The Challenge of the “Other 47” States
For reasons involving Pacific Ocean currents, the configuration of mountain chains, volcanic activity and even the Great Missoula Flood, the western edge of the North American continent, (including the American states of California, Oregon and Washington, the Canadian province of British Columbia, and the Mexican state of Baja California), is well suited to the growing and vinification of vinifera grapes. In the vast center of the continent, viticulture is challenged by great extremes of temperature in both summer and winter. In the southeastern quarter of the United States, tropical humidity is the great stumbling block to vinifera cultivation. The northeast (where this writer lives) suffers from a double whammy: miserable humidity coming up from the south and vine-killing winter chill sweeping down from the Arctic. For many years, once California punched its way to the top of the American vinous world, growers in the “rest” of the country attempted to produce wines from the same international grapes the Californians were planting, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay above all. Viticulture might fail entirely because of climate-induced disease, and when it did succeed, the resulting wines lacked the vivacity and vitality of their California models. Wise winemakers eventually faced the music and started to concentrate on grapes that were appropriate for their climates and environments. These grapes were either French-American hybrids or select vinifera varieties that better fit the climate.
Let us re-cap here the difference. North American fully non-vinifera grapes do not make the kinds of wines most of us like to drink. A species like Vitis labrusca, which includes the Concord grape so well enjoyed for eating out of hand, grape juice, and grape jelly, when made into wine, has a ”foxy” taste reminiscent of wild strawberries that have been wrapped in wet fur. The Concord is well suited, however, to environments which are downright cold (and it also resists phylloxera). Attempts to beat phylloxera by crossing vinifera grapes with non-vinifera grapes failed (root grafting succeeded), but in the process, a number of French-American hybrid grapes were created that did well in the cold harsh climates of the upper Midwest, New York State, Ontario, and even China and Japan. Baco Noir, Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Seyval Blanc are just a few of these excellent grapes. The wines they produce can be absolutely delightful, without a trace of foxiness, they just have an image problem (like any grape that doesn’t fit into the pantheon of “international” varieties).
- Only nine percent of the grapes produced in New York State are Vitis vinifera: Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris.
- Another eight percent are hybrids: Cayuga White, Chambourcin, Dechaunac, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and three specifically developed for the New York environment by the state’s vine research center at Cornell University: Noriet, Corot Noir, and Valvin Muscat.
- The remaining 93% of New York’s grapes are non-vinifera—Vitis labrusca, the Concord, Catawba, and Niagara varieties
All of these grapes, even the vinifera varieties, show some form of cold hardiness.
New York is a geologically and topographically diverse state, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Great Lakes. The Allegheny River in western New York State is actually part of the Mississippi River Valley. New York has big cities (and one giant one), vast suburban areas, and yet significant wilderness and agricultural areas. The state’s six wine regions, all designated AVAs, each have nothing in common with the other five except or the fact that each has a name that refers to a body of water (which in all cases, tends to modify the climate).
The Lake Erie AVA runs along the lake split among western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio. The Concord grape predominates here with most of production going into juice, jelly, eating grapes and low-quality sweetened wine. Some growers are starting to experiment with vinifera plantings.
The Niagara Escarpment AVA in western New York has a similar environment to the vineyard areas on the Ontario side of the international border. Twenty wineries make up the Niagara Wine Trail producing Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling as well as a variety of fruit wines. Viticulture in this cool climate would not be possible without the moderating effect of Lakes Erie and Ontario.
With 11,000 acres under vine, the Finger Lakes AVA is New York’s largest. Even more so than around the Great Lakes, this interior region would be far too cold for vines without the heat-absorbing and radiating qualities of these eleven narrow glacial lakes. Most vineyards are clustered around the sloping shores of Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga lakes. Seneca and Cayuga each qualify as sub-AVAs. More than 120 wineries inhabit this well-developed resort area, many specializing in selling to tourists. Riesling is the leader, with Pinot Noir and some French-American hybrids.
The Finger Lakes has an important place in American wine history as a result of the experiments of Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment station in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Frank proved that appropriate vinifera grapes could withstand the cold winter if they could be grafted onto the right native vine roots. In the case of the Finger Lakes, that grape is Riesling. Riesling handles winter frost well. That said, nothing could stop the vine-killing 2014 freeze, caused by a “polar vortex.” Riesling vines died, and the federal government declared nineteen of New York’s counties disaster areas.
New York’s newest delimited wine region is the Champlain Valley of New York AVA, approved in September 2016, in the state’s extreme northeast. In this cold but tourist-rich region, hardy hybrid grapes run the show: Marquette, Frontenac, and Leon Millot among reds; La Crescent, Seyval Blanc, Brianna, Chardonnel (a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc), and St. Pépin among whites.
The Hudson River Region AVA edges to within day commuting distance of New York City. Most vineyards are situated on the west side of the Hudson, often overlooking the river. The region has the distinction of having the oldest continuously operated winery in the United States: Brotherhood, founded in 1839. The French hybrid Seyval Blanc shares honors with Chardonnay and Riesling for the most popular grape. Millbrook Vineyards and Winery, well inland on the east side of the river, has long been an innovative maker of cool-climate vinifera wines, both red (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot) and white (Chardonnay, Riesling and Tocai Friulano). It is perhaps telling that Millbrook, which does a brisk tasting room business, rounds out its offerings with a Cabernet Sauvignon from San Benito County, California rather than trying to coax that demanding grape to ripen in Dutchess County, New York.
The growing season for the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie AVAs is about 200 days, the Hudson River Region’s is only 190 days, but the vineyards at the eastern extreme of Long Island enjoy about 230 days a year of growing time. The important wine regions are the outstretched twin forks of Long Island constituting the North Fork of Long Island AVA and the Hamptons, Long Island AVA. A larger Long Island AVA, covering Nassau and Suffolk Counties, was created later to protect the Long Island brand. In this case, the sub-AVAs existed before the regional AVA. Vineyards here benefit from the warming influence of three bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Long Island Sound to the north, and Peconic Bay between the north and south forks. The Hamptons tends to be cooler and wetter than the North Fork. Long Island winemakers are doing well with Cabernet Franc and Merlot (which benefit from those extra weeks of growing season). Chardonnay and Riesling also do well, but the energetic growers of this tourist-friendly region are trying their hands at dozens of other vinifera grape varieties.
Ranking the American states as wine producers leads the researcher to contradictory sets of data (except that all data criteria put California as number one). You are forced to choose a list that seems most useful. The danger is that you might chose a ranking list skewed toward those states that have the best public relations departments. With that disclaimer, this writer chooses to rely on data from the National Association of American Wineries and their ranking of the states based on number of wineries (rather than vineyard acreage or volume of wine sold). The top five by this criterion are: California, Washington, Oregon, New York, and Virginia. (California has more wineries than the other 49 states combined.) These are also the states covered in detail in the World Atlas of Wine. Texas is nearly tied with Virginia on the NAAW list, and exceeds it on some other lists, so we will also cover that state.
We have already discussed Virginia in this course in our discussion of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s failed efforts to grow vinifera grapes on his estate at Monticello. Tom’s problem, though he did not know it at the time, was the phylloxera louse. Even without phylloxera, the region’s endemic humidity would have promoted fungal issues that would have worn Jefferson out. To be precise, these issues would have worn Jefferson’s slaves out, but that is material for another course. The same Monticello vineyards are producing vinifera grapes now thanks to rootstock grafting and judicious grape selection. The Monticello AVA is one of seven in Virginia. The Commonwealth’s top five varietals are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Vidal Blanc (a French-American hybrid), and Viognier. Viognier has open clusters that allow air to circulate among and between the grapes, helping to avoid fungal infection caused by the humidity. Chardonnay still leads in production, but Viognier is now promoted as Virginia’s signature grape.
It is worth remarking here that Virginia’s official state motto is sic semper tyrannus, Latin for “Tyrants always get the ignominy they so richly deserve.” In 1969, Virginia decided that “Virginia is for Lovers” made better PR. The phrase (which pre-dated “I – heart – New York”) is still in use. So if Viognier is now the state’s signature grape, so be it. The word Viognier even looks like Virginia. Cabernet Franc is touted as Virginia’s signature red.
The Middleburg AVA is Virginia’s newest, in the Piedmont region of the north, abutting the Potomac River, 50 miles west of Washington, DC. Soil is granite-based clay. Boxwood, one of the leading producers, produces red wine only from the Bordeaux grapes of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Other Middleburg wineries produce Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling, and some are experimenting with Nebbiolo, which is extraordinarily difficult to propagate outside of its home in Italy’s Piemonte.
The vineyards of the North Fork of Roanoke AVA sit between 1,200 feet and 2,200 feet in elevation on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains. The elevation makes this a cool-clime region despite its latitude. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Viognier, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Malbec are among the grapes produced.
The Rocky Knob AVA in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia is small, with elevations reaching from 1600 feet to 3600 feet. Soils are a mixture of gravel and silt loam. Strong winds in this mountainous area protect the vines from fungus and excess humidity. No wine is being produced under this appellation at present.
The Shenandoah Valley AVA is large, and spills over into the West Virginia panhandle at its northern end. The valley is flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains on the west. Growing season is warm, and the ridges act as a rain shadow, keeping the appellation dry. Wineries here produce a combination of vinifera varietals, French-American hybrids and a some wines from the Norton grape, a native American variety that is free of that “foxy” quality.
The Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA comprises a peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers in the Tidewater region of Virginia. The tip of the AVA juts into Chesapeake Bay. Production is split between vinifera grapes (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay), and French-American hybrids (Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc).
The Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA lies near sea-level on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. The soil is sandy and deep, the weather mild because of ocean and bay influence. Here, Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek grows Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Texas is a mighty big state, so keep in mind that the regions on the AVA map above are bigger than they look.
The Texas Hill Country AVA in central Texas is the nation’s second largest AVA. (The Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, which covers parts of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, is the largest, but doesn’t produce much in the way of wine.) Only a small portion of the region, about a thousand acres, is planted to quite a wide variety of vines, including the Cabernets, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Tannat, Barbera, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay. Texas Hill Country has two small sub-AVAs. The Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country AVA is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The Bell Mountain AVA produces Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard.
The vineyards of the Texas High Plains AVA stand on flat terrain at elevations between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level between the city of Lubbock and the New Mexico line. The elevation and aridity result in lower temperatures at night. The tierra roja soil is composed of sandy loam over limestone. This is a dry region, but it sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches into eight states. High winds virtually strip the vines of pests and disease. This desolate region is more of a growing area than a winemaking one, although it contains at least six wineries. All the conditions here are right for this region to become a top quality source for fine wine grapes. Growers already ship their grapes far and wide. Cabernet ripens nicely in these conditions, but you will also find Italians like Aglianico, Barbera, Montepulciano, and Sangiovese and the Rhône grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Viognier, plus Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo.
The Texoma AVA is north central Texas, south of Lake Texoma, the Red River and the Oklahoma border. This is where 19th century viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson developed the technique of grafting vinifera grapevines onto native-American roots to successfully combat phylloxera and save wine from obliteration.
The Texas Davis Mountains AVA is in the western part of the state surrounded by the Chihuahua Desert. With elevations ranging from 4500 to 8300 feet above sea level, the AVA is decidedly cool. Given its remoteness, it only has 50 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. By contrast the AVA covers 270,000 acres.
The west Texas Escondido Valley AVA produces Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Colombard but has no wineries. Soil is silt and loam.
The Mesilla Valley AVA is mostly in New Mexico. The Texas portion is located north and west of El Paso at relatively high elevations. Soils are mostly sand, loam, and clay loam. Mesilla (meaning “little table” in Spanish) is very hot and dry but these conditions are ameliorated by cooling winds that funnel through the valley. The long growing season assures optional ripeness for Cabernet Sauvignon, Dolcetto, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese and other grapes that take well to warmth.