Although grapes are grown and wine is made in most American states, only in California and the Pacific northwest are grapes grown in significant quantities. Only wnes from these areas have gainde an international reputation for quality.
California’s reputation has been built on bold, ripe, fruit-driven wines, which often carry their fair-share of new oak. The state has had its problems, with almost every deadly wine disease rearing its ugly head at some stage, yet it has without doubt, some of the world’s best growing conditions.
The Pacific Ocean is hugely influential, moderating a hot climate with its cool breezes and fogs. Most of California’s commercial wines come from the warm and fertile Central Valley, but its premium wines tend to be made from fruit grown much closer to the coast. The Napa Valley, sometimes referred to as the Bordeax of California, is situated just north of San Francisco Bay. As an appellation, Napa has a deversity of soil, climate, and topography, which particularly suits Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A food culture has also evolved here, making it a destionation for the rich and famous. The areas of Sonoma and Carneros, separated from the Napa Valley by the Mayacamus Mountains, are much cooler and are therefore able to specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Warmer districts, such as Dry Creek, are found in northern Sonoma, where some superb Zinfandels are produced, Zinfandel is California’s ‘own grape’. At best it priduces blackberry-flavoured, full-bodied reds, often from old wines. At worst it also makes ‘blush’ of White Zin, a pale relation, bottled with a dash of sweetness.
The small, but up-and-coming Sierra Foothills area is a great source of Rhône and Italian varietals while south of San Francisco lies the region of Santa Cruz which is home to some top-class wineries.
Washington State and Oregon, collectively known as the Pacific northwest, like California lie on the western side of the country. Spanning three adjoingh states, this is an area of rolling hills, rivers and valleys. Washington, with approximately 30,000 acres of vineyards, tends to be the warmer of the two regions. Its plantings focus mostly around the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range.
Oregon, has only 12,000 acres of vine-yards, which have developed in the cooler Willamette Valley, Burgundian and Alsatian grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Muscat, thrive here. Oregon gained overnight fame in 1979 when David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyard entred the estate’s 1975 Pinot Noir in a blind wine tasting competition, organised by the Burgundian negociant Robert Drouhin. Although Drouhin’s Chambolle-Musigny 1959 came first, the Eyrie vineyard vet meny famous Burgundy wines to come second. Oregon has been linked whit Pinot Noir ever since.
Over the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, the dry and warm climate of the Columbia Valley is proving to be an excellent area to grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
California is the best-known wine region of America. The region is subdivided into six main areas. From north to south these are the North Coast (north of San Francisco, home of Napa Valley, Sonama, Carneros wines),Humboldt (on the banks of the Sacrmamento River), Sierra Foothills (at the foot of the Sierra Mountains east of Sacramento), Central Coast (south of San Francisco to slighty north of Los Angeles), Central Valley (a huge area on the banks of the San Joaquin River), and South Coast (between Los Angeles and San Diego).
Franciscan monks from Bordeaux with the rather appropriate name of Jean Louis saw th possibilities here in 1830 and he improted countless European varieties of grapes.
Things really took off though after the Gold Rush. The growers left the south alone and concentrated their efforts in the central and northern area where there was a ready market with the lager city of San Francisco. The quality of those wines was from modest to poor. In those days California made ponderous syrupy wines of little character and freshness. This was the start of the huge American bulk wine industry. Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, which banned the production of alcoholic drink on a commercial scale, was a major blow for the Californian wine trade.
It seemed for a long time as though the growers would not survive this crisis. It was not until the 1970s that changes started to take place. Wine-making became a recongnised profession and people form California went to study at first hand in Europe with the best wine-makers. The result is nothing les than spectacular.
There are still many ‘wimpy wines’ (plonk) in California, but quality is becoming more important than quantity with both the big business and small wineries.
Yet many still regard California as a massive industrialised wine region with its enornous vineyards, wineries like palaces, batteries of high towering stainless steel storage tanks etc. Despite this the numbers of smaller producers is growing in places like the Sonoma Valley, and Carneros. These growers and makers not only know what they are talking about, they also bring much verve and passion to their wine-making.
Hence the massive rows of readily saleable Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are becoming smaller in scale and some even dare to replace them with specialist varieties such as Viognier for white wines and Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Granche for reds.
Mexico is probably the oldest wine-producing country of the New World. Vines were introduced by the Spanish conquistadors under the command of the faimous Henando Cortez in the sixteenth century.
The results were very disapponting though because of the tremendous heat and arid conditions.
The Spanish searched for better places to plant the vines further north in satisfactory. It was only in the eighteenth century that Franciscan monks imprived the Spanish vineyards and extended those in the former greater California. After California was separated from Mexico, wine-growing in Baja California (the Mexican part of California) fell into total neglect. Several large American and European wine and drinks companies saw an opportunity in the later twentieth century to establish a wine industry in Mexico in the best locations.
Of these companies the firm of Domecq achieved short-term success with Mexican wine. Because of the very hot and dry conditions it is essential for wine-growing to find cooler places so sites were sought on the high plateaux. Hence some vineyards are sited at 3,300-5,000 feet. Although there are well-hnwon internationally. These are L.A. Cetto, Mission Santo Thomas, and Domecq to a lesser extent in terms of the wine than the name.
L.A. Cetto and Domecq have vineyards in Baja California, about 50 miles south of the bode with the United States, tin the Guadalupe Valley, and Mission Santo Thomas has them in the Santo Thomas Valley. There are also vineyards in the Baja California of the smaller scale but high quality wine producer of wines, with a sultry and unforgettable Chardonnay and excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are very expresive and difficult to get and appers to be less interested in wine. Mission Santo Thomas has entered into a joint venture with the famous Californian company of Wente and is extremly busy. Their Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon are absolute gems.
L.A. Cetto makes a wide range of different types of wine from very acceptable cheap ones for local consumption to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Zinfandel, and Petite Syrah that are mainly intended for export.
Mexican wines, as the taster will soon discover, are long on sensuality and short on finesse.