Californian red wine has a worldwide reputation for quality and for many wine drinkers Californian and North American wine are synonymous. However, the wine industry in the USA stretches far beyond the Californian borders and other regions are gaining recognition for the quality of their wines.
States such as Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the USA are producing reds which can rival the quality of the wine from its giant neighbour whilst many smaller wineries are flourishing in the Atlantic Northeast where white wine dominates but some quality reds are produced.
Oregon Pinot Noir has been touted for some time as the next big red wine fashion to emerge from the USA but it has never quite achieved the popularity of Californian wine. The primary reason for this is not quality but quantity. Some critics argue that Oregon red wine producers lack confidence in developing their own Pinot Noir style, instead trying to imitate the reds produced in Burgundy. Having said that, there are some well-structured, long-aging Pinot Noirs being made in the region with plenty of cherry fruit characteristics. The difficulty is that compared with California and even Washington State, the volume of red wine produced is small. Much of what is produced is consumed locally leaving little left to satisfy the demands of the rest of the USA let alone the export markets.
Whilst Pinot Noir is the primary red wine grape grown in Oregon with AVA districts (the US classification system) such as the Willamette Valley and the Umpqua Valley concentrating on the grape, other red wine varieties are also produced. Areas such as Rogue Valley produce notable Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reds whilst Syrah is the favoured red wine grape in the Applegate Valley. However, it is Pinot Noir which is celebrated the a three-day International Pinot Noir Celebration held every July in the town of McMinnville attracting Pinot fans from all over the world.
Red wine is produced in greater volume in Washington State, which has had a reputation for an industrial-style approach to wine-making. However, more smaller-scale wineries are springing up these days producing more interesting, hand-crafted wines.
Over the years the emphasis amongst Washington wine producers has shifted gradually from white wine to red. The potential of red wine grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah has been recognised and some world class wines are emerging from the state’s wine regions.
Most of Washington’s red wine grapes are grown in the south east of the state where the summers are sunny and dry and the winters harsh. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most commonly grown red grapes and are blended frequently into Bordeaux-style wines. Washington Merlot is rich, ripe and plummy. It is drier than Californian Merlot and is often fresher and more interesting. Cabernet Sauvignon is appealing to grape growers as it is more resistant to the hard winters although it does need the hottest sites to thrive. Again, the Washington style is fresher than Californian Cabernets and is often suitable for early drinking.
Columbia Valley is the primary AVA in Washington and even crosses the state border into Oregon. It includes two separate AVAs within its boundaries – Walla Walla Valley and Yakima Valley – justified by the differences in climactic conditions. Yakima Valley is the centre of Washington’s red wine industry and Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are the most successful varietals.
New York is another important vine-growing state which is starting to take itself and to be taken by experts more seriously as a wine-producing region. The majority of the wineries are young, small and ambitious and are concentrated in the Finger Lakes in the north of the state, on Long Island and the Hudson River regions.
Long Island is the USA’s equivalent of Bordeaux in terms of both its climate and its red wine style. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are the most popular red wine varieties. The Finger Lakes region, which has the greatest concentration of wineries, suffers from long, harsh winters and tends to concentrate on white wines. Whites tend to dominate in the Hudson River region too.
A handful of other states in the US have small red wine-producing industries. Look out for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from wineries in Indiana and Maryland. Some Cabernet Sauvignon is produced in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Be aware when choosing reds from the USA that the location of the winery is not necessarily a guide to the origins of the grapes. Many wine estates in the US source their grapes from a variety of vineyards spread across a wide area, frequently from different regions or even states. However, that should not stop you from exploring the many excellent and interesting reds from lesser known US regions.