Thursday, June 19, 2008

Move over, California; other states are producing their own fine wines

With more than 90 percent of the nation's wine production taking place in California, the achievements of other states' tiny wine regions almost never make it to the radar screen.

Yet many of the other wine regions are now making some spectacular wines.

Two states, Washington and Oregon, have long been credited as successes, but in my view, not for the right reasons.

Washington: It is rightly praised for its great cabernet sauvignons and merlots, but in the last decade, its greatest strength has been with riesling, from dry all the way to dessert styles.

Oregon: Its pinot noir has gained wide praise, but the truly great Oregon pinot blancs, rieslings and pinot gris have always, unfortunately, taken a subservient role.

So which other states are adding to this national diversity in wine drama? A single column this short can't do justice to the greatness I see emanating from elsewhere, but here is a snapshot:

New York: With four distinct wine regions, the Empire State produces stellar wines, including merlots and chardonnays of Long Island and the excellent French-American hybrids of the Hudson Valley. The most exciting wines in New York are the dry and off-dry rieslings from dozens of wineries in the picturesque Finger Lakes. Now selling so fast it's hard for wineries to produce enough for the demand, New York rieslings' success portends potential for this variety in the coming decade.

New York also produces an astonishing array of superb "other" wines, including wines from native American as well as hybrid grape varieties.

Michigan: Here again, riesling leads the pack, and with some drama. Wines from the Old Mission Peninsula have won major awards and gold medals at California wine competitions, and demand is pushing prices to levels Michiganders never imagined. But other grapes, such as gewürztraminer and pinot noir, also have shown great potential, and that has spurred winery development. Moreover, cherry wines are more popular than ever.

Virginia: Thomas Jefferson's failed ventures as a grape grower and winemaker have, two centuries later, been vindicated with some of the most exciting wines in the nation.

Made in a more reined-in style than California's full-blown, concentrated and powerful red wines, the reds of Virginia are led by two other Bordeaux grapes. Petit verdot and cabernet franc now both make exceptional red wines, while the Rhone white viognier, the French-Italian star pinot gris, and Jurançon favorite petit manseng all seem to thrive here.

Missouri: Winter weather that is so brutal to vines that it precludes the growing of French grapes has meant that Show-Me residents must grow special cultivars. With superb French-American hybrids vignoles (a floral, pineapple-y white) and seyval leading the way, Missouri wineries have developed a following for their distinctive wines. A recent addition to the scene is Norton -- a native American vine that yields a near-black wine with dramatic potential.

We have no space left for the excellence of Ohio riesling, Wisconsin Foch, Rhode Island gewürztraminer, New Mexico sparkling and red wines, or the great variety coming out of Texas. Even Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado are making their own statements.

With each of the 50 states now having at least one commercial winery, new wine tasting experiences are surfacing in places some people didn't know existed.

Dan Berger