In my most recent article I outlined how to research and discover why a particular wine seized your attention. The first stop is to carefully read the bottle’s front and back labels, which yield government plus other generic information like producer’s name, varietal grape, vintage year, appellation, company history, general winemaking practices and food pairing recommendations.
The second location to search is the producer’s Internet web site, where you surf through these links: purchase wine, winemaking details, trade information, tasting room and/or winemaker contact. It is in these links where vineyard and winemaking practices are detailed. With those two routines you should be able to ferret out the what and why of the wine that grabbed your attention. But further, in addition to learning about the wine itself, you will likely become knowledgeable about specific winemaking practices of which you previously were uninformed.
While sleuthing out those informative winemaking details, you probably didn’t pay much attention to where the wine came from. But you should. Where a wine comes from—its provenance—is known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the USA. This system of geographically categorizing wines was inspired by the French Appellation system, and both systems were created to guarantee the authenticity, reputation and quality of the wines that originate in those regions. In other words, they protect you against imitations, implied or explicit. You're getting the real stuff!
Also, underlying the appellation and viticultural systems is the French-derived concept of Terroir (tare-wahr), which proclaims the distinctiveness of a wine’s birthplace and the wines that originate there. It has been variously defined, but it includes fundamental and unique site-specific factors like geology, topography and microclimate, to name but a few. These and other aspects are what account for the differences between one wine from another, particularly the good from the great, and especially when they’re made from the same grapes.
There are currently in excess of 240 AVAs nationwide, over 100 in California, and 16 nested, Sub-AVAs in the world famous Napa Valley. All boundaries are defined by the U.S. Treasury Department at the request of petitioners, who must submit specific climate, soil and topography information supported by US Geological Survey maps. The proposed area must be well known locally and nationally, and when an AVA is referenced on the label, at least 85% of the grapes must come from that region.
So, what does the above viticultural mumbo jumbo mean to an emerging wine enthusiast who merely wants a wine “that tastes good?” Tasting good is one thing, but WHY a wine tastes good is quite another. AVAs help solve that puzzle. Once you’ve made the above two-step research commitment, then browsing the label for AVA origins will identify which one produced the style you just enjoyed.
As a general rule, the more specific the AVA label information the more likely you’ve discovered a quality wine. For example, an acceptable but generic, statewide “California” AVA Pinot Noir will not typically have the structure or savory aroma and flavor of one from, say, the more specific and well-known “Russian River Valley” Sub-AVA. And if the latter, in turn, points to a specific vineyard, then you’ve probably found something special. (Terroir!)
In closing, I would like to suggest an additional twist to the above AVA search. On your next visit to the local food market, set aside a few minutes to do a “varietal scan” of your favorite wine. That is, take your time and browse, for example, the labels of all the Zinfandels on the middle tier shelves. Does any County, AVA or sub-AVA seem to get more of the shelf space? And, lastly, are any specific vineyards identified on the front label? Those reflect the producer’s pride, and their best source of high quality grapes. Good hunting and Happy New Year!