Julie Harrison - American Wine outside of California

Publish Date
Thursday, 30 November 2017, 12:06PM
By Julie Harrison

Whilst California is responsible for the majority of wine production in the United States some very good wines come from elsewhere, in particular Washington State and Oregon in the Pacific North West.

In the North West corner of the United States bordering Canada is Washington State.  Whilst its main city Seattle is notorious for the amount of rain it gets, if you head east you find the Columbia River Valley, which is home to the majority of Washington State vineyards.  Protected from the rain by the Cascade mountains on its western boundary this is a dry, arid area with a continental climate meaning long hot days followed by cool nights which allows the grapes to fully ripen but still maintain good levels of acidity.   Due to the semi-arid climate, irrigation of the vineyards is essential and the extensive river systems in the region are important for this.  The rivers also assist in moderating the climate, helping to protect the vines from freezing during the very cold winters.  Because of its northerly location it receives 17 hours of sunlight in the summer, which is two more than the more southerly Californian vineyards.   Cabernet Sauvignon does particularly well here but there are extensive plantings of Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling.  Within the Columbia River Valley AVA are several smaller AVA’s including Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and the Walla Walla River Valley.   The Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills AVA’s are known for making outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon.

Nestled between California to the South and Washington State to the north, Oregon is all about Pinot Noir.  There are three main wine regions in this state the Willamette Valley AVA, Southern Oregon AVA and Columbia Gorge AVA.  The most important AVA is the Willamette Valley.  Here the Cascade mountains mark the eastern boundary and the Coastal mountains the west.   Sea breezes still penetrate through the Coastal Range moderating the climate.  Starting at Portland this area follows Willamette River south for 160km down the Willamette River Valley.   Vineyards tend to be planted on the less fertile slopes of the lower hillsides.  The Willamette Valley AVA is then further divided into 6 appellations.  Dundee Hills is the most heavily planted of these and produces a spicy, earthy Pinot Noir with red fruit characters and ripe, rounded, integrated tannins.   Generally speaking Pinot Noir grown in Oregon tends to be lighter and more delicate than Pinot Noir from California with each of the 6 sub-regions bringing a slightly different take on this fickle variety.  The Southern Oregon AVA includes two sub-regions, Umpqua  valley and Rogue Valley.   Both warmer than the Willamette Valley these regions are suitable for a large number of varieties including those that prefer a slightly hotter climate such as   Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Zinfandel

East of Washington State and Oregon is Idaho.   This dry, hot region is suitable for viticulture as its vineyards are located at high altitude meaning hot days with cool nights so the grapes still maintain their acid levels as they ripen.  Most vineyards are located in the Snake River Valley AVA in the South-West of the state.   With a range of microclimates many different varieties are grown here including Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

New York State is well known for high quality Riesling from the upstate Finger Lakes region.   The area has climatic and geographic similarities to the Rhine River in Germany so it is no surprise that Riesling does well here.  Grapes are grown on the hills surrounding the narrow, fingerlike lakes after which the area is named.  The Finger Lakes themselves help make viticulture possible here by moderating the cold winter climate in the areas bordering the lakes.   Increased air movement reduces frost risk and the lakes release stored heat during the winter helping to protect the vines from freezing.  The area only has a short growing season so wines are often lighter and less alcoholic than wines from warmer regions.

There are other small pockets of wine growing around the rest of America but this largely supplies the local market.   As is often the case the wine growing areas of the States are becoming increasingly marketed as tourist destinations. Certainly the dramatic landscapes of Oregon and Washington State combined with lots of interesting wineries to visit makes them a great place to explore.

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