Wine has been made in present-day USA since the late 1500s, though native vine species didn’t produce particularly palatable wine, so from about 1620 onwards European vine cuttings have been used. Despite the major blip that was the national Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, the USA today produces the most wine outside of Europe, ranking fourth in global terms. Wine is made, to some extent, in all 50 states, but the most important for production are California (nearly 90%), Washington State (around 5%), New York State (around 4%) and Oregon (around 1.4%).
California’s vineyards are dotted all along California’s 1,100km north to south length. Characterised by bold flavour and rich texture, Californian wine benefits from ripe grapes produced from its abundant sunshine and scarce rainfall. The broad Central Valley produces the most inexpensive, everyday wine in California, but its climate is too warm for the production of premium wine. Sitting above and below the San Francisco Bay Area are the two premium Californian wine zones, where the cooling Pacific breezes and fogs slow the ripening of grapes. North of San Francisco, the North Coast is California’s prestige wine area, home to the most famous wine regions including Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino. Stretching between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, the Central Coast, home to up-and-coming wine areas including Paso Robles and Monterey, is slightly cooler despite its more southernly position because coastal ridges channel the Pacific breezes further inland. California’s top reds include world-class Cabernet Sauvignon (plus Cab Sav-led blends), fruity signature Zinfandel, plush Merlot and premium Pinot Noir. Top whites include plump Chardonnay and ripe Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes seen as Fumé Blanc, particularly if oaked).
Although California dominates production in the USA, exceptional wines are also made in the neighbouring Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington State, and across the country in New York State.
Although the two states share a border and are similar in size, the wine regions of Oregon and Washington State are separated by the Cascade Mountains, leading to very different wine styles. Oregon’s main wine region, the Willamette Valley, sits south of Portland, wedged between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific coast and has a moderate climate, cooled by ocean breezes. Washington State’s main wine region is the extensive Columbia Valley (incorporating Yakima Valley and Walla Walla), sitting in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, and where greater light and warmth allows thick-skinned grape varieties to ripen, but cool desert nights help retain lively acidity. Oregon is known for producing small amounts of super-premium Pinot Noir and dry, fruity Pinot Gris. Washington State is known for producing greater amounts of more affordable plummy Merlot, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon, toasty Chardonnay and stone-fruit Riesling.
Across in New York State, the most important wine region is Finger Lakes. Despite its northernly latitude, deep glacial lakes (that look like fingers from above!) help store summertime heat well into November, maintaining the temperature of the region’s vineyards and extending the growing season. Top wines here include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, as well as the local star, Riesling.