Fifty years ago, if you tasted a wine from Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, or New York, chances are you’d be lucky if it was even drinkable.
A lot has changed since then. Scientists have worked hard to better understand soils, rootstock, different grape varieties, yeast strains and dozens of disciplines that never existed in 1972.
The result has been a dramatic increase in high quality wine from regions that once couldn’t even make a decent quaff. A strong case could be made that the Old World aroma and taste paradigms of the past no longer rule the world of high-class wines, and have been joined by a new set of world-class characteristics, some of which take getting used to.
Once you get a handle on what these regions are doing, the pleasures can be equal to any that wine from the Old World regions can deliver.
I have long been fascinated by this dramatic rise in the quality of wines that once would never have been considered a candidate to even permit a vine to thrive, let alone make a world-class wine. Here are a few American regions that have achieved greatness in fine wine:
Notably in the upstate Finger Lakes region and especially with drier-styled rieslings, the Empire State has leaped into the consciousness of many wine lovers. The climate, once considered too cold for French varieties, was for the longest time mainly a haven for grape-juice varieties. But thanks to the late Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank, many French varieties thrived, and today some fabulous dry rieslings head the New York portfolio. And other varieties are coming along quickly.
The remarkably cold winters in northern U.S. states would kill most French varieties, so in the last 20 years, special French-American hybrid varieties have been developed that, though a bit unusual at first taste, can make appealing wines. Some of the better varieties aren’t well known outside of extremely cold regions (LaCrosse, La Crescent, Brianna, Frontenac, Marquis, St. Croix), but are intriguing grapes and can make tasty wines.
The state’s two northernmost districts, Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, have moderate climates that are not so cold that they can’t ripen fruit. With hard work and skill, numerous wine makers now make stellar white wines, notably riesling, and the reds are coming along.
The moderate climate here can be a bit cold in winter, a bit hot and humid in summer, making it hard to farm fine wine grapes. But in the last decade, superb white wines from viognier, petit manseng, seyval blanc, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and even the rare red grape Norton have made impressive wines.
The vine-killing winter “Canadian Clipper” winds have made planting French varieties risky, but French-American hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and Vignoles along with a number of Native American varieties now contribute excellent wines to a consumer base fast gaining a handle on them.
The eastern side of the state can be raked by winds so cold few grapevines can survive, but on the more temperate western side, dozens of wineries now flourish, and a handful are making some stellar wines from Bordeaux varieties. And a few high-altitude white wines are so dramatic it’s hard to believe they are made at such altitudes. Even in the remote Four Corners region, wine quality is taking a leap forward.
Difficult vine-growing conditions in Texas in the 19th century prompted horticulturalist T.V. Munson to develop hundreds of grape varieties around the turn of the 20th century that eventually gave life to the state’s now-thriving wine industry. Today, Texas has more than 200 wineries, eight different appellations, and some long-time producers now make wine from as many as a dozen different French varietals.
In addition to the West Coast states and Idaho, excellent wines are now also being made in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, and there are individual gem wineries in Wisconsin, Indiana, Delaware, Rhode Island, and even Georgia.
Grape wine is now made in every state, even in Alaska and Hawaii. Not every state makes world class wine, but it’s only 50 years from when most non-West Coast wine was pretty mundane.
Wine of the Week
2009 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley ($20) — Cherry and cranberry aroma that’s not terribly complex, but this Australian wine is generously fruity and medium-bodied (13.5 percent alcohol), with excellent acidity to match with food. It’s hard to find a varietally correct Pinot Noir at anything less than $35 these days, so this wine is a bargain for every-day consumption.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.