WineInk: What’s in an Appellation?
On the boundaries of wine
This one is for the Realtors. And the surveyors.
Gazing out my window this past week, I was thinking about how two bottles of wines made in the states of Washington and Oregon could be so different. During this period of contemplation, I spied two men walking across the field in front of my house with yellow vests and surveying poles. They were establishing, or at least checking the boundaries of, the properties in my neighborhood. And a column was born.
While it may seem a bit esoteric at first glance, it is important to realize that in the wine world — as in Aspen real estate — location and property lines are everything. Where a particular winery is located and the source of the grapes that winery uses for their wines is the most important factor in what those wines can sell for. That is to say that, just as a house located on Willoughby Way or in Five Trees or atop Red Mountain may garner higher prices than those that are located elsewhere, so too do wines that originate in Burgundy, Napa or Piedmont get a price boost based on their location.
Oh sure, there are exceptions. A Brad Pitt- or Cameron Diaz-branded wine might spur demand because of the nature of our celebrity culture. And a smart marketer might be able to juice his or her juice by designing an appealing label or concocting a story that makes that wine “hot.” But for the most part, the single most important trait that makes a wine relevant, and produces a wine of quality, is the location of the dirt that birthed it.
Like everything else, in wine, location is exploited. Which brings us to how countries create regions and classifications with the dual intent of providing information to consumers about wine quality and, perhaps more importantly, creating perceptions about the quality of particular wines that will amp their worth.
The first classification systems for a wine’s origins were founded with an eye toward defining the quality of what was in a bottle. As far back as the 1730s, the Hungarians had developed a system ranking vineyards based on sun, soil, location, etc. — the things that we have since come to refer to as terroir. Since that time the French, Germans, Italians and just about every other wine-producing region in the world have put designations in place to help consumers understand where a wine comes from and the qualities that have gone into making that wine.
Perhaps the most famous and important of these was the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, which established a pecking order for the wines of Bordeaux that exists to this day. Emperor Napoleon III of France wanted to promote the wines produced in Bordeaux in a way that would create a hierarchy for what was the world’s most important wine-producing nation. This was to coincide with the Universal Exposition in Paris, a gathering of nations somewhat akin to a world’s fair.
The powers that be in Bordeaux (i.e., the business community) responded by convening a group of local wine merchants to “rank” the wares of the region and they proceeded to create “an exact and complete list of all the red wines of the Gironde that specifies in which class they belong.” This listing rated the wines of 58 châteaux, deeming four to be first-growths, 12 seconds, 14 thirds, 11 fourths and 17 fifths. While the criteria for the ranking was a bit sketchy, the quality of the wines as determined by the merchants was the stated measure for inclusion.
But interestingly, all of the wines except one, Château Haut-Brion (located in Pessac, Graves), came from châteaux in the Medoc region. Château Lafite Rothschild Château Latour, located in Pauillac, and Château Margaux based Margaux were eventually joined by Château Mouton-Rothschild as first-growth wines in 1973. Which is another story.
The effect of the Classification of 1855, clearly intended, was to create a perception of a place that produced wines of quality beyond all others based on the location where they were produced. And that, like a Willoughby Way address, impacts the price of these wines to this day.
In the U.S., we created a system whereby an arm of the federal government, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), designates certain geographical regions as American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. As of this past August, there are 258 AVAs spread over 27 states. These are also referred to as “appellations of origin.”
For an area to become an AVA there must be a petition to the TTB which explains that the region is deserving either because it is well known for its wines, it has distinct geological or climatological characteristics that make it unique, or that it has historical significance in wine production. California produces close to 90% of all the wines in this country and, as expected, has the most AVAs, with 142 so designated as of this writing. Colorado is home to just two AVAs, the Grand Valley AVA in Mesa County and the West Elks AVA surrounding an area near Paonia.
The largest American AVA is the Ohio River Valley AVA, which spans 16 million acres across portions of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia. The smallest is the Cole Ranch appellation in Mendocino County in Northern California, which measures just 187 acres, or about one quarter of a square mile. The entire appellation was purchased last year by a winemaker named Mike Lucia.
The first American Viticultural Area was identified in 1980 by the TTB in the seemingly unlikely locale of Augusta, Missouri. The region — which is on the North bank (would that be the left or right bank?) of the Missouri River — is west of St. Louis in St. Charles County. Perhaps half a dozen or so wineries operate in the region, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and wines from the official Missouri state grape, Norton.
TTB laws state that if one is going to identify an AVA region on a bottle of wine as the place of that wine’s origin, then at least 85% of the grapes must come from that AVA. There are other restrictions and variations on these rules, but they are largely in place to help protect consumers from being misled about the origin of a wine.
Gamble Family Vineyards 2017 Paramount
The ultimate luxury for a winemaker may be the ability to pick and choose fruit from different AVAs to make a single wine. Such is the case for Tom Gamble, a third-generation Napa farmer who has his hands deep into the Napa earth on 175 acres of land ranging from the Oakville, Yountville, Mt. Veeder and Rutherford AVAs — the high-rent district of American wines. For this vintage of Paramount, a Bordeaux blend that is nearly equal parts Cabernet Franc (from St. Helena), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (from two different sites in Oakville) Tom and Gamble Family winemaker Jim Close spread out. The wine is chock full of dark fruit flavors and alternates hits of chocolate, leather, tobacco and spice. The complexity is somehow hidden by the suppleness of the mouthfeel that is more velvet than tannic, but it is there on the palate just the same. At just a touch under $100, this wine offers a well-considered taste of Napa Valley’s best.
It has been noted at the end of this column, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the author “lives in the soon-to-be-designated AVA of Old Snowmass.” To do such, I think a submission to the TTB would have to be filed that explains why this plot is uniquely worthy of being an established wine-growing region. Other than the fact that it is home to a wine writer and is a place of abundant beauty, there really is no criteria that would make the area at 8,000 feet of elevation capable of producing wine. But one can dream.
Where a wine comes from may not be as important as how a wine a tastes. But to those who make wines and for those who consume them, the where is often as intriguing as the why.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.