Life is good for oenophiles in California, the epicenter of the U.S. wine industry. When selecting a bottle for dinner, we hardly need to look beyond our borders. But wine is produced in all 50 states. A lot of people know that there are good wines produced in Washington, Oregon and New York. But have you tried a wine from North Carolina? How about Iowa?
Probably not. Most of those wines don't get much beyond their state borders. Some wineries in those "other" states produce wines from the usual suspects -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. Others make wine from other types of fruit, such as raspberries or rhubarb. And a lot of wineries are using grapes that are wholly unfamiliar to most Californians, such as vignoles, norton and chardonel.
I don't often get a chance to taste such wines -- they're not exactly stocked by the local Safeway or BevMo. But I do occasionally find them at wine competitions. That was the case at the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition, where I judged earlier this year. I spent most of a day evaluating wines from the "U.S. Other" region, which translates into entries from places like Arizona, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin. A number of the bottles carried the designation "American," which means the grapes can come from a number of U.S. sources. (You're not going to find a lot of wine grapes growing in inhospitable climates like North Dakota's.)
Harsh climate is the main reason for the unusual grape varieties. The wine grapes that most people are familiar with are of the species Vitis vinifera, native to Europe and parts of Asia. But vinifera grapes tend to be finicky about their surroundings: They don't grow well in severely cold places or hot, humid ones. The grapes that are native to North America belong to different species, such as Vitis labrusca, and they are more tolerant of difficult weather conditions. There are also hybrids, crosses between the native species and vinifera grapes. Seyval blanc and vidal are two such grapes.
When I talk to vintners who try to grow grapes in places like the Midwest, I'm floored by the challenges. The humid conditions encourage the growth of all manner of diseases, rot and pests.
Despite the hardships, winemaking outside California has endured for centuries. Florida settlers in the mid-16th century used the native scuppernong grape to make wine more than 200 years before the United States was born.
The country's first commercial vineyard and winery was established in Kentucky in 1799, and Thomas Jefferson tried to cultivate vinifera grapes at his Monticello estate in Virginia in the early 1800s.
But what about today's wines? Some of the best domestic viognier I've tasted was grown in Virginia. Wineries in Michigan are making fantastic rieslings. Stone Hill Winery in Missouri has a great track record with norton and vignoles.
At the Dallas competition, the "U.S. Other" region was a mixed bag. (But so were the California wines I tasted the next day.) There were a few good wines made from vinifera grapes, notably two spicy red Rhone blends from Arizona, the 2010 Page Springs Cellars El Serrano Red ($30) and the 2010 Arizona Stronghold Nachise Red ($22). The latter winery also had an attractive viognier, the 2010 Stronghold Mandala White ($20), although grapes for that wine came from California's Edna Valley.
I was intrigued by the nonvinifera wines, such as the dark, structured Sharrott Chambourcin ($26) from the Outer Coastal Plain appellation in New Jersey, or the bright, fruity Cedar Valley Winery Marechal Foch from Iowa. The 2011 Wollersheim Prairie Blush ($9) is a lively rosé made from marechal foch grapes grown in Wisconsin.
Then there are the wineries that bring in grapes from out of state. The nonvintage Cedar Creek La Belle Vie ($9) is an off-dry, apple-y white made in Wisconsin from vidal grown in New York state. Cooper's Hawk Winery, based in a Chicago suburb, gets all its grapes from other states, including the fruit for the sweet, intense Ice Wine ($28/375ml) made from vidal.
Anywhere there are people with a passion for wine, it seems, someone eventually will start a winery. I toast their perseverance.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.