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Wine Tourism: Discover North America


Category: Wine Tourism

Wine Tourism: Discover North America


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In short:

Discover America’s complex history of winemaking and its journey to becoming one of the largest wine producing countries in the world. From California to Washington and Oregon, delve into their unique terroirs and explore what North American wine has to offer.


A Brief History of American Winemaking

Nowadays American wine is recognised all over the world and is the fourth largest wine producing country, however it has endured a tumultuous history to arrive at its modern day position. Winemaking in America began in the 16th Century, with European settlers planting their home varieties with little success. The European roots were ill equipped for the Eastern seaboard, facing issues with weather and disease. Phylloxera especially plagued the crops, an invasive small yellow aphid that feeds on the roots of wine grapes, historically causing widespread devastation to vines. The Vitis Vinifera that thrived in European countries had little defence against this foreign disease.

However once Californian wine production began, settlers realised its climate was much more lenient and issues with disease less severe. The issues caused by phylloxera only multiplied when American vines found their way to France. A solution was eventually found through using the American rootstock and grafting European vine variety in order to prevent the disease. Grafting refers to the technique of joining together two plant tissues to allow them to grow as one plant, so the root of the grape plant would therefore be different to the top.

Chardonnay is currently undefeated as the most popular grape in the US with 43,000 acres. Although it arrived prior to prohibition, it had a huge increase in popularity during the wine boom in the 1960s and 70s. Zinfandel established its tradition in California, rising to popularity in the 1880s Gold Rush and remaining widely planted. The grape has close similarities to the Italian primitivo but less savoury and with lower acidity (discover an in depth comparison here). Similarly to Chardonnay, white Zinfandel also had a huge rise during the 70s, with the ease of drinking white wine for post prohibition consumers used to differing flavour palettes. It also included the rise of Cabernet Sauvignon with the now famous ‘judgement of Paris’ pitting the assumed superior French wines against the American, with Napa Valley Cabernet coming out on top.

California

Like many New World wine regions, the history of wine in California can be traced back to the late 18th century when Spanish missionaries first planted vineyards to make sacramental wine for religious ceremonies. These early plantings laid the foundation for California's wine industry, and over the years, more vineyards were established as settlers from Europe and other parts of the world brought their winemaking traditions to the state. However, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that California's wine industry began to flourish on a larger scale.

Napa Valley, with its warm days and cool nights, is renowned for producing bold and full-bodied red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines often exhibit rich blackberry and cassis flavours, with hints of oak and spice from barrel ageing. Additionally, Napa Valley is known for its super-rich Chardonnays, showing ripe fruit flavours and a creamy texture.

In contrast, Sonoma County offers a more varied terroir, resulting in a diverse array of wine styles. The Russian River Valley, for example, is famous for its elegant Pinot Noir wines, which are characterised by their delicate red fruit flavours and silky-smooth texture. Meanwhile, the Sonoma Coast produces crisp and refreshing Chardonnays with vibrant acidity and citrus notes.

Moving further south, the Central Coast boasts a Mediterranean climate that is ideal for growing a variety of grape varieties. In regions like Santa Barbara County, cool ocean breezes help to create wines with bright fruit flavours and lively acidity. Santa Barbara is particularly known for its aromatic white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, as well as its vibrant Pinot Noirs.

And, finally, the Central Valley, with its warm climate and fertile soils, is the state's primary agricultural region and home to a large portion of California's vineyards. Here, you'll find a wide range of grape varieties being grown, from traditional European varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to lesser-known grapes like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

Our favourites from California

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Washington State

The first grapes in Washington State were planted in 1825. Spurred by the learning of new irrigation techniques in 1903, in the following years settlers from around Europe had planted grapes in several areas of Washington. Although winemaking in Washington took a hit with the introduction of prohibition, loopholes meant that certain sales of wine were permitted to preserve fruit and a certain amount of personally produced wine was allowed.

Although Washington is notoriously stereotyped as a rainy state, the location of the wine country and vineyard regions have the advantage of being blocked by the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges and benefit from a drier, warmer climate. However the desert environment means that weather conditions can be extreme, and crops can only survive thanks to irrigation provided by the Columbia River as rainfall can’t be relied upon.

Cabernet Sauvignon is Washington’s most planted grape, however the state is also home to popular white grape varietals such as Riesling. Areas such as Rattlesnake Hills and Horse Heaven Hills south of Yakima Valley have ideal elevation for both reds and whites but are especially adept at specialising in Bordeaux varietals.

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Oregon

Grape plantings were brought to Oregon before they were officially declared a state in 1859, brought from Iowa by Pioneer Henderson Luelling. Although many German migrants had formed a healthy winemaking community in Oregon, Prohibition was voted in four years before it became Internationally accepted, putting a halt to its early successes. In 1961 the first post-prohibition Vinifera grapes were planted, including Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Winemakers were originally attracted to Oregon due to its warm summers and cool nights providing lower threats of disease and great opportunity for healthy ripening. The soils were extremely diverse and complex, perfect for planting Pinot Noir. Nowadays Pinot is thriving in Oregon with an increase in biodynamic practices, making 47% of Oregon’s vineyards now certified sustainable, more than any other state in the US.

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New York

In the modern day, although behind California, Washington and Oregon, New York’s Vineyards still produce around 20 million gallons of wine per year. Its first commercial winery was established in the Hudson Valley in 1827. Soon after, in 1829 the first vineyard in the Finger Lakes was also planted, which remains one of the main regions for New York wine. Lake Ontario provides temperature moderation, as do the Finger Lakes themselves. The Pleasant Valley wine company was established in the area in 1860, and still remains New York’s largest plantation of Riesling and Chardonnay.

Other popular New York varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, rosé wines and Merlot. In 1973 Long Island’s tourism and wine industry began to take shape with many vineyards being located in the North Fork area due to its protection from the cold weather and frost. East of North Fork frost can be a damaging factor for plants, as can the cooler season in the South. Bordeaux blends such as Merlot thrive in North Fork, as do other recently celebrated styles such as its rosé – often produced from Merlot grapes.

Our favourites from other regions


Despite the turbulence America has experienced throughout its winemaking history, with introducing new species, facing rampant diseases and the years of prohibition, they have well and truly come into their own as one of the biggest Global wine producers with 50 states producing wine. Their popular, fruit-forward styles have received worldwide acclaim and many of their oldest vineyards continue to thrive irrespective of the challenges they’ve faced through the years.




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