When the Spanish and French brought winemaking to North America, they used native grapes like Muscadine, Concord, and Niagara, all sweet varieties. Only when science caught up to winemaking did vitus vinafera grapes such as Cabernet Franc (and its child, Cabernet Sauvignon), Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, make their way to North America.
Wine experts stayed focused on Europe until 1977 and the Judgment of Paris, when California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon beat “the best” the French could offer. This began the expansion of the U.S. Wine Industry to Oregon and Washington, and led to the planting of vitus vinafera grapes in the Mid Atlantic states including Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.
For the last 15 years, I have maintained that you needn’t buy wines made outside of California as California wine is the equal of wine anywhere in the world. The only reason I would buy wine made outside of California is when I looked for a varietal that is not grown in California, such as Sangiovese, Tempranillo, or Alicante.
However, over the last five years or so, the quality of wine made in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ontario has improved substantially, with world class Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay being made within five hours of downtown Cleveland. In addition, Cornell University hybrids Traminette (a white hybrid of Gewurstraminer and Riesling) and Noiret (a hybrid of Steuben and a previous red hybrid which could have included Chambourcin) have matured into unique varietals. Winemakers in the region have also been able to produce extremely high quality lesser known varietals such as Marquette, Vignoles, Gamay, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Carmenere, Chancellor, Norton, Aligote, and Chambourcin. About the only grape these wineries have not had any success in growing is Zinfandel. They are also experimenting with unique blends, and producing ice wines, sparkling wines, and rose’s using unusual varietals,
Several years ago, I took a group from Hi Rise Ski Club to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. One of the visitors bought her first ever bottle of Chardonnay on this trip, as she said she had never liked a Chardonnay before this trip. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes, I bought my first ever bottle of Chambourcin, which tasted to me more like a Bordeaux blend than a single varietal made with a local grape. I have also recently been impressed with four Northeastern Ohio wineries. As a matter of fact, two Ohio wineries won awards at the 2016 Finger Lakes Wine Festival, with Ferrante Winery taking the prize for best Riesling for their 2013 Dry Riesling. This victory feels to me much like the Judgment of Paris might have felt to the California wineries who produced the winning wines.
I am not ready to say you don’t need to buy any wines outside of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, but if this trend continues, that day may come. Watch out world.