With diverse soils and a massive patchwork of special climate conditions similar to those found around the Mediterranean Sea, the continent of North America was destined to be a land of opportunities for growing grapes long before the Europeans began migrating to the New World.
On the Atlantic seaboard, the first grapes were planted in the late 16th century. But following the influx of adventurous grape growers from France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Germany in the early 1700s, the early vineyards planted in the colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania and Florida eventually fell prey to pests, bunch rot, mildew, and gnarly fungal diseases. Thus, it quickly became evident that growing premium grapes in the New World would be a process that would require time to develop.
The cause was helped by the development of American hybrids. These disease-resistant grapes are crosses between American native species and classic vinifera species from the Old World. The success of early hybrid varieties like Concord, Norton, Catawba, Isabella and Delaware, led to the spread of increased plantings in New York, as well as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and other areas in the middle of America.
On the West Coast, the first variety planted was Mission, a fruity grape with European origins, which the Franciscan monks began working with in the 1770s. But the real turning point for American wines was the start of the California Gold Rush in 1849. As luck would have it, many of the emigrants who originally came to strike it rich in the Sierra Foothills, eventually went on to purchase property in the fertile landscape of California, Oregon and Washington.
This rapid expansion resulted in a wide range of new varieties planted on the West Coast, including a hearty red grape Zinfandel, which became the workhorse red grape for the California wine industry before and after Prohibition. But following World War II and the Korean War, the fad shifted to drinking cocktails and beer. That changed in the 1960s, when the new wine revival began with the planting of new vineyards focused on “fighting varietals” that included Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since then, steady growth has continued throughout America, with varietals planted in every state. Currently, the United States ranks fourth behind only France, Italy and Spain for overall acres of grapes planted in a country, with more room for expansion.
White Grapes: Vitus Vinifera: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino, Albarino, Verdehlo, Tocai Friulano, Fiano, Malvasia Bianca, Arneis, French Colombard, Trousseau Gris, Sauvignon Vert, Gruner Veltliner, Kerner, Sylvaner.
White Native American: Delaware, Diamond. White Hybrid: Vidal Blanc, Symphony, Seyvel, Brianna, Vignoles, St. Pepin, La Crescent, Traminette.
Red Grapes: Vitus Vinifera: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Primitivo, Petite Sirah, Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault, Tannat, Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebiollo, Dolcetto, Montepulciano, Sagrantino, Lagrein, Charbono, Tempranillo, Graciano, Pinotage, , Touriga, ValdigueAlicante Bouschet.
Red Native American: Concord, Mission, Cynthiana, Norton.
Red Hybrid: Catawba, Isabella, Elvira, Niagara, Chambourcin.
White Wines: Chardonnays vary from unoaked, lean and acidic, to medium body with ripe fruit flavors, and bigger, richer styles with oaky nuances of vanilla and spice. Sauvignon Blancs can be bright and aromatic notes of fresh fruit, veggies, fresh-cut grass or “cat pee.” Many of the styles are aged in stainless steel tanks which allows for fresh flavors and racy acidity. On the high-end scale, some are partially aged in oak and some are blended with a smaller fraction of Semillon, Sauvignon Vert or other aromatic white varieties. Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio feature playful, refreshing and elegant flavor profiles; while Pinot Blanc tends to be a little richer with an oily texture. Riesling is more fragrant with notes of fresh flowers, ripe fruit and mineral when done right; Gewürztraminer is a spicier grape; and the species of Muscat often have varying levels of sweet fruit flavors. Often referred to as “Alsatian” varieties due to their lineage in the Alsace region of France; Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat can be found blended or bottled separately as dry, off-dry, sweet or dessert style wines. Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc are also used to make aromatic wines with complex fruity flavors that are either bottled separately or blended together.
Red Wines: Pinot Noir from America is typically medium to full-bodied with lovely aromas of fresh red fruit, cola, citrus, and earth. The best have more complex flavors with notes of cherry, plum, raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, pomegranate, wild mushrooms, roasted nuts, cocoa, forest floor, subtle spices, delicate texture and bright acidity. A fine Merlot has aromas and flavors of ripe red fruits, cherry, plum, red currants, milk chocolate, sage or other fresh herbs, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, soft tannins, and integrated oak. With small berries and tight clusters, Cabernet Sauvignons tend to be bigger, richer with deeper flavors of darker fruits, black cherry, blackberry, black currants, blueberry, cassis, chocolate, soy sauce, tobacco, vanilla, layers of spice, chewy tannins. The best are elegant, complex, and age-worthy. Zinfandel is jammy, spicy or bold. Many have ripe flavors of red berries, boysenberry or riper black fruits, black pepper, allspice, and zippy acidity. Syrah and other Rhone varieties can vary based on the climate conditions where the grapes are grown. Examples from warmer regions are meaty, spicy, and intensive with notes are darker fruit, gamey or smoky meats, licorice, wild herbs, and a spicy finish. Whereas, Syrah, Grenache or blends made with fruit grown in cooler coastal regions can be sexy and even ethereal with aromas and flavors that lean more towards the fresh red and blue fruits (cherry, raspberry, blueberry, boysenberry), black figs, lavender, violets, dark chocolate, bright acidity, balanced tannins, and a long, smooth finish.
Rose, Vin Gris or Blush Wines: These are the wines with the pink hues made primarily with red grapes. Over the past decade, the trend has shifted to crafting these wines in a more Euro-style with aromas often featuring lovely notes of rose petal, watermelon, red licorice, and flavors of ripe strawberry, wild berries, cherry, plum, ruby grapefruit and anise. The best are elegant, perky, fresh, and finish dry. Popular grapes to use in America include: Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignane, Zinfandel, and Merlot.
Sparkling Wines: The universal term for sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region of France. In America, most of the premium sparkling wines are made in the traditional methode champenoise technique with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sometimes a smaller portion of Pinot Meunier. Classic styles include: Brut, Vintage Brut, Brut Rose, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Reserve, Late Disgorged; Demi-Sec. The flavor profiles are often similar to the finer still wine version of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, except with riper and tart flavors, brighter acidity, mineral, toast, roasted nuts, creamy texture, and less wood integration.
Dessert Wines: In this category, there are variations of styles and different levels of sweetness. The best examples feature lively fruit flavors, bright, perky acidity, and a long finish. Popular grapes to use in America include: Muscat, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Vidal Blanc for whites; Zinfandel and Red Muscat for reds; and Muscadine for a traditional American species.
In much the same way that the United States became a melting pot of people from diverse cultures; the modern styles of American wines now work with a wider range of cuisine than ever before. For crisp and fruitier whites: think fresh fruits and vegetables, gourmet salads, spring rolls, shellfish, grilled seafood with a squeeze of citrus, chicken, pork, Japanese, Indian and Mexican cuisine, young cheeses. For heavier white wines: rich soups, grilled vegetables, pasta with white sauce, risotto with prawns, scallops, halibut, roasted chicken, pork chops with fruit-based chutney, slow roasted meats, German, Italian and Indian cuisine, and mature cheeses.
For young, fruity red wines with low tannins like Pinot Noir, Grenache and Merlot: appetizers, soups, fresh salads, sushi, salmon, Ahi tuna, grilled veggies, eggplant parmesan, scalloped potatoes, gourmet mac & cheese, herb roasted chicken, squab, pork tenderloin, wild mushrooms, soft and medium cheeses. For Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Barbera, or other spicy wines or field blends: think pasta with red sauce, pizzas, paella, barbequed burgers, hot dogs, spicy sausages, lamb skewers, rustic Italian, Spanish tapas, Mexican, Indian or Thai cuisine, tangy cheeses. For deeper wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Bordeaux or Proprietary-style blends: fattier fish, risotto with fresh truffle, rabbit, duck, pork chops, wild boar stew, roast or grilled red meats, rack of lamb, slow roasted Italian meats, Chinese food, aged cheddar or blue cheese.
With pink wines, try appetizers, charcuterie, mushroom tarts, salad with fresh berries, tuna tartar, ceviche, sushi, smoked salmon, grilled fish, chicken skewers, and goat cheese. With sparkling wines: deviled eggs, duck pate, caviar, sushi, almond crusted halibut, pork belly, and saltier or charred foods like french-fries, skirt steak with chimicuri sauce, lamb kebobs. Dessert wines are great with fruit tarts, custard, crème brulee, Key lime pie, pear frangipane, coffee cake, chocolate pie, classic American traditions like apple pie and Baked Alaska; and a wide range of fine cheeses served at the end of the meal.