|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
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.
FUNCTIONS OF THE AC & INAO
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
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
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.
TTB AND THE CONSUMER
In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
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."
AMERICAN VITICULTURAL AREAS
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
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.
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.
El Cellar Catala has one of the very
best and most thorough of any explanations of appellation we have
yet encountered on the Internet. Perhaps this information will attract
more wine drinkers to the Wine
of Catalonia in Northeastern Spain.
Reliable information comes directly from sources such as the German Wine Institute.
a site that specializes in promoting German wines, has an excellent explanation
of how to identify and interpret German label information.
Peter Ruhrberg's German Wine Page also
has a very good section on German Wine Labels.
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.