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Understanding Wine Labels (Part 2)

By definition, an appellation is a designation, name, or title that refers to either an object, a place, or a product. With regard to wine labels, appellation refers to the place where the grapes are grown.

Many appellations have official status, with either a government or trade bureau directly responsible to delimit the geography and regulate usage in order to assure both quality and authenticity. This may also include establishing and regulating both viticultural and wine production standards within its jurisdictions.

An appellation may be as large as an entire region, encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres and many separate vineyards, or as small as a single vineyard of perhaps four acres or less, depending upon the unique geographic and climatic conditions, as well as extant or historically established wine commerce.

Most of the best-known wines from France are appellation wines. Appellations are also used to identify most of the wines of Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Systems for officially identifying and regulating winegrowing regions are developing and advancing in countries of the New World.

France started seriously experimenting with grape cultivation and site selection decades or even centuries ahead of many growing regions. Their commercially successful system of appellations was operating long before any specified and enforced regulations. This system evolved around the level of demand and prices paid for the wines from vineyards with reputations for most consistent quality. The official French system of appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), developed later and grew to become the model for the world.

The AC began in the first decades of the 1900s. Devastation of French vineyards by mildew and phylloxera in the last quarter of the 1800s caused significantly reduced production from the most famous vineyards. Fraud was rampant, commonly by substitution of or liberal blending with grapes grown in Southern France, Spain, and Northern Africa. Laws began geographically delimiting the specific areas which could produce wine using those famed vineyard names. The laws evolved to prevent sloppy winemaking and the planting of varieties which produced quantity abundance, rather than quality flavor characteristics.

So the AC developed with the dual purpose of protecting the integrity of unique regional characteristics for the producers and insuring the representative high quality of these characteristics for the consumers. In 1935, the INAO (Institut National des Appellation d'Origine) was established to administer and enforce the AC system.

In addition to setting the area boundaries of the specific appellations, the INAO also specifies and approves which grape varieties may be grown, the maximum yields or quantities of fruit which may be harvested during a single year (vintage), the minimum ripeness levels required (based on must weight) and maximum alcoholic strength permitted, viticultural practices of vine spacing, pruning methods, and trellising mechanics, all of which may vary even from one appellation to the next within the political borders of the country. Although a grower-producer may theoretically make his own choices, in order to qualify to use the government-controlled appellation names (that bring the highest prices) on the labels, he must use only the approved grape varieties, practices, and techniques.

Many areas of France are excluded from the AC hierarchy. Although many growers from these regions now, more than half a century later, produce much better wines, they are not afforded the marketing advantages of AC rankings. Instead, they are relegated to the Vin de Pays (country wine) category, a notch above Vin de Table, but carrying little weight with consumers. Some producers have begun to question the rigidity of the French AC and there is some movement stirring towards an overhaul. However in need of updating the AC system might be, it remains the world model.

Until the 1970s, France was the only country with wine laws based on the geography of the entire country. Since then, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, South Africa, Portugal, Greece, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Chile, Bulgaria, the United States, have all mapped or begun mapping their respective "appellations." Most wine-growing countries have an official agency that approves and defines appellations within its political boundaries. Australia and New Zealand are each struggling with the idea of whether to provide appellations by trade agreement or through government regulation.

In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Treasury Department, regulates the geographic boundaries of appellations. This is part of their responsibility to oversee the safety of wines and prevent fraud to consumers. Beyond delineating appellation boundaries, regulatory concern has not yet penetrated within the vineyards. American growers are free to plant any grape varieties they fancy and may harvest as large a crop as the vines will bear, or as their concern with quality dictates.

TTB also regulates wines imported into the United States and includes some consumer protections against fraud in foreign wine. Imported wines using an appellation label must have 75% of their contents derived from grapes grown within that designated appellation. In addition, the wine must conform "to the requirements of the foreign laws and regulations governing the composition, method of production, and designation of wines available for consumption within the country of origin."

The requirement for appellation labeling of wines produced in America is somewhat more restrictive, requiring a higher portion of the grapes from the named appellation. Again, the TTB is the agency that oversees the creation and adjustment of the American Viticultural Areas. The AVA system was begun in 1979, and is still in relative infancy. New AVAs are being applied for and approved each year.

To petition the TTB for a new AVA, the area must be specifically delineated geographically and have both climatic uniqueness and historical precedent, as well as either local or national recognition. It takes about US$15,000 to initiate and pursue the process through to approval and establishment, so new applications are unlikely to be sought frivolously.

The first AVA approved by the TTB in 1980 was Augusta, Missouri! The list of AVAs includes many of the most famous California place-names for wine, such as Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, and Carneros, as well as lesser-known and newer appellations, such as Sonoma Mountain, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast.

In order to use an AVA on a wine, no less than 85% of the grapes must have been grown within the boundaries specified and the wine must "conform to the laws and regulations of the named appellation area governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines made in such place." This clause protects and defers to the authority of each State to regulate methods of wine production.

The term Estate Bottled may only be used on labels of wine where the bottling winery is located within the appellation named on the label, the grapes were entirely grown within the named appellation on land owned or controlled by the bottling winery, and the fermentation, finishing, aging, and bottling of the wine was done in one continuous process, with the wine at no time having left the premises prior to bottling.

Rising worldwide competition for wine customers, especially from wines of North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand, has resulted in more emphasis on marketing and the "branding" of wine estates and vineyard names. A consumer faces greater challenges to not only learn each country's existing appellation laws, but also to keep up with the additions and changes to each.

Appellation labeling laws have a preoccupation with authenticity and often a stricture that may be indifferent, or even antithetical, to quality. Location and site selection is important to wine quality, but alone, it neither guarantees wine quality nor stands independent of grape variety selection, cultivation methods, seasonal climate conditions, or fermentation techniques. Excellence in any of these categories may not overcome flaw or weakness in another; to produce outstanding wine requires the harmony of all.

 Jim LaMar

The most comprehensive explanations of the geography, geology, climate, and traditions of the wine appellations of the world, accompanied by maps that diagram them, are found in Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine.

Reliable information comes directly from sources such as the German Wine Institute.

VinoNet, a site that specializes in promoting German wines, has an excellent explanation of how to identify and interpret German label information.

The Spanish Wine Page has a section devoted to the Denominaciones de Origen wine regions, with separate listings of the location, subregions, acres planted, production level, authorized varieties and typical wine examples for each.

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Article created December 23, 2000; last updated September 16, 2011
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