The ABCs of AVAs
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
One of the first things you ask when meeting someone new is, “where are you from?” It’s an easy way to begin getting to know the person. Maybe you also know someone from the place and have a mutual friend. It’s also how we define ourselves. Where you were raised had an enormous impact on shaping who you are today. The same can be said about wine grapes. But a grape’s hometown is called an appellation and in the United States the hometown is called an AVA (American Viticultural Area). Some, like Russian Nesting Eggs have sub-appellations within their appellations! Finding that perfect place to grow that perfect grape takes a lot of trial and error. But it’s not just wine that is so site-specific. Look at it this way- a Jersey tomato is arguably better than one grown in say, Idaho. Then again Idaho can grow a better potato than Florida, which grows better oranges. Now before we take it to the extreme and argue who makes the best pizza (Tacconelli’s) let’s just say that the place matters. Governmental supervision stepped in to ensure authenticity and prevent fraud to consumers. Without this oversight unscrupulous merchants might say they are bottling something they are not. A Napa Cab must be made with grapes grown in Napa California. (Ok, not 100% of the grapes, but that’s another story.) Although there were appellations mentioned in the Bible (the wine of Jezreel), the first officially sanctioned vineyard was Chianti, Italy in 1716. However, France was the first country to geographically map out wine regions and set the original standards by which winemakers must adhere. Their AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) model from 1935 has been copied around the wine world. Some of their appellations have become so familiar as to become ubiquitous. Most of the best-known wines from France are appellations – Champagne being the most abused. I dare say, most consumers call everything that has bubbles Champagne, much to the chagrin of France.
In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Treasury Department, regulates the geographic boundaries of appellations.
But American grape growers have much more leeway than their French counterparts and are free to plant any grape varieties they wish and harvest as large a crop as possible. In France, the INAO (Institut National des Appellation d’Origine) not only sets the area boundaries, it approves the grape variety, the maximum yield, the minimum ripeness levels and the maximum alcohol levels, etc. Their rules even state the pruning methods and allowable vineyard spacing! As each country adds more appellations and rules, it’s becoming a veritable alphabet soup of wine. To make matters worse, the EU has made changes to “simplify” things. I understand the adage LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, but all these AOCs, DOCGs, DOs, GIs, and QBAs, are making me wanna grab a VSOP and take a NAP!