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Appellations in Wonderland



The more I get into the details of appellation formation here in California, the weirder things get. I feel like Alice through the looking glass: “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Wine appellations in Europe are easy to understand. The grape variety or varieties are, in general, matched to the region, after hundreds if not thousands of years of vintners having determined that the variety is perfect for the terroir and vice versa. Thus Chenin Blanc in Touraine, for example, or Pinot Noir in the Cote d’Or.

The strength of this system is that there can be no doubt that grape and appellation are a perfect fit. The French (who created this system) are sticklers for legalité; they like things neat and orderly, and the AOC system is both of those (although it does get messy at times!).

The neatness comes, of course, at a cost: Vintners must plant only permissible grapes (and in permissible ways), or else they cannot use the appellation on the label. It could be that Chardonnay grows great in Pessac; we’ll never really know, because why would a winery in Pessac make Chardonnay when their Cabernet Sauvignon will fetch such a hefty bottle price?

Still, Europe’s appellations make as much sense as one can reasonably expect. Here in California, if I understand the process correctly (and I think I do), the connection between variety and appellation is non-existent; the TTB doesn’t care what the grower plants there. If somebody petitioned them for a Mohave Desert AVA, and could fulfill all of the other requirements, they’d get their AVA, despite the fact that no grape variety I know of—certainly not vitis vinifera—could grow in the desert. To use another example, if somebody wants to grow Pinot Noir in Calistoga—where it demonstrably does not do well—they’d be perfectly entited to put “Calistoga” on the label.

The requirements TTB does want are, first, some sort of similarity of, and evidence for, terroir (soils and climate) within the proposed AVA boundaries, and evidence that the proposed name has historical antecedents. The terroir consistency is obvious and warranted, the name requirement less so. In France, appellation names are millennially ancient. Bordeaux has been Bordeaux, Burgundy Burgundy, Champagne Champagne for far, far longer than the entire history of the United States. In California, history (at least, the white man’s) didn’t even really begin until the 19th century; you can’t look to history to justify a name like Fort Ross-Seaview, Pine Mountain or Mt. Harlan, because by and large those place-names didn’t exist until relatively recently. So the TTB can’t be very fussy about historical references. Still, they want something, even if the historical connection is weed-slender: If I proposed “Mount Heimoff” it would be an utter non-starter.

Another thing TTB wants—or, to be more accurate, doesn’t want—is controversy. The last thing those bureaucrats need is for locals in a proposed new AVA, or an expanded one, to be at war with one another, waiting for TTB to be the judge and jury. They’ve been there, done that, and learned their lesson: it’s not gonna happen again. The process of appellation-ing has become so politicized that TTB has said, in essence: Don’t come to us with a petition unless you have all your neighbors on board.

I’d like, someday, for our AVA system to contain some sort of reference to specific varieties. I doubt that it will ever happen; in fact I’ll bet my last dime it won’t. But it would add greater authenticity to a system that, frankly, has become so random, so chaotic and political, that it really lacks much informative value to the consumer—which, after all, is the whole point, isn’t it?

  1. European ava system is based on centuries of tradition. Not sure about the evolution of it though but it certainly been around for a long time. USA ava system is just a baby in comparison. Only in recent times we are figuring out the varietals best suited for each areas. Now we are more equipped to make such distinctions but it will take time.

  2. Hi Steve. The TTB does consider varietals in decisions on AVAs, but as it reflects the geography. The distinctions that define an AVA, after all, have to have some viticultural significance. If, for example, pinot noir does great but cabernet sauvignon doesn’t do so well in a particular region, then that may be an indicator that the climate is better suited to cool climate grapes. That might help distinguish the area from another region, say further inland if talking about California’s coast. As far as variety alone being the characteristic by which an AVA is defined, then the TTB will not take that into consideration without the climatic support. It is possible that someone may plant a particular varietal even if the geography is not ideally suited to that variety, and you are right that the winemaker would be able to use the name of the AVA even if the terroir is poorly suited to the varietal. I can see your point about the disconnect, but as the TTB is clear it doesn’t endorse any wine with the establishment of an AVA, I agree that you won’t see varietal restrictions any time soon. The region needs to be different in a way that has viticultural significance, but not necessarily better in any way. Also note that the TTB will not approve an AVA unless viticulture (of any variety) is present.

  3. I personally hope the day never comes when the Govt MANDATES!! which varieties can grow where. The European system is based on grape and place decisions made decades (centuries?) ago and rarely, if ever, change.

    Never mind that the plant material today is significantly healthier. Never mind that global warming has significantly changed the way that grapes mature, never mind that growers and wineries alike are significantly advanced in their understanding of the grapes. Never mind that sticking one’s head in the sand and acting like the real world does not exist is significantly nihilistic.

    In my opinion, the French do not have it right. They have it wrong. Maybe Chardonnay is the wrong variety for Pessac, but rumor has it that Christian Mouiex grows some in St. Emilion for his own consumption.

    The first time I visited Vouvray after taking up winewriting as a profession, I looked at all that chalk and southern-facing hillsides in a cool climate and wondered aloud to my hosts if Chardonnay might not grow there very well. That was three decades ago, and they and I are still wondering.

    But here is a story of vintners who got it right and their Govt slapped them down.

    Four producers in the Northern Rhone, Gangloff, Villard, Guillard and Cuilleron, went in together on a piece of land on Mont Brouilly in Beaujolais. They wondered whether this land, not all that far from the Cote Rotie and having both similar climate and similar soils, could produce good Syrah? Turns out that it does and so they petitioned to be able to make Syrah in Beaujolais with a Beaujolais appellation.

    No dice. Vin de pays.

    Govt mandates for grape choices are an old-fashioned idea and limit experimentation and growth of knowledge.

  4. Alex Kanzler says:

    Maybe the French aren’t as bold as the Italians? Sure, you’re limited in how you name and market the wine, but you can still grow whatever you want, wherever you want in France; just as you can in Tuscany. Nobody cares that the Super Tuscans say IGT on the bottle instead of DOCG.
    If a notable producer like Pierre Guillard made a Syrah from Boujalais, and it were good, I’d hope that critics, somms, bloggers, etc would give it enough hype to overcome the words “vin de pays” on the bottle. I’d sure love to buy it!

  5. Bob Henry says:

    There are those in France who thumb their nose at the AOC system.

    See this news report.

    From The Wall Street Journal (Section Unknown)
    (January 5, 2007, Page Unknown):

    “In the Ardèche, Tasting ‘Forbidden’ Wines”


    By Beverley Blanning
    Special to The Wall Street Journal

    [Note: the digitized text of this article is replete with typos. No other version is extant on the Web.]

  6. Alex–

    I think that could be true in the US market where we taste wine as wine and where red blends of every stripe are popular and can be quite pricey.

    But, even that would be an uphill battle, and I guess the Rhone quartet did not feel up to it. Too bad, because I would like to have seen a wine like that have a chance to gain market traction for the very reasons that you suggest.

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