American Wine and Grape Varieties

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007 at 12:00 am

american winesWinemakers in the United States generally cultivate French grape varieties, with a few acres of unique local versions. Here we list down the most common grape varieties being grown in major wine regions of the United States. Most wines are produced by mixing several varieties to achieve the required characteristics of color, alcohol content, balance, aging process, among others.

Red Grape Varieties:

Barbera – Semi-classic grape that was probably imported into the USA late in the 19th century. It usually produces an intense red wine with deep color, low tannins, and high acid as is used in California to provide “backbone” for its jug wines. Plantings in North America are mostly confined to the warm western coastal regions.

Cabernet Franc – One of the parent grape varieties that gave rise to the Cabernet Sauvignon, it is mainly found in cooler and damper climatic conditions than its offspring. California wines of this variety is usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, a practice originated in France’s Bordeaux Region. Wine from these grapes ha a deep purple color, when young, with a herbaceous aroma.

Cabernet Sauvignon – One of the main wine-making grape varieties, most of the best Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards are located in Long Island and the cooler regions of northern California. In the warmer areas of California, grapes made into a single varietal wine will often produce higher than optimum levels of alcohol due to high sugar content and, conversely, lower than optimum acid level in most years and so may tend to age less successfully than the blended French versions.

Gamay – Probably a mutation of Pinot Noir, Gamay has three label-specific varieties in the USA: Gamay Noir, Gamay Beaujolais, and Napa Gamay. At one time or another each one was thought to be the true Pinot Noir variety of Burgundy before it was determined that many cepage clones existed. Gamay beaujolais is a widely-grown, early-ripening clone of Pinot Noir that can do well in the temperate climates of the northwest US and if picked promptly would produce a good red wine.

Gewürztraminer – A clone of the parent Traminer variety, it is successfully grown in the cooler coastal regions of Wester US. It is often regarded as somewhat similar in style to the Riesling—when vinified as slightly sweet yet tart. A well-regarded cross named Traminette is currently very successfully cultivated on small commercial acreages in the Finger Lakes region of the New York State and several other cool northern regions of the United States.

Grenache – Widely grown in California, it is now believed to be descended from the grape named Cannonau, an ancient variety widely grown in Sardinia. In the warmer regions of California, the Grenache grape tends to produce pale red wines that are mainly useful for blends. Older vines give juice that produces a creditable varietal. Often “hot” due to high alcohol content and with a distinctive orange colored tint.

Malbec – Semi-classic grape grown in the Bordeaux region of France and also in the cooler regions of California, where it is created into a varietal wine that creates a rather intense, inky, red wine so it is also commonly used in blend, such as with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot – Classic grape variety that bears resemblance to Cabernet Sauvignon wine, with which it is sometimes blended, but is usually not so intense, with softer tannins. Matures earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, with mid-late ripening. Moderate cold-hardiness. In California it is a popular varietal on its own and also as a percentage constituent of the red wine blend resembling Bordeaux claret called “Meritage.” It does extremely well in Washington State and shows great promise on Long Island in New York. Results in Finger Lakes, where it ripens in early October, have been mixed due to its relative lack of col-hardiness and the fruit subject to bunch rots.

Muscat – Another family of clone varieties, making both red and white wines. Most are of the muscat type, having the unique aromatic character commonly associated with muscat wines. These clones are mostly used for making medium-sweet and dessert style table or fortified wines. Small acreages of Orange Muscat in California’s Central Valley allow a local variation of this wine to be made by at least one producer.

Petite Sirah – Historically has been something of a “mystery” vine, it was first imported into California and this somehow acquired the subject name possibly as a result of a labeling error confusing it with Petite Syrah. Traditional Californian wine blends under the name of Petit Sirah produce dark red, tannic wines in the warmer regions of California, used mainly as backbone for Central Valley “jug” wines. In the cooler northern regions, where many very old vines still exist, it is often made into a robust, balanced red wine of considerable popularity.

Pinot Noir – The premiere grape of the Burgundy region of France, producing a red wine that is lighter in color than the Bordeaux reds like Cabernet or Merlot. It has proved to be a capriciously acting and difficult grape for North American wineries, the best results being obtained in cool, fog-liable regions such as Carneros in northern California. Cherished aromas and flavors often detected in varietal wines include cherry, mint, and raspberry.

Pinotage – This grape has been widely grown and successful in South Africa. Also currently grown in California and Virginia among other wine regions.

Syrah – A grape variety associated with the Rhone Valley region of France. In California, depending on location, vintage or fermentation technique, the grape is used to either produce a spicy, complex wine or a simple wine.

Tempranillo – Fine winegrap used in best quality red wines of Spain, also found in Central Valley of California where it is known as Valdepeñas and mainly used to make grape juice much favored by home-winemakers.

Zinfandel – An important grape variety, also thought to be the variety once known as Black St. Peter in early 18th century California lore, currently grown in California and used to produce robust red wine as well as very popular “blush wines” called “white Zinfandel.” The oldest vines found in the Dry Creek and Amador regions are notable for their ability to produce superior juice. It is also noted for the fruit-laden, berry-like aroma and prickly taste characteristics in its red version and pleasant strawberry reminders when made into a “blush wine.”

White Grape Varieties:

Chardonnay – This variety is the best-known white-wine producer, grown in many regions in the world due to its mid-season ripening and versatility. In the United States, it is mainly grown in Napa Valley and Monterey.

Chenin Blanc – Another widely-grown white-wine variety, which is also known as White Pinot. It is often made in a number of styles with or without some residual sugar. In the United States, the grape all too often ends up in the generic jug wines of bulk producers as acidity enhancers for otherwise flabby high sugar/ alcohol blends.

Riesling – Also known as White Riesling in New York, it produces a flowery, fruity dry wine with high acid and low alcohol. If infected with appropriate amount of “botrytis,” it can make outstanding late-harvest wines. The Finger Lakes region in New York is one of the producers of excellent dry versions in the Mosel and Alsation styles in addition to consistent freezing temperature extracted juice made into “eiswine,” or “ice-wine.”

Pinot Gris – A mutant clone of Pinot Noir, it is grown in western coastal regions of the US where it ripens earlier than Chardonnay.

Viognier – Semi-class white grape variety grown in the Rhone Valley of France and in California. Has full, spicy flavors somewhat reminiscent of the Muscat grapes and violets. New plantings in California have created much anticipation among the US wine community. Viognier wine can vary from almost Riesling-like character to almost Chardonnay character, depending on production method, but is not noted for aging ability and is best drunk when young. Recently-planted commercial acreages in the eastern Finger Lakes region of New York are now yielding enough grapes to allow one winery to make limited amounts of varietal wine.