Where is your wine from? Or, Appelation Demystified

Wines are about where they come  from.  There is a critical piece of info on a wine label I’ve been overlooking.  When the label on a bottle of wine says “Cabernet Sauvignon”, I rarely get further than thinking that’s the kind of wine in the bottle.  I’m looking for a wine with the black cherry and plum characteristics Cabs are known for.  (Or, if it comes ativan with no prescription from “the New World” it may be a bit earthier; if the grapes were harvested young the wine may remind you of green bell peppers; some regions’ Cabs give you mint or eucalyptus flavors, etc.)  There’s a simple item on the wine label that could be telling me more than I realize.  That’s the Appelation of Origin.  the TTB has a good brochure showing everything you should know about grape wine labels, as does Napa Vintners‘ site.     (I didn’t realize how much information those labels offer.)

The Appelation tells you where the grapes were grown.  Different countries have different rules, but generally speaking specific, defined regions apply with their government’s controlling agency for recognition.  France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), dates to the early years of the twentieth century.  France’s AOC, which certifies cheeses, butters, chickens, honey, lavender, and other agricultural products including wine, is the system many countries have used as a baseline.  Appelation isn’t a new idea.  Wines have been identified by where they come from for thousands of years.  However, the world’s first recognized, protected vineyard zone was introduced in Chianti, Italy in 1716; the first wine classification system in Hungary in 1730.  Portugal’s first controlled appellation in 1756 was for port wine, produced in the Douro Valley.  I believe France’s first controlled wine was Champagne, which was given legal protection as part of the Treaty of Madrid in 1891 (reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I).

(Antiwinesnob has some pretty simple definitions of wine terms like Appelation if you need another way to look at this.)

  (I live in Maryland.  Appelation pretty much sounds like Appalachian, which is confusing to my ears.  Thank goodness I’m reading this, not listening to it.)What a French wine label can tell you

In the U.S., the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) define where your wine comes from.  These AVAs are defined and regulated by the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB.gov).   There are 199 of them in the U.S. as of 2011.  You can see all the overseas ones on the TTB site as well.  If you really want to know where their boundaries are and what all their names are, I’ll be in the tasting room…

To apply to be an AVA, petitioners have to provide proof that the growing conditions within their proposed boundaries are distinctive – the combination of climate, soil, elevation, and any other physical features that would affect how their grapes grow.  At least 85% of the grapes that go into a bottle of wine must come from a legally defined region in order to be labeled with its AVA.  It’s possible that the other 15% of the grapes come from someplace completely different, particularly if the vintner wanted to blend wine from a grape that isn’t grown nearby.  The label doesn’t have to tell you about that 15%.

The AVA system does not make any claims of quality, only geography where the grapes were grown (not even where the vintner is, though I notice that’s often in the fine print).  The French AOC does imply quality; it has specific parameters grapes must meet to be able to use the highest and best appellations.  Germany bases its most prestigious wine classification, the Prädikatswein, on the ripeness of the grapes.

Why is this important?  In these days of trade agreements and trying to buy local, it’s easy to miss the actual point of AVAs and AOC.  With wine, a lot of the subtlety comes from terroir – all the little details of the land the vines grow on.  Grapes pick up hints of all the plants around them, from the kind of soil they grow in, and change depending on the weather they’re exposed to, how long they’ve been left on the vine to ripen, all sorts of things.  This can be expressed in the wine made from them.   If you know your wine-growing regions well, you know what to expect from a particular kind of wine coming from a specific region.

Eden Valley Vineyard

 Looking into the Appelation system made me seriously rethink what I’d do if I wanted to really impress someone with a bottle of wine.

 There are an awful lot of AVAs in the U.S. and a bewildering number of Appelations across the wine-producing world.  I wondered whether this gets any less overwhelming if you live in a smaller country than the U.S.  The answer? Probably not.  There are just so darn many of them.  France alone – slightly less than twice the size of the state of Colorado –  produces 7 to8 billion bottles of wine a year, and has thirteen major regions for wine growing, each of which has multiple sub-regions and is known for specific wine styles.  Some of the designations are not obvious, either: AOC-designated Languedoc-Rousillon wines are sold as Vin de Pays d’Oc, for example.  If you know your French regional history, remember it from French class like I do, or read my blog,you might recognize that name, but most Americans these days probably wouldn’t.

All of this has me thinking those bicycle-winetasting tours are the way to go – experience a  region personally, see what grows there and what the land is like, then taste its wine and see whether you can taste what you see.

 But back to AVAs for a moment...In the U.S., state or county boundaries are not AVAs of their own, but they can be used as a designation on a wine label (Sonoma County, for example).  Some vineyards are in more than one AVA, if the land includes enough distinct microclimates to warrant AVAs being registered separately.  Too, AVAs can be nested: Pacheco Pass AVA and San Ysidro District AVA are both in Santa Clara Valley AVA (in Santa Clara County, CA), which itself is part of the San Francisco Bay AVA, which is in the Central Coast AVA. Since there may be several different kinds of grapes growing in a single AVA, knowing what AVA your wine comes from really only tells you what kinds of grape (which varietals) can grow there.  If you know your wine areas, you’ll know that X kind of grape in Y AVA tend to be a little fuller, fruitier than the same grape in another AVA, where it tends to be less sweet and better suited for blending.  You have to really know a lot about your regions to keep up with all of that!

 a  number of wine labels of different sizes and styles

Divide and conquer:  California State law requires that 100% of the grapes come from within California.  If your bottle says it’s California wine, you may now proceed to slicing and dicing the geography of one single state to figure out what might be special about this wine.  Of course, it’s a gi-normous state (slightly larger than Japan) with around 200 AVAs of its own, so it isn’t that easy.

The Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB.gov) site lists all US and foreign appellations of origin .  It  freaked me out that France wasn’t listed – oh wait, it’s under the EU Names of Origin for Wine, with the International Trade Division of TTB.  I clicked on that link and could access lists of wines with protected designations of origin by country.  This is definitely going to be part of my future travel preparations.

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