-toe with top-notch Bordeaux wines, including First Growths Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut Brion.  New Jersey’s Silver Decoy Cabernet Franc, Tomasello Oak Reserve, Heritage Estate BDX and Amalthea Europa VI did extremely -- make that shocklingly -- well against the French.  They didn’t “win” – Mouton and Haut Brion finished first and second, respectifully -- but some of the NJ wines outpointed other Bordeaux entrants.  Only one New Jersey wine, a Cabernet Franc from a producer whose name I won’t use here, was out of this league.

In the Chardonnay portion of the tasting, Joseph Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches
White Burgundy was the runaway winner, yet Jersey Chardonnays placed second, and third and fourth, with Unionville Vineyards, Heritage and Silver Decoy besting three other Burgundies.

These wines are made from grapes grown west of the Jersey Shore, near Atlantic City and largely out of harm’s way from fierce storms such as Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the Jersey Coast in 2012.  The AVA is the Outer Coastal Plain; it has sandy, well-draining soils (important for a region that is susceptible to growing-season rainfall) and is relatively warm in the summer months.  When it does get hot, the Atlantic Ocean is there to offer cooling breezes.

Another rising star state is Colorado. As one of the great ski meccas of the world, Colorado does indeed get harsh cold and snowfall during winter (as anyone who has sat on an airplane at Denver International Airport as is de-iced time after time after time can attest), but despite that chilly fact, vinifera grapes are grown on the warmer west side of the Rockies, a four-hour drive from Denver, and in the Cortez region, near the New Mexico border.

Colorado is particularly adept at producing wines from earlier-ripening varieties:  Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  Cabernet Franc and Viognier have been successful, and Syrah and Tempranillo are coming on as more acreage is planted.  Wineries have had some difficulty getting Cabernet Sauvignon ripe in cool growing seasons; the variety typically matures very late and can run out of growing days, if fall frosts and rains arrive before the grapes are ripe.

I was in western Colorado in January, during a below-20-degrees string of nights that damaged vines in the cooler zones of the Grand Valley AVA.  Yields will obviously be reduced in 2013 because of the vine injury, and I heard of one vintner -- who has pursued growing and making Cabernet Sauvignon with great passion -- had decided to replant some of his acreage to Baco Noir, a cold-resistant French-American hybrid red grape.

Producers to look for include Boulder Creek Winery, Bookcliff Vineyards, Creekside Cellars, Guy Drew Vineyards, Plum Creek Winery and Canyon Wind Cellars.

This overview of America’s emerging wine regions is merely a scratch of the surface.  Watch this space for more celebration of the progress the USA is making in bottling wines to rival the quality of those produced in “the other 47.”