Most of the wines in America that we’re familiar with originated in Europe, mainly France. The difference between wines in the United States and France is a question of varietal vs. Terrior. Did I lose you? Let me explain. In the United States we often identify wine by the varietal (type of grape: Chardonnay, Merlot for instance). In Europe, the wine is most often identified by the region it comes from. One reason for this is due to European winemaking having a much longer history than winemaking in the United States, hence they’ve come to understand and value the importance of Terrior (Wikipedia describes Terroir as…the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee …). Another reason is that most European wines are often blends of several different grapes (Burgundy being a notable exception).
Since “serious” winemaking in the U.S is relatively young* and Americans are still learning to make (as well as how to appreciate) wines, we still refer to wines by the name of the grape to simplify matters. I would guess that as the industry evolves and American wine drinkers become more sophisticated, we will refer to wines by region more and varietal less. In a recent trip to Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara’s wine making region) most wineries I visited made it a point to talk about the vineyard(s) their grapes came from and what affect the location had on the wines.
Just to confuse matters (or hopefully to simplify things in the long run), in Europe, we often associate certain grapes with certain areas. We use those associations herein the states to give us a frame of reference, and to better understand the wine we’re drinking.
In Europe, over the millennia winemakers have found out that certain grapes do better in different regions which are best suited to express the character of each particular grape. Here’s a rundown of the popular varietals in the United States, where they originated, and what region(s) in the United States have become known for those varietals.
|Varietal||Origin||U.S region known for varietal/
Suggestion from the shelves of Uncorked
|Bordeaux||Napa Valley, Sonoma, Santa Ynez (Happy Canyon), Paso Robles, Washington state (Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, Red Mountain, etc)
William Harrison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
|Merlot||Bordeaux||Napa Valley, Sonoma, Monterey,
Eastern Washington (Columbia Valley, etc)
Chacewater Lake County Merlot
|Chardonnay||Burgundy||Most of California, Oregon, Washington
PIer Avenue Chardonnay
|Pinot Noir||Burgundy||California: Napa, Sonoma, Santa Ynez, Monterey, Mendocino, Central Coast, Oregon (Willamette Valley)
Ave Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
|Sauvignon Blanc||Bordeaux||Most of California, Washington State|
|Syrah||Rhone Valley (France)||Napa, Santa Ynez, Walla Walla (WA)
|Zinfandel||Italy via Croatia||Napa, Sonoma, Amador County, Santa Cruz, Paso Robles, Lodi
*For discussion purposes, I’ll use Napa Valley winemaking of the 70’s and the famous “Judgment of Paris” as a signpost of the first real recognition of “serious” winemaking in the United States.