Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Appellations: What's that all about?


Varietal labeling—naming the wine after the primary grape from which it is made—is so prevalent that one might think that all wines are labeled that way. They aren’t. When you shop at your favorite wine retailer and consider buying a wine from France, Spain, Italy, and other European countries, you will notice that the wine typically is not named after the primary grape. Rather, the wine is named after the region where it is produced. As such, it may, for example, indicate Chablis (France), or Chianti (Italy), or Rioja (Spain). This method is known as the appellation method, and the wines are labeled with the name of the geographical region from which it came, rather than the underlying grape(s) from which it is made.

How did that originate? The tweet response: it's an outcome of history. The enlarged, flash-card reply: the European winegrowers discovered centuries ago, through trial and error, that each grape variety does its best in specific types of soils, exposures, and environments. Eventually, those in the wine industry and, more importantly, their customers came to accept and acknowledge the excellence of particular wines from specific locations. Without knowing, or even caring about the underlying grapes, early wine drinkers simply came to know a wine because of where it was produced. It was flavorsome and distinctive because of its provenance: where it came from.

The hierarchical French appellation system, on which other European countries modeled their own versions, was created in 1935 to protect growers in their most famous winemaking regions against the subtle and not-so-subtle, imitations from other regions and countries, no matter how benign and well meaning their intentions.

Its goal was to give wine buyers a guarantee of origin and authenticity—and indirectly, quality. In other words, the appellation system assures that you are getting the Real Thing. Without delving into the particulars, the appellation controls the some extremely important details: permitted grapes, geographical boundaries, vineyard yields, alcohol levels, and certain vineyard and wine making practices.

However, in California and other New World areas, the term “appellation” has a much broader meaning and is nowhere nearly as restrictive, since it means little more than  geographical area.  California and Napa, for example, are appellations. American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s), on the other hand, are a bit more specific. They are essentially unique microclimates which give the wine its distinctiveness. Napa Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley are well known AVA’s, and card-carrying wine enthusiasts know what each of those valleys is famous for.

Lastly, irrespective of how wines are named—varietal or appellation—there are specific grapes which underlie each. While the appellation method may seem daunting at first, it takes little time and effort to learn, for example, that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the primary grapes in Burgundy. Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are the main ones in Bordeaux. Gamay found its home in Beaujolais. And Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Sancerre. There are many other appellations, with a variety of underlying grapes and choice wines awaiting your exploration and enjoyment.

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