When buying wine, just like in real estate, place matters. In fact, there is a well-known adage that states, “wine is made in the vineyard.” This can’t be overstated.
But how do we define these wine regions? What do they mean? And practically-speaking, how can understanding a wine region help us select wines that suit our palates?
Appellations are good indicators of wine style
Wine regions are generally created by governments or based on viticulture. In the Old World (i.e. Europe), the predominant term describing a wine region is “appellation,” which is a politically-defined and regulated area where wine grapes are grown. Theoretically, appellations are based on environmental features that characterize an area and traditional winemaking techniques that are used only in that location.
Critical to the designation of appellations is the notion of “terroir” or sense of place. It’s the all-encompassing environment--soil, weather, sunlight-- in which the vineyard is located and gives wines their distinctive characteristics. In Europe, appellations also regulate the specific vinification techniques that must be used to produce the wine. Only a wine made from grapes within an appellation can use the appellation’s name on its label (i.e. Bordeaux, Champagne, Chianti).
Important to note, however, is that an appellation is different from the location where a wine is made. A winery can be located anywhere--in a city, in a warehouse, or within the appellation. Some wines are labeled with locations that are broad such as “Central Coast” or “Burgundy” and be made from grapes grown from multiple vineyards.
AVA’s, not so much
In the New World (i.e. North America, South America, Asia), wine regions are defined in various ways, some with arbitrary geographical boundaries that can be weak predictors of a wine’s style. In the United States, the term American Viticultural Area (AVA) is used and is not technically considered an appellation as defined in the Old World. Merely specifying geography, like Napa Valley, these designations shed little light on the farming practices, grapes used, or aging techniques.
This is why for New World wines it’s simpler to decipher labels by grape varietal and Old World wines by appellation. Unless the label gives specific detail on winemaking techniques, we tend to focus on the inherent qualities of what we know of the grapes. We tend to focus on the fact that the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, then concern ourselves on from where the wine grapes originated.
On an Old World label, however, one would note that a Chianti is primarily made from Sangiovese grapes and have some notion about what the varietal flavors and aromas of that grape are.
The more specific the better
We can still select a good bottle of wine even if we know very little about an appellation, AVA, or varietal for that matter. A good rule of thumb that applies to both Old World and New World wine is, the more specific the place-name on the wine label, the more predictable and more reliable the wine. A wine labeled “Oregon” or “Vino de Espana” doesn’t tell us much about the style of wine or give indicators of quality. But an Oregon Pinot Noir labeled “Dundee Hills,” or “Rioja Reserva” will have more typical characteristics and likely be a better expression of terroir of that AVA or appellation respectively.
Need more help choosing your vineyard? Erlinda wants to help you pick your real estate--grape-wise, that is. As the “The Wine Evangelist” and through her passion project " ViníCola," Erlinda provides wine consulting services including seminars, educational events, private tastings, sommelier services, hospitality staff training, and retail/supplier marketing. She recently opened ViniCola’s Tasting Room, which is open for private wine discovery tastings and events. Contact her at email@example.com or visit www.thevinicola.com, Instagram (@thevinicola), or Facebook (theViniCola) to join Columbia’s wine community.