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Wine in the USA
The United States is a relatively young wine-making nation: Greece and Italy have thousands of years of wine history behind them but the American wine industry is really only about 50 years old. European colonists started planting vines in Virginia and California in the early 1800s but Prohibition in the 1920s and early '30s effectively put a halt to U.S. wine production, and it wasn't until the 1960s that it started to bounce back. By that point, most Americans considered European wines like Bordeaux and Champagne, 'fine wine', and looked to California for bulk table wines and wine coolers.
Today, not only do we have many acclaimed home-grown reds and whites, but there are some fabulous sparkling wines made right here in the United States. Here are 10 of my favorites.
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At the Illinois Sparkling Co. in Peru, IL, Mark Wenzel makes Champagne-method sparkling wines from 100% Illinois-grown grapes. Unlike the famous sparkling wines made in Champagne from French grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these unique Illinois sparklers are made from hybrid grapes such as Illinois Chambourcin, Frontenac Gris, and St. Pepin. As it turns out, the famously cold climate of the Midwest is perfect for crafting bright, lively, fresh wines with plenty of crisp acidity. Try this bottling called Blend 786, which was used by Michelle Obama to christen the USS Illinois submarine (786 is the ship number) -- if it's good enough for Michelle, it's certainly good enough for us!
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Argyle Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley was one of the pioneers of sparkling wine production in the Northwest. Their 2012 Vintage Brut is made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir -- and it's the type of wine for those that love a lively and clean drinking experience; only 10% of the wine was put into oak barrels, so its vibrant fruit flavors aren't masked at all by any of the toasty or buttery characteristics most of us associate with oak aging.
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Chandon is the California outpost of the Champagne house Moët & Chandon. Winemaker Pauline Lhote was born and raised in the Champagne region of France, so the pedigree of world-class bubbly is in her blood -- but that famous California sunshine lends a fun and relaxed vibe to the finished blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Not only is the wine intoxicatingly effervescent, but each summer they release a special limited-edition bottle that's fun, festive, and patriotic! A mandatory addition to your July 4th tablescape.
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Lamoreaux Landing Brut 2009, $34.99
I first tried this lovely, brilliantly bubbly at the wedding of my dear friends Greg and Michael at the stunning Lamoreaux Landing Winery in New York's beautiful Finger Lakes region. Maybe it was all that love in the air, but I was totally smitten with this wine! It's filled with citrus and juicy peach flavors, balanced by a mellow nuttiness, and is made in the traditional methode champenoise. One sip of this wine shows that the Finger Lakes is a serious wine region to watch.
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'Michelle' is the new face of sparkling wine from the famous winery Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington's Columbia Valley. This bottle is definitely one of the best values in bubbly out there -- it way over-delivers on its reasonable price tag. Columbia Valley sits at almost the same latitude as the Champagne region of France, which makes it a natural site for sparkling winemaking. The climate is very cool in the evenings, which allows for a longer growing season and plenty of ripening time. Winemaker Paula Eakin adds a dash of Pinot Gris into the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir mix here to give the wine a little extra silkiness.
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California gets most of the credit, but Virginia is home to America's wine roots. Our wine-loving founding father and third President, Thomas Jefferson, was a French wine fanatic but insisted that some vineyards be cultivated on his home turf. He would be thrilled to know that today two very impressive personalities of French Champagne, Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson, are now running a top-tier sparkling wine house in Virginia. Try their 'Virginia Fizz' -- fun, smooth, refreshing, and made from 100% Chardonnay.
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Gruet Brut, $15
One of the best sparkling wines in the U.S. comes not from Napa or Sonoma, but from Engel, New Mexico! The Gruet Winery was born when the Gruet family, operators of Champagne house Gruet & Fils, were on a vacation in the American Southwest. Something told them that the desert terrain may actually be ideal for growing grapes -- after all, the high elevation gave them nice cool evenings for the crops to chill down and not ripen too fast, the winds were a natural deterrent to bugs and pests, and the mold and fungus that plague so many vineyards in rainy Champagne were nonexistent. They planted their first test vineyard in 1984 and today Gruet ranks among the best of bubbly in blind tasting competitions worldwide.
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L. Mawby Blanc de Blancs, $23.00
Another unexpected delight are the sparkling wines from Mawby, on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. Larry Mawby has been growing vines in Michigan since 1973, and is a true authority on Michigan winemaking. Nowadays he focuses on sparkling wines. His Blanc de Blancs is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, and is delicate and stylish.
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Texas is the number five state in the U.S. in terms of wine production -- which you may know if you live in Texas! Unfortunately for the rest of us, most Texas wines don't end up leaving the state, so they're a well-kept secret, for now at least. When I heard of a Texas bubbly made from one of my favorite French grape varieties, Chenin Blanc, I had to try it. The story behind the Terry County winery is fascinating: Kim McPherson's father, Doc, was a pioneer of winemaking and grape growing in Lubbock, Texas. Kim followed in his father's footsteps and, after graduating with a viticulture and enology degree from California's UC Davis, worked in Napa. He eventually returned home and opened McPherson Cellars in a 1930s Coca Cola bottling plant in downtown Lubbock.
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The Tomasello family has deep agricultural roots in New Jersey: In the 1930's, Frank Tomasello was a farmer known for his raspberries, strawberries, peaches, and sweet potatoes, but his true passion was wine. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he quickly secured a winery license (becoming the #68 bonded winery in the country) and the rest is history!
The Tomasello family is probably one of the oldest winemaking families in the U.S., and they are now making various fruit wines and dry-style table wines as well. The jewel in their crown is this interesting sparkler, made from the hybrid Vidal Blanc grape. It's dry, soft, and gently complex. You may not associate wine with the Garden State, but the same soil that gives us incredible tomatoes and corn supports excellent vineyards and 30 different varieties of grapes.