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Apr 25, 2017

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What On Earth Are Appellations
by Sophia Schweitzer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 2.5
Understanding appellations isn't that hard. Don't let the subject intimidate you! Appellations are nothing more than plots of land -- pieces of this earth.

Strictly speaking, "appellation" names the place where grapes used to make a particular wine were grown. It's a road map to the source. That place, ideally printed on the wine label, can be as vast as a country or as small and specific as a single vineyard. For example, "Napa Valley" as an appellation designation means the fruit was grown somewhere in the county of Napa Valley. But change that designation to "Stags Leap District, and that indicates that the grapes were grown not just anywhere in Napa Valley, but specifically in that designated loamy vale.

Appellations are officially designated, usually by government-sponsored control agencies. The system is supposed to ensure a certain level of quality and consistency and therefore should help the consumer. Right? You read the wine label, recognize the area, remember the common thread in flavors of grapes grown there, and therefore you trust the wine. Simple.

Unfortunately the wine industry loves to make things as complex as possible. Why? 'Cause of money. The more specific a designated appellation, presumably the better the quality. Thus a higher price. Wine growers happily exploit that fact. There are regions within regions within regions within… You get the picture. Even so, all this might make perfect sense if every country across the world would follow the same rules when designating an appellation and printing that information on their labels. Instead rules and standards vary from country to country and from region to region. Labels add to the confusion. No wonder that appellations read like hieroglyphs.

So let's see if we can clarify the murky appellation a little bit. First, a general overview is necessary. Then, throughout the year, we'll explore the major wine-growing regions of the world.

So what's the big deal about specific locations anyway? It's all about the soil, or the place where the grapes grows. The French call it terroir (ter-wahr). Not quite translatable, it pertains to the unique qualities of a specific region. I promise, it's only one of the few French geek words you'll have to swallow. Terroir imparts the specific flavors and aromas of a wine. Grapes, you see, are extremely sensitive to their environment. Composition of the soil, elevation, slope of the land, weather conditions, sun exposure all add character. Some locations do a better job than others. For example, in Burgundy, the limestone hills of Meursault produce a different chardonnay wine than the rocky perch of St. Romain, just a few miles inland. Quite simply, terroir connotes any and all the factors that influence a specific plot of land. The appellation delineates and names this plot.

Enough said. Here's something practical: Across the world's borders, appellations read like circles within circles, with the largest being the general growing area, which is then subdivided into smaller and smaller zones.

6) Country (most general)
5) Region
4) District
3) Subdistrict
2) Commune or village
1) Vineyard (most specific)

As for the individual countries, a rough guide for the major wine-growing areas might help:

In France, the name of the wine is also the appellation. You can't miss it. The French love their terroir. When you buy a Bordeaux, the grapes for the wine are grown somewhere in the Bordeaux region. When the grapes come from within a certain district of Bordeaux, say, Médoc, then the label will mention this. Médoc itself is subdivided into inner appellations, regions like Haut-Médoc and villages such as Pauillac. The label will say so. You, as the wine lover, only have to know vaguely which appellations you like and how much you can afford. We'll get to that another time.

Quick Tip: Bordeaux is a controlled appellation. That's why you see "Appellation d'Origine Controlée" on the label. This means that the wine-grower must follow all kinds of strict rules. Not all French wines have AOC on their labels. AOC wines, about 35 percent of all French wines, are like the aristocracy. There are, however, three other categories of land zoning that offer less expensive wines.

Most European countries, like Italy, Portugal and Spain follow more or less the same appellation guidelines: The area where the wine is produced gives the wine its name. Chianti, Soave and Rioja all refer to an area. But the Mediterranean temperament has always been capricious. The system of designating appellations is somewhat unpredictable. For example: Try finding an Italian wine labeled Barbera on a map! You can't -- 'cause barbera's a grape!

German wines are always named after the grape varietal, like riesling. And although the appellation is clearly visible on the label, that in itself doesn't give you much information. (It's too hard to pronounce anyway.) In Germany, sweetness determines quality and is defined with special terms. Auslese indicates a sweeter, therefore better riesling than Spätlese or Kabinett, even though both wines might come from Pfalz, a designated appellation. Don't worry, we'll go over it later.

As for America, even though most states grow wine grapes these days (and are quite proud of that), appellations are often hidden in fine print on back labels. Straightforward, unencumbered by complex rules or attachment to soil, American wines are simply named after the predominant grape though now, a couple of generations into winemaking, wineries are discovering the influence of terroir. As a result, appellations, also called American Viticultural Areas, are becoming more label-friendly. There are about 124 appellations in the United States. The same road map that guides you through France, works here as well. Zones within zones within zones.

Quick Tip: To be labeled with an appellation, California wines must contain at least 85 percent of grapes grown in that specified appellation. Also, a wine can only name itself after a varietal grape if it contains at least 75 percent of that varietal. In Oregon those rules are much stricter. There are a few other rules for AVAs, but there is far more freedom in America than in France. Which means American winemakers can be much more creative and make some truly awesome wines!

Most of the other new-world wine producing countries, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile, more or less follow the same guidelines when it comes to zoning and labeling. Wines are named after the grape varietal, as in America. If a district is mentioned, a percentage -- up to 95 percent in Australia -- must come from that region. The larger-print name on the label, however, usually refers to the shipper or bottler.

Quick Tip: New wine markets are booming. As are misleading terms. In an attempt to fool us, these terms have absolutely nothing to do with appellation or quality. Take for example, the term "Reserve." It's a fine word but absolutely meaningless here because it has no legal definition. Any maker can slap it onto a label regardless of quality or cost. So be wary of the romance or supposed importance of words!

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