The Best Wine Regions Outside California

Pause for a second on booking that Napa trip: California may reign supreme in our perception of good domestic wine, but there are plenty of places outside of the Golden State that make bottles worth more than a passing glance. Here, five other states making excellent U.S. wine.

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① Michigan

Michigan's colder climate gives it an edge when it comes to producing ice wines, made from grapes that have frozen on the vines, thereby concentrating the sugar and flavor in the fruit. Ice wine is a complicated endeavor. "You have to harvest when the grapes are frozen, and they have to stay frozen while they're being crushed," Karel Bush, executive director of the Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council, says. "Because of that, it's very labor intensive—you're doing this by hand, in the cold, in the winter, sometimes in the middle of the night."

Not every year yields an ice wine harvest, which explains why little of Michigan's production makes it beyond the state's borders. You'll have to visit to get a taste—try Chateau Grand Traverse and Black Star Farms near Traverse City, or Tabor Hill Winery and Lemon Creek Winery in the southwest. Lemon Creek also makes a Cabernet ice wine that's worth sipping; most others are made from white grapes like Riesling.

② New Mexico

"New Mexico is America's original wine country," Chris Goblet, the executive director of New Mexico Wine, says, adding, "the oldest wine in the region was first planted in 1629," when it was cultivated by Spanish settlers for sacraments. Today, wineries are mostly situated along the Rio Grande river, where diverse soil, climate and elevation result in everything from esoteric whites to Italian reds. 

But over the last 30 years, New Mexico has become known especially for its sparkling wine. The most famous example comes from the Gruet family, who came to the region from Champagne. Gruet's Pinot Noir- and Chardonnay-based sparklers are made by the traditional Méthode Champenoise, which requires secondary fermentation in the bottle (the carbon dioxide produced from this process is where the bubbles come from). Visit the Gruet tasting room in Albuquerque for a taste of the effervescent sipper.

③ New York

New York has risen considerably in the international wine consciousness, as producers from the Finger Lakes and Long Island have refined production and narrowed in on vinifera that thrives in the region. In the Finger Lakes, where the climate is often compared to German wine-growing regions, Riesling reigns—the region produces more than 200,000 cases of dry, off-dry and sweet bottles of the varietal each year. Taste versions from Dr. Konstantin Frank (a regional pioneer and one of the most influential wineries in the area), Hermann J. Wiemer, Keuka Spring Vineyards and Anthony Road, all of which keep charming tasting rooms along the lakes. Long Island, with its loamy topsoil and maritime climate, is prime Cabernet Franc territory, and a trip to the North Fork enables meditation on the peppery herbaceousness of this comparatively light but acidic Bordeaux red. Hit tasting rooms at Macari, Roanoke and Paumanok Vineyards.

④ Oregon

Oregon is practically synonymous with Pinot Noir, and for good reason: The Pinot grown in the Willamette Valley has structure that mimics its Burgundian counterpart, plus more fruit—without venturing into the lush (and high-alcohol) territory of California-made wines. That's why this is one of the best Pinot-producing regions in the world.

In the white wine realm, Oregon produces a lot of Pinot Gris. But the grape to watch, says Andy Lum, the general sales manager of Local Merchants of Colorado and an expert on Pacific Northwest wines, is Chardonnay: Producers have been homing in on clones that grow particularly well in Oregon, and the result is Burgundian-style Chardonnays, with strong minerality and tempered oak. He points to Big Table Farm and Omero Cellars as two particularly good examples.

⑤ Washington

Much of Washington is a high plains desert, which means excellent conditions for wine production, especially when it comes to Rhone (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) and Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) varietals. Wines here are often a bridge, stylistically, between California's fruit-forward output and Europe's tight structure. This is because the climate in Red Mountain, Yakima and Walla Walla causes grapes to get brown seeds before veraison (or the onset of ripening), so producers pick grapes at lower sugar levels. "You get full flavor development before sugar ripeness, which is really unusual," Lum says. He suggests Leonetti Cellar Cabernet and Cayuse Syrah as good benchmarks.

Winemakers in Washington are also some of the most experimental in the country, because a long, slow growing season enables them to focus on projects like 100 percent Mourvèdre. See a stellar example of that at Syncline in the Columbia Gorge.