Wine Appellations, AVAs, Places of Origin…

Market Watch had an interesting article indicating that Americans care very much where our wine is grown. I think that’s great news – we’re maturing as a wine-drinking country! And, I agree. When I’m shopping, especially for value wine, the appellation is one of the most important criteria in making my selection. You could pick out a variety you like from a ca-ca location and end with: ca-ca!

What’s not such great news is that the article went on to say: “Perhaps most troubling was the fact that despite broad interest in wine location from all sectors of the U.S. wine-consuming populace, when presented with two labels to compare side by side, most consumers were unable to determine the correct origin of the wine.”

Hmm… How can I help? Let me just cover the American laws quickly – most new-world wines have similar regulations. Happy to look at labels from around the world – let me know which ones you want.

So, below there’s a clean, easy to read label from a winery a few blocks from my house (they’re not a client). You see that there’s actually very little information on the front label, but the important stuff is there – the variety, place of origin and the brand. 

Varietal minimum: 75% (these are Federal requirements so they apply to every state). So, this wine has to be at least 75% Sauvignon Blanc.

Now, here’s something kind of tricky: There are appellations, which are simply geographical designations such as California. And, there are AVAs, which must be approved by the federal government. To get your AVA approved you have to go to the Fed and convince them that you have a distinctive combination of soil, climate and topography that differs from neighboring regions and contributes to an identifiable regional wine character. 

Napa Valley is an appellation AND an AVA. California is just an appellation. 

Appellation of origin: When the place appears on the front label, just before or just after the varietal name or type (for instance “Red Blend”), it nearly always refers to the place the grapes are grown, not the location of the winery. A winemaker in Idaho can make California wine as long as at least 75% of the grapes were grown in California. 

The fed requires the name and address of the producer, but that usually goes on the back label. 

So you know that for a very general appellation, like California, the Federal minimum requirement is 75%. California actually requires 100% (individual states may upgrade, but not downgrade, the minimum). 

For a specific viticultural area, like Napa Valley, the requirement goes up to 85%. 

You notice that this label also says Juliana Vineyards. The minimum requirement for a specific vineyard designation is 95%, so you’ve got a very specific appellation for this wine!

Some laws have loopholes that make life complicated. For instance, most people assume that “Estate Bottled” means the grapes were grown by the winery, at the winery. Not so. It means that all of the grapes must come from vineyards “owned or controlled” by the winery. Pretty vague, right? It turns out that if the winery has a three-year contract with an independent grower they can say the wine is estate bottled as long as the vineyard and the winery are in the same viticultural area, such as Napa Valley.

There are other designations on the label, most of it regulated by our friends at the TTB and they actually have a very usefull diagram if you want all the nitty gritty. I’ve only covered the appellation.

I hope that helps! Don’t hesitate to send followup questions or to let me know if I’ve confused the issue. Cheers! 

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