Appellation Spring

Guest post by Jennifer Rosen

If you've got some time, say, five years, I'll explain all about reading wine labels. Ten, if you want Germany. Since the bottling statement alone (there's a difference between "made" "cellared," "grown," "produced," and "vinted") will spin your head, today we'll just look at appellations.

To head the obligatory joke off at the pass, an appellation is NOT a guy with five teeth who plays the banjo. It's a legal statement about quality and where the grapes came from. It shouldn't be too difficult to explain just as soon as I finish this bottle of valium.

In the New World, comprising Australia, South Africa and the Americas, appellations are purely geographical. But they are not laid out edge to edge like tiles on the kitchen floor. Imagine, instead, that you spill a cup of coffee on the floor, and then drop a bowl of cornflakes into and around the puddle. What have you got? Layers. American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is the term for appellation in America. Let's say the whole floor represents the United States AVA. Each tile is also a state AVA. Within the California tile, the coffee splatters are also county AVAs. One of the cornflakes in the Sonoma County coffee spill is also the Alexander Valley AVA. 

A winemaker in that cornflake could claim any one of those AVAs. But he'd choose Alexander Valley, because the more specific the appellation, the better (and more expensive) the wine. A bottle from the "Pacific Northwest" generally delivers less than one from "Jean-Pierre's Half-Acre." 

Jean-Pierre can plant Catawba, for all our government cares, but in Europe, appellations are strictly controlled for quality. In France, for instance, if you're lucky enough to make red wine in Burgundy's Côte d'Or (pronounced: coat door), the grape must be Pinot Noir. You may not irrigate, or produce more three tons per acre. Your vines must be spaced exactly one meter apart in every direction and be no higher than three feet, and, as far as I can tell, your name must be Jean-Noel, Jean-Pierre, or Jean-Marie, which - I can't help it - always struck me as a silly name for a man. 

Appellations in Burgundy are so convoluted and layered that even most Burgundians don't understand them, but they do ensure a certain level of quality. 

An Italian label might list the place, the place plus the grape, the grape plus the place, or the place plus the wine style. If you don't know the names of the over 100 Italian wine grapes, I challenge you to even find the appellation. 

In Germany, an appellation is a meld of region, vineyard, grape, and quality level, determined by the amount of sugar in the grapes.

Just when you start to get a handle on all this, along comes the European Union and slaps its own regulations on all 18 EU countries, trumping all the national labeling laws.

Why the big deal about where the damned grapes grew, anyway? Because certain minute areas of the globe produce grapes like no others. Ernst Loosen, who makes highly-acclaimed Riesling from his family's estates in the Mosel and Pfaltz, rants for hours about the strangling German government regulations that make doing business there a nightmare. So why doesn't he just up and move to a country that supports free enterprise? Because his handful of acres is pure gold.

At least European appellations have the decency to change at glacial speed, unlike in the New World where they're dividing like cells in a petri dish. Australia is poised to expand its number of apps ten-fold, and wineries are fighting tooth and nail to hang onto the prestigious ones, instead of being stuck with a new, untested name.

But where does this mess leave you, the label reader, the drinker? The sidebar explains how to identify the appellation. As a rule of thumb, go for the most specific app you can afford. If you discover a wine that really pops your cork, look for others from the same appellation Oh, and clean up that kitchen floor. 

Find the Appellation

European wine:
A legal statement, usually in smaller letters, shows up under the appellation name. Some statements to look for:
France: Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)
Italy: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (e Garantita) (DOC, DOCG)
Spain: Denominación de Origen (Calificada) (DO, DOC)
Germany: Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) (This is technically a quality statement, not an appellation.)
New World Wine
Look for a place. Examples: New South Wales, Maipo Valley, North Coast, Santa Barbara.