Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wine Geek Trivia: Appellations

So you ask, "Catie what are you talking about? What exactly is an appellation?'

Well, my inquiring little friend, Wiki says an appellation is:

a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown; other types of food often have appellations as well. Restrictions other than geographical boundaries, such as what grapes may be grown, maximum grape yields, alcohol level, and other quality factors, may also apply before an appellation name may legally appear on a wine bottle label. The rules that govern appellations are dependent on the country in which the wine was produced.

If you are an American wine geek and you talk a lot of wine speak, then you probably know that the term "appellation" is synonymous with the name "American Viticultural Area" or mostly referred to as "AVA." If you are not a wine geek, be very careful not to confuse "appellation" with "Appalachian" or people will point fingers at you and laugh. However, there are appellations in the Appalachians. Confused?

An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States that is distinguishable by geographic features. Boundaries are defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).   There were 198 AVAs as of January, 2010. Prior to the installation of the AVA system, wine appellations of origin in the United States were designated based on state or county boundaries. All of these appellations were grandfathered into federal law. More wine-speak for the wine geek? Basically, "Bacchus Bureaucracy."

My mother tells a good story about appellations on a recent visit to New Mexico. She and her friends were doing the tourist thing and since their host knew how much my mother enjoyed wine and that she lived in Washington wine country, they traveled to a few wineries in New Mexico. One winery, in particular, boasted about their New Mexico Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Chardonnay being the best in the world, don't 'cha know. The person behind the counter especially touted his finest wine which was made from pistachios with real caramel food coloring - ahem. (Does this make me a wine snob?)

My mother was being polite and while trying to make conversation, she asked the man who owned the winery about their wine grapes and if they came from a local New Mexico appellation. The owner of the winery became rather frustrated with her and exclaimed, "Apple-ations? Lady, our wines are made from grapes, not apples!"

The tradition of wine appellations is nothing new. In fact, it is ancient. The oldest references are to be found in the Bible, where wines of Samaria, Carmel, and Jezreel in Israel are mentioned. This tradition of appellation continued throughout the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, though without any officially sanctioned rules. Historically, the world's first exclusive and protected vineyard zone was introduced in Chianti, Italy in 1716 and the first wine classification system in Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary, in 1730.

In 1935, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture, was created to manage wine production in France. However, before 1935, despite the fact that the INAO was yet to be created, Champagne enjoyed an appellation control by virtue of legal protection as part of the Treaty of Madrid (1891). The treaty stated that only sparkling wine produced in Champagne and adhering to the standards defined for that name as an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée could be called champagne. This right was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

In Washington state we have a total of 11 appellations, each expressing their own unique area: Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Columbia Valley, Puget Sound, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan.

AVAs do not have to be inclusive of one state. There are several in the United States that blend into the borders of their neighboring states, just as we have seen in our area. The Walla Walla Valley AVA also includes the north east part of Oregon (Milton-Freewater/Umatilla County area), Columbia Gorge AVA is also Washington and Oregon, and the Snake River Valley AVA is Oregon and Idaho.

In the East Coast AVAs there are also blended states such as: Central Delaware Valley (New Jersey & Pennsylvania), Cumberland Valley (Maryland & Pennsylvania), Lake Erie (New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), Shenandoah Valley (Virginia and West Virginia), and Southeastern New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island).

Central AVAs: Mesilla Valley (New Mexico and Texas), Mississippi Delta (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee), Ohio River Valley (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia), Shenandoah Valley (Virginia and West Virginia), and Upper Mississippi Valley (Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin).

In the United States, as the number of wine consumers grow, more opportunities for wine education, expansion of agriculture and understanding our geology and the soils around us; there is no doubt in my mind that  this list of AVA's will soon be obsolete. I'll drink to that.

1 comment:

Cindy W. said...

Oh, dear, I have to say that I know EXACTLY what winery you are speaking of. I lived in New Mexico for a decade and I actually am a big fan of the fabulous pistachios and treats from that same facility that makes that foul pistachio wine (which is, btw, grown right there in vineyards next to the pistachio groves -- I believe there is no official AVA for that area). I've been ordering nuts from them for years, and I just conveniently avoid all references to their "award-winning" wines. :)

Although, after typing the above, I realize that there are TWO different places that could meet your description (they actually have a bit of a long-standing local rivalry, but that's another story).

New Mexico does have a few decent wines, though, and most of the winemakers there are knowledgeable and dedicated to their craft. I have to say that as a grad student in the "land of enchantment," it was wonderful to be able to grab a cheap bottle of decent local wine (never pistachio-based) to sip on a hot desert evening. It helped me make it through the stress of being a poor, starving student. I even wrote a rather nostalgic blog post about foods and wine of New Mexico a couple of months ago:

http://www.meltingteapot.com/blog5.php/2010/05/12/foods-of-new-mexico-part-1

One last note -- those hot, red chile pistachios from New Mexico are fabulous paired with Walla Walla syrahs and cabs!