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A guide to U.S. wine

Background to American wine and the AVA system

The majority of America’s wine production is in California but the Oregon and Washington State areas are now establishing themselves firmly as quality producing regions. Excellent Pinot Noir based wines are being made as a result of their cooler, European-like climates and geology/terroir.

Statistics for the US Wine Industry in 2014:

  • Revenues for US Wine Sales = $37.6 billion (Wine Institute, 5/19/15); up 1% YOY
  • Total  cases shipped: 375 million (Frederickson,2015)
  • Percentage from California = 60% ($24.6 billion in revenues, up 6.7% from 2013)
  • U.S. is the largest wine consuming nation since 2010 (Wine Institute, 2015)
  • Number of U.S. Wineries in 2014: 8287 (Gordon, 2015)
  • Largest Wine Producing States in Order of Volume: California, Washington State, Oregon, New York, Virginia
  • US Wine Consumption per Capita: 12 litres (Wine Market Council, 2015)

The United States AVA system

An AVA or American Viticultural Area is a "designated wine grape growing region distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the United States Department of the Treasury".

An exception is Oregon with a requirement that wines produced in the area must be identified by the grape variety from which it was made, and for most varietals it must contain at least 90% of that variety.

The TTB generally defines AVA's at the request of wineries and other parties making the system less robust than other countries, notably France.

Unlike most European wine appellations of origin, an AVA specifies only a geographical location from which at least 85% of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown. The US system of AVAs is therefore more similar to the Italian Indicazione Geografica Tipica than other European appellation of origin systems. American Viticultural Area designations do not limit the type of grapes grown, the method of vinification, or the crop yield. Some of those factors may, however, be used by the applicant to justify uniqueness of place when proposing a new AVA.

Californian Wine

California in common with other new world wine producers like Australia and South Africa is known for its big reds and full bodied whites with plenty of alcohol, and concentrated fruit flavours. But the state produces a myriad of quality wine, many from boutique producers in areas like Napa, Sonoma and Russian River Valley. Strong domestic production and a rising US dollar has made quality wine from California increasingly premium priced, particularly when comparing cabernet sauvignon or Pinot Noir wines with competition from producers in countries like Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. As Californian prices have risen, American wine lovers have increasingly began to look at the emerging Oregon and Washington State regions as their first choice, particularly for Pinot Noir.

Red wine production is focused on Zinfandel (the only country where it is grown and related to Primitivo), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. White wine production is focused on the Chardonnay grape.

Of recent years, 2009 was an excellent year for Pinot Noir with almost perfect growing conditions - a mild winter and not excessively hot summer. 

The North – Napa Valley and Sonoma

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The Napa Valley, to the North of San Fransisco is the heart of the North Californian wine industry and is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. The most famous AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) in Napa include:

  • Rutherford e.g.Rubicon estate owned by Francis ford Coppola
  • Stags Leap
  • Howell Mountain
  • Carneros (partly in Sonoma)
  • St Helena
  • Oakville

Sonoma, with its position adjacent to the Pacific Ocean benefits from lower temperatures and the Russian River area has become particularly famous for excellent Pinot Noir. Dry creek and Geyserville are known for good Zinfandel's.

California's best and most subtle Pinot Noir area is informally known as the West Sonoma coast - the western edge of the Sonoma Coast AVA, including the Annapolis, Freestone, Occidental, Sebastapol Hilld and Fort Ross-Sea View areas. The more temperate climate in this region means that the grapes are not subject to extremes of heat as they can be in other areas of California. 

The best AVAs in Sonoma are:

  • Russian River Valley
  • Alexander valley
  • Sonoma Valley
  • Carneros
  • Glen

South of San Francisco

To the south of the city are the Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains then on to Carmel Valley, Paso Robles , Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, and Edna Valley. Historically, none of these areas produced wine in the same league as Napa or Sonoma, but the Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz mountains, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is increasingly being recognised for their quality as are those from the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County.

Washington and Oregon

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Heading towards Canada and North of California are Washington State and Oregon with cooler temperatures and generally more difficult grape growing conditions due to their climates.

Despite the challenges for wine makers, Oregon is producing some excellent Pinot Noir particularly in the Williamette Valley area, which is gaining a reputation as one of the world's best areas for the grape. The region also produces significant amounts of Pinot Gris.

Oregon wines are marketed as varietals with state law requiring that wines produced in the area must be identified by the grape variety from which it was made, and for most varietals it must contain at least 90% of that variety. The exceptions to the 90% law are the following varietals: Red and White Bordeaux varietals, Red and White Rhône varietals, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Tannat. For these wines, they follow the Federal guidelines of 75%. Oregon law forbids use of use of place names on bottles, except as appellations of origin. 

Willamette Valley, Oregon

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The Willamette Valley AVA, close to Portland and 350 km (220 miles) south of the city of Seattle, is the wine growing region which encompasses the Willamette Valley. It stretches from the Columbia River in the north to just south of Eugene in the south, where the Willamette Valley ends; and from the Oregon Coast Range in the West to the Cascade Mountains in the East. At 5,200 square miles (13,500 km2), it is the largest AVA in the state, and contains most of the state's wineries.

The climate of Willamette Valley is mild year-round, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers and extreme temperatures are uncommon. Most rainfall occurs outside the growing season and the valley gets relatively little snow.

Though Wiliamette is most famous for its Pinot Noir, it also produces large amounts of Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay. The region also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Sémillon, and Zinfandel grapes, but in smaller quantities.

The region is divided into four subordinate AVAs: Dundee Hills AVA, McMinnville AVA, Ribbon Ridge AVA, and the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA.

Further detailed information on U.S. wine regions