Another conversation about AVAs and terroir
There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.
I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.
Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”
First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.
Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.
The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.
Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.
All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”