A number of Western European countries have centuries-old thriving wine industries, established many years before the United States was a glimmer in the eye of the Founding Fathers. The United States is a latecomer to the cultivation and production of wine. It has only been since the 1960s that the negative effects of Prohibition were overcome and a burgeoning wine industry began to gain a worldwide reputation.
Today, United States winemakers are challenging the Western European wine establishment to rethink centuries-old rules and regulations concerning the demographics of where grape varieties are planted. Not only is the United States a mosaic of many cultures and ethnicities, but it is also becoming a mosaic of wines rivaling the traditional sources of specific grape varieties long regulated and held in high regard in Western Europe.
There are several components of this evolution (revolution) of winemaking in the United States.
Let’s focus on two of these.
- The effects of terroir — Many of the international grape varietals grounded in Western Europe are now grown in many other wine regions. The terroir of Burgundy is unique, producing an expression of Pinot Noir that is similarly unique in style, aroma and taste. I have noticed that Pinot Noir is gaining popularity here in the New York area. Typically, the standby region for Americans is central California. When questioned by friends or readers for an alternative to these wines, my typical suggestion is to continue consuming Pinot Noir – but from different American regions and terroirs, not necessarily from Burgundy. The terroir in the United States varies greatly and Pinot Noir from each region may differ significantly. A side-by-side experiment with American Pinots can be very revealing. Northern and Southern California Pinots reflect their unique terroir; likewise those from Oregon, New York and other states along the Eastern Seaboard. Styles vary from light and simple to fruit-forward and lush to complex and well balanced.
- Regulation — The regulatory systems in most Western European nations dictate which grape varieties may be planted in each designated wine region. Regulatory agencies in each country further dictate the winemaking practices required to earn a particular classification. In most countries there is a hierarchy established of which wines may bear the location designation. In Italy, to be designated Chianti Classico, a wine produced in that demarcated area must conform to specific criteria established and monitored by a government agency. If adhered to, the wines may carry this designation on the label.
But not in the United States. While there are very broad regulations to inform consumers of the core grape variety that may be displayed on a bottle, the regulations generally end there. Winemakers in any state or geographic area may grow whichever grape or blend of grapes they decide. As noted above, in Europe the regulators dictate which grapes may be grown in Burgundy or Sancerre or Barolo in order to bear the name of that region on a bottle. In many of these wine regions, certain grapes or blends are not permitted. If produced, these wines typically must carry the equivalent wording of a base, or table, wine.
With the open approach in the United States to wine cultivation and production, there are many blended wines not available anywhere else in the world. I recently sampled an extreme example of this: a wine that was a blend of Zinfandel and Tempranillo, cultivated and produced in the Hill Country of Texas. This was a multiple first for me: these two grapes grown in Texas and blended together. I enjoyed the wine immensely, but may never encounter it again anywhere else in the United States, or the wine world.
Next week, we’ll embark on a virtual tour of several American wineries producing wines from grapes not historically grown in the United States.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.