On April 29, 2009, the Carolina Newswire Online posted the following: “…the Haw River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) will officially become the third federally granted appellation in North Carolina...”
The story seems to say that an ‘appellation’ and an ‘AVA’ are the same thing. They are—and they aren’t. In fact, a designated appellation does not necessarily have to be a designated AVA, but a designated AVA is always a designated appellation.
The real question is: how does an appellation or an AVA designation benefit the wine consumer?
Under U.S. Trade and Tobacco Bureau (TTB) regulations an appellation of origin is either:
A U.S. county or state, or the foreign equivalent
For U.S. wine, a listing of up to 3 states or 3 counties (multi- appellation)
A U.S. or foreign government recognized delimited grape-growing area (an AVA, under U.S. regulations)
Also under TTB rules, a wine labeled with a vintage date must state an appellation on the label.
More important, wine labeled as ‘Estate Bottled’ must come from grapes grown, fermented, produced and bottled under one licensed producer and within a recognized AVA.
So, what exactly is an AVA?
TTB regulations define a viticultural area for American wine as
“A delimited grape-growing region distinguishable by geographical
features.” These features include the area’s topography and climate.
According to the regulations, AVA designations “allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographical origin.”
The TTB also says that, “Establishment of a viticultural area is neither an approval nor an endorsement by TTB of the wine produced in that area.”
Therein lies my problem with the AVA designation: Other than where they come from, the AVA tells us nothing about the wines in the bottles. It isn’t about wine; it’s about marketing. You can see that clearly by following a recent fuss over applications for AVA status in certain areas on the West Coast (link below).
As far as TTB is concerned, if grapes grow somewhere and the place has a climate, it’s possible for that place to be designated an AVA. The designation is often the result of a convergence of perseverance on the part of the applicant meeting public apathy.
Back in the days when delimiting wine regions was a young concept in Europe, it was brought about because wine producers needed to establish and maintain their separate identities for a certain quality level (fraud was rampant) and both producers and governments knew the value to the economy of protecting their wine industries.
Those reasons for regulations to delimit areas hold true today.
In the U.S., we have the economic benefit covered, but does TTB really concern itself with ‘quality’ and ‘identity?’
I don’t think so.
Using the present Italian system as a guide, the important delimited representations used to identify a wine’s pedigree are: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which is like an AVA to the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), which is the wider appellation. But the similarity between us and them ends right there.
Like its European counterparts, Italian DOC status demands a certain level of production and quality standards; DOCG status demands even tighter, more stringent standards. These standards cover the types of grapes that go into producing wines within a DOCG, their production methods, and in some cases, their aging parameters. A DOC wine might have been produced from the same grape varieties allowed for that area as for a DOCG wine, but the latter will be forced to follow production rules from which the former are exempted. And the wines are subject to inspection and validation by a local governing body.
In the U.S., after topography and climate, no grape growing, production, aging or other standards apply to a TTB designation either for an appellation or for AVA status. There are no officially-established standards or parameters for wine quality and therefore no officially-established panels of tasters to review the wines. Wine producers can grow whichever grapes they want to grow, a fact that might just negate the TTB focus on climate, and producers can do whatever they want to their wines, a fact that can obliterate the so-called 'given quality' or 'characteristics' of AVA wine.
After reading through the regualtions and after tasting American wines for many years, I still haven't found an answer to the question: how does an appellation or an AVA designation benefit the wine consumer?
Recent AVA flap
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May 2009. All rights reserved.