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Introduction to United States

Although most states in the US grow wines, there are four main areas that receive most of the attention: California, Washington, Oregon (all on the west coast), and New York State.

Whilst French labeling is often considered confusing, American labeling is also far from straightforward. The problem lies in there being Federal laws and State laws.

Federal laws cover the whole country and controls American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) which guarantee the source, but not quality, of grapes used in wines: at least 85% of the grapes must be grown in the designated AVA. However, anyone can request an AVA – so some AVAs have just one vineyard in them.

State laws vary by state. For example, California demands that a wine labeled as being a single grape type must contain at least 75% of that grape type; Oregon demands 95%.


California produces around 90% of all wines made in the United States and, because it is such a long region (1100km!) it encompasses many different climates. The region suffers from a lack of rain and, although the nearby Pacific Ocean provides a crucial cooling effect, irrigation within vineyards is common. This can easily dilute the quality of wines but, since the 1960s, California has been turning out some outstanding wines.

On the whole, Californian wines are either Bordeaux-style blends (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot – known as “Meritage”) or varietals (i.e. single grape types). The main grape types grown in the region, but the main ones are:

  • Zinfandel: although this is a close relative of Italy's Primitivo grape, and is hailed as “America’s grape”. It produces rich, full-bodied reds, with high alcohol and flavours of red berries, blackcurrant, pepper and spice.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: rather than being like Bordeaux’s austere tannic wines, Cabernet Sauvignons from California are often easy-drinking, soft, fruity wines.
  • Merlot: the best examples are from cooler areas (e.g. Napa) and are deep, full-bodied, rich, fruity, high alcohol wines with flavours of blackberries and plums.
  • Pinot Noir: the best examples come from cooler regions (e.g. Russian River Valley or Carneros). If grown in too hot a region, they can be quite “jammy” (i.e. thick, gloopy, over-baked).
  • Chardonnay: as in Australia, Chardonnay in California comes in a variety of styles. But classic Californian Chardonnay is full-bodied, high in alcohol, with lots of oak ageing. Typical flavours are nuts and butter (from the oak ageing), and exotic fruit (peach, banana).
  • Sauvignon Blanc: unlike most other wines produced from this grape, Californian Sauvignon Blancs are often full-bodied and spicy, with lots of oak. They are sold “Fume Blanc”.

It is probably best to split the various areas within California into the following:

Coastal Regions

Including those that are not positioned on the coast, but benefit from the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean, the coastal zones deliver most of the best quality wines within California. These include well known areas such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Country, Monterey County and Mendocino County, Russian River Valley, Los Carneros. Many of these winemakers are not big industrialists, but small-scale producers who are intent on making excellent wines, and who refuse to stick to any rules or preconceived ideas.

Central Valley

Although this hot, desert-like region produces 80% of California’s wine, much of it is basic, lesser quality wine. However, there are decent areas and vineyards to be found. For good examples, try wines from North Yuba, Clarksburg (especially the Chenin Blanc), Lodi (especially the Zinfandel).

Sierra Foothills

The Sierra Nevada mountain range is on the eastern boundaries of California, and provides a much cooler climate. The vines produce much fewer fruit per vine (“yield”) which results in a much more concentrated wine. The area had a renaissance in the 1970s and has been gaining popularity ever since. Try wines from Boeger, Ironstone and Renaissance.

New York State

Although it is the second largest wine producing state in the US, New York State has a reputation for making mass-produced, sweet wines. This is largely due to vast plantings of the Concord grape: a highly aromatic grape which is used to make jams, soft drinks and sweets, but turns out mostly sickly wines.

There is a gradual move to improving this position, but still around 75% of all grapes planted in New York State are Concord. For the better wines, look to The Finger Lakes; Hudson River Valley and Long Island and grape types such as Chardonnay, Riesling or Gewurztraminer.


Oregon is north of California. Most of the vineyards are located slightly inland from the Pacific, which results in them being cooler and wetter, having mild winters with warm summers. The most famous area is Willamette Valley, which is often compared to Burgundy (France). The main grape types used are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (as in Burgundy), as well as Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

This is an exciting area which is receiving heavy investment from the French. Keep your eye on this one, it is serious competition to Burgundy.

Washington State

Washington is north of Oregon (bordering Canada) and has hot summers and cold winters. The rainfall is low and some of it is desert conditions. However, there are major rivers which provide water to the vineyars. The main grapes to look for here are Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best wines are made as varietals (i.e. made from just one grape type).

The most famous region within Washington state is Walla Walla Valley. Severe frosts are a problem in Walla Walla: every 6 years, frosts wipe out about half of its harvest!