Put down the Budweiser. It’s time to toast America with wine this summer because the Good ‘Ole USA is now consuming more wine than any other nation, and American producers are pumping out arguably the coolest bottles around.
The American wine industry has long taken the “It’s a free country” attitude to heart in every aspect of winemaking — from planting a true mélange of varieties, to using inventive blending strategies, different planting densities, and unheard of alcohol levels.
With the same pioneering spirit that led to the Declaration of Independence, American grape growers have experimented in ways completely opposite from their European counterparts with roaring success. It all started as early immigrants dove into the proverbial Melting Pot, bringing bits of home — like grapevines and thirst — to their new frontier. From Cabernet to Counoise, every imaginable varietal made its way in one suitcase or another, and the results have been delicious ever since. Post-Prohibition, wine science took hold in California, celebrating innovation and experimentation and serving as an aggressive counterpart to Old World styles of winemaking, which are rooted in tradition dating back to the Romans.
On the Eastern side of the Atlantic, the tradition of wine laws is as old as the storied Châteaux of Bordeaux. Long histories of fraud encouraged law makers to set strict guidelines for which grapes could be included in certain wines. For example, wine from Vouvray must be made of 100% Chenin Blanc grapes. Likewise, Italian Barolo must always be Nebbiolo. In some locales, governments even regulate planting density — how many vines a grower can plant per acre — and vineyards that don’t comply can be penalized.
For Americans, the results of freedom in planting couldn’t be tastier. Take California’s Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier, for example. Two French grape varieties from different regions –one floral and bright, the other characterized by ripe peach and apricot — join together in a bargain bottle that’s got amazingly refreshing acidity coupled with a smooth, luscious mouthfeel. That’s not what you’re getting in France for $15, where Chenin Blanc and Viognier couldn’t be blended together and carry any name other than “Vin de Table,” the lowest quality rating in existence. (Pairs perfectly with potato salad, hot dogs, and patriotism.)
In the chilly Finger Lakes region of New York, winemaker Kris Matthewson is taking every liberty he can when it comes to his sparkling Riesling. Most locales that produce sparkling wine have stringent rules that dictate which grapes can go into the wine, the minimum alcohol content, and even the method by which the wine is turned in to sparkling – you can’t carbonate it the same way as soda, for instance. Bellwether Wine Cellars 2013 Petillant Naturel doesn’t follow any of those rules, and the result is awesome. Riesling, tinged with floral notes and golden apple flavors partially ferments inside its bottle, trapping bubbles of CO2, and using only natural grape sugars to create layers of sparkly flavor. This ancient method has been all but outlawed in Europe because the results are always a little different –like homemade mac and cheese vs. the box. There’s a lot more bottle variation, but the flavors can’t be beat. (Pairs perfectly with macaroni and cheese, flag popsicles, and free speech.)
And then there’s sweetness to play with. We know all about America’s favorite pink princess White Zinfandel, but what about sweet reds or apple juice-esque Moscato? Like flavors of potato chips and types of fast food, America has it all. Unlike strict German and Austrian laws for off-dry and dessert wines, the U.S. — you guessed it — leaves it all up to the producer. Scott Harvey Wines of Amador California, for instance, crafts the craziest off-dry Zin you’ve ever had: The InZinerator. A unique combination of Amador County Zinfandel and fortified Port-style red wine, this juice has a hint of cherry pie sweetness, plus a full body and plenty of alcohol, unlike most sweet wines. It’s $18, and designed for “The Superhero in All of Us.” (Pairs perfectly with BBQ sauce-laden ribs, fireworks, and inflatable swimming pools.)
So wherever you’re at in ‘Murica, or if you’re using the long weekend to galavant abroad, fill your solo cup with wine this year and toast to life, liberty, and the pursuit of badass wine.