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Appellation. Does it Matter? Kinda-Sorta-Not Really.

You can’t get far into wine before the word appellation gets thrown around with its connection to quality. That’s one reason why winemakers clamor for that all-important high score to tell the world that their wines are excellent, according to critics who know their stuff. It all feeds into the mystique and magic of what’s in our glass.

Let’s face it. If we use these things as our only criteria for the best wines, we’re probably not going to taste the highest quality ones, such as Romanée-Conti, Penfolds Grange, or a Latour. However, that’s more a function of price, supply, and demand than anything else. You have to ask if it’s the appellation at work, or is it something else that makes a wine stand out from the crowd?

Defining an Appellation

Merriam-Webster defines an appellation as “an identifying name or title.” It can apply to a signature food, such as French cheeses like Gruyère or wines you’ll recognize, like Champagne. Different countries use various systems to categorize their wines, often, but not always, based on quality. It’s worth noting the United States respects these place names for wines, such as Bordeaux and Rioja.

Most nations classify wines in three or more tiers, each with different names. France puts the label appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) on its top tier bottles with its system. Germany calls them Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP). The United States refers to specific geographical regions as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Unlike the two previous examples, there are no quality designations.

All the major wine-producing countries have some type of system, even if it’s in its infancy, such as Japan. Some nations have additional classification schemes, such as the growths or crus of France and the Crianza-Reserva-Gran Reserva Riojas of Spain. However, just because they exist doesn’t mean they are the same or use similar criteria. That’s where the appellation line gets blurry.

How Different Countries Define Appellations

Once you start digging into the various systems, you’ll find that the waters are muddy, to put it mildly. Each country defines its appellations differently. That means that an even playing field doesn’t exist by a long shot, making the use of the term even more subjective. Remember that no one appellation has the market on a particular grape variety.

New Zealand’s Marlborough isn’t the only great Sauvignon Blanc out there. Our Central Coast of California bottle is excellent in its own right. Likewise, Argentina isn’t the only yummy Malbec available. Just try our Sonoma offering and find out. However, the grape variety is part of the scheme in other ways. Let’s consider a few systems that other countries define their wine.

French Wine Laws

Many in the wine world view France’s wine laws as the gold standard. That’s true in part because they were the first country to develop a national system. Part of its purpose is to protect the country’s brand and its place names. It covers wine and other French products, such as cheese, too.

These laws first define the geography of the country into regions, smaller departmental Indication Geographique Protegee (IGPs), and the top AOCs. But, wait! There’s more!

The regulations go on to dictate what grape varieties a vintner can grow, how they can manage their vineyards, and what wine making procedures are permitted. If you don’t follow them, you can’t legally label your bottle with that coveted AOC name. Instead, you have to use a lower category or even the lowest one if you’re far off the mark.

We know what you’re thinking. That sounds so restrictive. Bear in mind that they’re not willy-nilly regs. Each has a purpose that contributes to making the best wine in a particular climate or terroir. You’ll hear terms like vine density or the amount you can plant in a given area. Each appellation strives to protect its brand and, thus, its status in the wine world.

Many other European countries follow a similar system, including Spain, Portugal, and Austria. It makes sense for them to do so to follow in line with the greater European Union framework. That set of laws makes it easier for smaller nations to compete in the global market. However, the EU regs let the individual countries manage their system under its umbrella for authenticity.

German Wine Laws

Some people consider German wine laws some of the most confusing in the world. That’s because the nation places a higher weight on the sweetness and ripeness levels of the wine instead of quality as most other countries do. It’s not that they don’t consider it as part of their system. It’s just that the other things are factors they consider, too.

Therefore, you’ll also see a classification based on grape ripeness within the high quality tier. It also considers the wine style. It’s worth noting that it’s quite cold in Germany. That can make it harder for vintners to make wines without puckering acidity and low alcohol without sufficient heat to ripen the grapes. Ripeness and sweetness then become vital parts of their ranking system.

Italian Wine Laws

Italian wine laws follow the French classification for the same reasons—to protect their place names. Their system adds a higher tier called the Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG). The last word is the important one, which essentially guarantees the quality of the wine. However, that does mean more regs and restrictions with which to comply.

As you may expect, that meant push-back, which indeed followed with the creation of the lesser indicazione geografica tipica (IGT) category in 1992. It has looser restrictions that give vintners more of a free hand in the vineyard and the winery. Here’s the rub. Some of what many consider some of Italy’s finest wines originally belonged in this tier.

They were the so-called Super Tuscans. These winemakers created different blends. (Oh, my!) They used non-traditional grape varieties. (Gasp!) And the wine fetched higher prices. (OMG!) Italy took notice and created the higher denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) for the areas that were the birthplace of this movement. The takeaway is that the appellation alone doesn’t guarantee quality.

American Wine Laws

This backstory, particularly Italy’s history, sets up the scene for the American wine laws. We should first clarify between the terms Old World and New World. The former are the ones we’ve been discussing. They have laws and restrictions in place that perhaps explain the distinct earthy style of wines from these countries throughout Europe.

Then, there are the New World countries. They include the ones outside of Europe, such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and, of course, the United States. Some people refer to the American wine laws as the Wild West. It’s an apt description, given the lack of restrictions. You can plant and do most anything with your wine, within reason.

While it may sound refreshing, it’s also the proverbial double-edged sword. America’s AVAs are based on geography instead of the quality that marks Old World wines. While it gives vintners freedom, it also makes it more difficult for smaller wineries and growers to make a name for themselves with all the background noise.

For example, the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington is the largest in the state, encompassing over 51,000 acres. It even sprawls into Oregon. As you may surmise, that’s not unlike saying California makes good wine. The AVA is so large that it doesn’t feel useful when comparing appellations. It almost seems like a diluted system.

To be fair, there are 11 smaller AVAs within Columbia Valley. Some are as small as the 40-acre Naches Heights AVA to the 18,290-acre Yakima Valley. That’s why you have to dig deeper with AVAs to find the treasures, such as Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Walla Valley AVA. We have to ask where that leaves us when discussing appellations and quality?

An Appellation’s Significance

The whole idea of appellations has some dirty secrets. Not surprisingly, it’s highly political, no matter what country. Baked into many classification systems is a review process. In New Zealand, it’s five years once you gain Geographical Indication (GI) status and every 10 years thereafter. With the St.-Émilion Grand Cru Classé of Bordeaux, it is every 10 years, too.

Nevertheless, with so much on the line, do you think any winery would accept going down a notch or not making the top tier? Let the litigation begin! St.-Émilion waged that war for 10 years before an updated system became legal. The point is that sometimes an appellation says more about a successful defense than the quality of the wine.

The Tangled Web of Appellations

Now we come to the rub of how to view appellations, with high quality being the goal. How do you measure it? Are there ways to spot it? The answer is yes and no.

You can go by reputation, which is part of the reason behind Bordeaux’s Classification of 1855. It ranked wines by it and price, which went hand in hand at the time. It still holds up today, with a late addition in 1973 with Moutin Rothschild in the upper first-growth echelon.

However, the other takeaway is that no one place has the corner on a particular grape variety, except, perhaps, Italy’s iconic Nebbiolo. The varieties you’re more likely to see are international varieties, such as Merlot and Chardonnay. Many take on the character of the place the vines grow. That’s why your French Rhône blend is going to taste different from a GSM from Paso Robles.

Quality and Price

That brings us to another can of worms, price. Many people use it as their bar for quality. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports looked at this phenomenon. The researchers found that when respondents were given what they thought was expensive wine, they valued it more. The thing was, they were given the same wine. Price was the motivator.

It makes sense that we’d cherish something that costs more if we equate it with scarcity and the difficulty of obtaining something. We can’t forget that image seeker who buys the higher priced bottle to gain status regardless of anything else. However, it’s too simplistic a measurement if we look at the broader world of wine.

If you’re popping for an Opus One or Stag’s Leap, you can expect to dish out a lot of dough. A lot rests on supply and demand. You’ll be rewarded if you get either one. Nestled with these high-quality wines are boutique bottles and so-called cult wines. They command a high price, but do they deliver the goods? Price doesn’t necessarily apply in every situation.

Take Portugal, for example. Port is the wine that the country hangs its hat on deservedly. However, it may surprise you to learn that it produces some outstanding dry, still wines from the same region, Douro. The best thing about them is that they are affordably priced. That’s because they are still flying under the radar of many wine drinkers.

That’s what Sail to Trail Wineworks is all about with its offerings. Do you think that Petit Verdot is just a minor blending grape from Bordeaux in France? You’ll have a different opinion after trying our Signature Yakima Valley, Washington bottle.

The point is that grape vines can grow and thrive in areas with the right conditions between 30 and 50 degrees latitude, north or south. Many varieties are like chameleons and will happily produce grapes for decades. That’s part of the fun of exploring wine. You can taste the effects of climate, geography, viticulture, and winemaking in your glass. Think of it as taking a virtual wine tour.

Final Thoughts

Appellations serve useful purposes, even if they sometimes confuse or frustrate us. It’s all about protecting the wine and preserving its heritage. However, these systems are a guide. Many unique treasures are waiting for you to discover them. It’s the part of being a wine enthusiast that makes it so enjoyable. Just when you think you understand a variety, it surprises you with something new.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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