Wine Appellations | March 2011

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly of Wine Appellations

A wine appellation is a government endorsed region that shares a common geography and climate. The region’s wine styles reflect this commonality. Like most things in the wine world, it all started in France in the 1930’s. Government got involved in defining geographical typicity, which was pretty much already taken for granted. The AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée) system defines wine regions, sub-regions. It also attempts to protect minimum quality thresholds by regulating allowed grape varieties, yields and picking dates.

In recent decades other winegrowing countries have attempted to follow the French model. The AVA (American Viticultural Area) was introduced in the 1980’s. It only defines borders of regions and does not get involved in production or quality issues.

The Good: the comfort of typicity

A consumer of wine wants an appellation to guide expectations of wine style. When I open a restaurant’s wine list to choose on a wine to pair with my oysters, I have confidence that a Chablis or Muscadet will work nicely even though I am not familiar with the producer. European wine regions have had centuries to evolve a distinct style.

Some New World regions have found their specialness relatively quickly. Marlbourgh Sauvignon Blanc, Stag’s Leap Cabernet and Wilamette Pinot Noir all register a distinct style to most wine mavens.

Appellations focus winegrowers’ efforts and build on the trials and tribulations of ancestors. Barolo is constantly fine-tuning Nebbiolo. Hermitage grows Syrah with no distractions. This is the advantage of a historically based appellation: community focus.

The Bad: the cart before the horse

In the New World there is a race to divide the land into appellations without the knowledge of the ancestors. My fear is that these random borders will be problematic for future generations of wine growers.

I’m reminded of a much more serious and egregious abuse of drawing arbitrary lines on maps. In the 1800’s the Europeans met in comfortable boardrooms and carved up the Middle East and Africa without recognizing cultures, ethnic groups or civilizations. Look where that got us.

Our own AVA system leaves regional definitions up to the imagination of one or two ambitious individuals who feel compelled to wade into the quagmire of government wine bureaucracy. The incentive to establish an AVA is usually market driven and rarely has anything to do with wine style or typicity. AVAs become brands.

The least harmful AVAs are those who paint in broad strokes. Vast political boundaries such as all the counties in the watershed of the Shenandoah Valley make for a fittingly innocuous wine region. This leaves room for future generations to establish sub-appellations based on experience and wine style.

The Ugly: the legacy of the finger

In the early 1980’s there was much excitement in the Charlottesville region about forming a new AVA with the prestigious name of Monticello. There were only a couple of wineries in the area at the time and I will leave it up to the reader’s imagination as to the quality level of the wines. There was however one winery, Rapidan River, that was excelling. This was due to the expertise of German winegrower Joachim Hollerith who made delicious Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Rapidan wanted to be included in the Monticello AVA and the powers that be saw this inclusion as mutually beneficial. So was born the Rapidan finger: a way of snatching a quality producer without adding a lot of additional territory to the Appellation.

There are no longer any vineyards in the finger. Turns out that this area is not a good place to sustainably grow grapes. But the finger will exist in perpetuity. Our next generation of winegrowers will have no idea as to why it exists. I can hear them now: was this thin stretch of land include because of it’s special terroir or unique microclimate…..?

We need to lay the foundation before we build our house. Appellations are an attempt of defining and categorizing terroir and wine characteristics. If we want to establish wine regions that mean something, then we have to understand the influence of the land on our wines.

I feel that single vineyard bottlings are the first step in this evolution. Most of the great wines of the world need bottle age to fully express their terroir. If we blend different vineyards into one bottling, we will never unlock the secrets of a specific site.

At Linden, the focus has been on single vineyard bottlings since 1997. We are only beginning to get a feel for the character of each site. The hope is that this understanding will provide a foundation for future generations.

While it is entirely in character for us Americans to enthusiastically rush into establishing wine regions, I fear that at this stage it may do more harm than good. We need to first focus on the basics of site and variety performance along with non-interventionist winemaking. Let’s table the discussion for a few centuries, or at least a few generations.

Flavor, March 2011

Jim Law