A Journey in Wine: The Wines of the United States

America doesn’t have as long a wine history as other countries, but it is the fourth largest wine producer in terms of volume worldwide. Let’s have a closer look at the wines of the United States, known for its big, bold wines.

Go big, or go home: it seems a fitting phrase not only for the country, but for the American wine industry as well. The country boasts some impressive stats:

  • The USA is the globe’s largest wine consumer.  
  • The country is one of the world’s leaders of exports and imports of wine and shows no signs of slowing down. 
  • They are also the world’s largest luxury wine market. 

In short: America drives the global wine industry. 

map of USA superimposed on a vineyard

An Overview of the USA as a Wine-Producing Country

Almost every American state has a thriving wine scene. California is the largest, and best-known. The country produces many wine styles, but is best known for big, bold and juicy Cabernet Sauvignons and boldly oaky and buttery Chardonnays. 

  • Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling also play an important role in American winemaking, as they are cold-hardy grapes that can survive extreme temperatures and are suited to less than ideal growing conditions. In recent years, American winemakers have been creating amazing wines from their lesser-known regions in Oregon, Washington and New York. 
  • America is a large country and produces wines in a variety of different styles. For example, Chardonnay can vary widely from unoaked, citrusy and acid driven styles to oaky buttery and tropical notes. 
  • America is known for creating wines that embrace modern winemaking. American winemakers aren’t subject to the strict winemaking laws so common in Europe and therefore can make wines with more freedom of expression.

Winemaking in California

American wine is almost synonymous with Californian wine, but why is it such an ideal environment for growing grapes?

  • It has a Mediterranean climate
    Temperatures during the growing season average 13-21 ºC.
  • There’s an Ideal amount of sunshine

Morning fog cools the vineyards with full sunlight in the afternoon giving an even ripening to the grapes.

  • There’s minimal rainfall and clouds 

Rainfall typically amounts to less than 20 inches in an average season.

  • Mild winters

On the coast the average daytime temperature hovers around 20°C and up and can get up to 30 °C or more on the hottest summer days. Freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter.

  • Low humidity 

Dryer, almost desert-style conditions with relatively low humidity prevent disease from spreading in the vineyard.

With 80 percent of the vineyard acreage in the country and 88 percent of the wines being made here, California is by far the largest wine producer of the 50 US states. Areas in the north and along the coast have cooler climates ideal for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, whereas inland areas get plenty of heat perfect for ripening red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ripe bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon

The Roots of American Winemaking

1560-1800

The history of wine in America dates back to the early 1560s when the first American colonies were settling on the East Coast. The settlers brought vine plantings with them, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that a sustainable wine industry developed. This had a lot to do with the West Coast becoming part of the United States after the Mexican War. 

1800-1920

When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the population of California skyrocketed as did the demand for alcohol. However, problems started to develop in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the spread of phylloxera, a deadly insect pest that attacks vines. The phylloxera louse had come from Europe through grapevine cuttings. 

The bigger problem however, was a political one that started in 1919. Moral crusaders were questioning the culture and safety of alcohol, eventually leading to the 13-year Prohibition period. Production in California surprisingly increased, as wine was being used for sacramental wine, and consumers started buying grapes to make homemade wine. As most winemakers were not allowed to produce more than 200 gallons of wine, they planted high yield grapes and often made blends of different grape varieties. This started the red blend trend we commonly know to come out of California today.

Focus on varietal wine and innovations

1920-1960

Prohibition was followed by the Great Depression and World War II. These were some of the toughest times to be living in America and it took several decades for the wine industry to recover, rebuild and establish a consumer base. 

1960-1980

The early 1960s were a time of growth and wine became fashionable again, increasing the demand in the industry. Winemakers like Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, and Mike Grgić pioneered the success of producing quality wines that could compete with their European counterparts.

 In France, the Judgment of Paris Tasting that took place in 1976 put California on the map. After a blind tasting, the French wine judges unknowingly voted for a California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon as first-place winners above the finest white Burgundy and Bordeaux classified growths. This was an important date in history as it gave California winemakers the confidence that their wines could compete with well-established winemakers around the globe. It also paved the path for a new level of sophistication among American wine consumers, demand for varietally-labeled wines rather than generic labels became the new standard and place of origin became important. The American wine industry has been gaining traction ever since. 

fog rolls in over the vineyards in California

Introduction of American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s)

American Viticultural Areas (AVA’S) are different from their European Counterparts in that they do not dictate a specific style of winemaking, but they do give a sense of place. There is no minimum or maximum size for an AVA, but it is generally thought that smaller AVAs produce wines of greater quality. America has over 261 distinct AVAs of which 142 are dedicated to California. AVA’s became important as winemaking started to expand as climates can differ quite a bit from place to place. 

In California alone, it would take 12 hours to drive from the most northern edge of the growing region to the very southern end of the growing region. If we look at the AVA’s in the North Coast, we can see a difference in how the wines are made:

  • The Santa Cruz Mountains, which are further north, produce wines with greater acidity and more tannic structure. Example: Ridge Vineyards, a great place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
  • Further south, in Sonoma County, we get wines that are more fruit-forward with softer tannins due to the influence of San Pablo Bay. An example is Shug Estate, which produces good medium and light-bodied reds like Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir and more structured whites like Chardonnay.
  • Inland, in Lodi, the air quality is very different and the valley acts like a vacuum sucking in all of the cold air from the ocean which is great for growing acidic white wines. 

Knowing these qualities about certain AVA’s can help consumers best decide which wines suit their preferences.

Modern Winemaking in California

California has come a long way in the last decade and in many ways is still being defined. More AVAs have been distinguished even in the last few years, with the newest San Luis Obispo Coast AVA just coming on the map in March of 2022. California has added an additional 23 AVAs since 2018 and the wine trade is still growing. 

Online Wine Sales

The latest trends, however, have been centered around technology and more sales are made online than in brick-and-mortar stores since 2021, with Vivino being the largest player. New technology fueled by a thirst for alternative assets has also started a trend in wine investing online, something previously only available to the elite high-net-worth individuals is now readily accessible and helping wineries stay in business. 

Other important American Winemaking States

California has the largest area under vine in the US, but the state has some serious contenders with Washington, Oregon and New York. These states are gaining traction and making a mark on the map. Although these three are the most-recognized American regions after California, it’s important to note that Virginia is an up-and-coming contender for winemaking, with 10 winemaking regions and 8 distinguished AVAs. The US also has a few AVAs in Texas, New Mexico, and one in Arizona, although we don’t normally see these wines on the export market.

Winemaking in Oregon

The Oregon wine industry is primarily dominated by small family-run wineries and is a great source for unique wines. Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines are highly acclaimed and sought-after wines from the region. These are also the most widely available in the Canadian market. 

Oregon is home to 18 AVAs, with the Willamette Valley, Walla Walla Valley and Columbia and Columbia Valley as the best-known ones. Oregon is best suited to cool climate grape varieties and has a climate similar to that of Burgundy. Although to a lesser extent, some of the wineries are producing Rhône varieties which are sourced from the warmer southern parts of Oregon’s Rogue Valley.

Number of AVAs in Oregon: 18

Primary Grapes Grown in Oregon: Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sparkling Wine

Winemaking in Washington

Washington is the second largest producer of wine in the US and has the most land under vine next to California. Although winemaking in Washington started near Puget Sound, minimal sunshine made it more viable to grow grapes east of the Cascade Mountains. 

Although the region has nearly desert-like conditions, the vines still get ample water from the glacial runoff from the mountains as well as influence from the Columbia River for irrigation, without which viticulture would be impossible. Washington has 14 AVAs, and most are protected by the rain shadow formed by the Cascade Mountains – creating an ideal and unique climate for grape growing.

Number of AVAs in Washington: 14

Primary Grapes Grown in Washington: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling

Winemaking in New York

New York plays a significant role in America’s winemaking as it was one of the eastern pioneering regions where grapes were first planted in the Americas. However, the state isn’t always ideal for grape-growing as hot, humid summers foster mold and disease, and the climate can often face harsh winters. 

Despite the challenges, New York still maintains a flourishing wine industry. In recent years, New York has grown and modernized its winemaking capabilities substantially. The Finger Lakes are the most important, with 85 percent of the state’s wine production. With a climate similar to Germany, Riesling and Cabernet Franc do well here and most of the region is planted to cold-hardy grapes.

Number of AVAs in New York: 7

Primary Grapes Grown in New York: Riesling, Cabernet Franc, hybrid grape varieties

Want to Discover American Wine?

At WineCollective, we love the wines of our neighboring country. We often feature wine from famous AVAs in California, such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, or the Russian River Valley. Occasionally, we feature a wine from Oregon or Washington as well. If you’d like to discover great American wines that are exclusive to Canada, sign up as a member today!

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