Wine has been made in Europe and the Mediterranean world for thousands of years. It is so much a part of the local cultures that every aspect of its production and consumption is entrenched in tradition. The idea that a wine should taste a certain way because of where it’s made is a European idea, one that has been around since ancient days. This traditional idea of “local taste” is a fundamental difference between Old World and New World culture. In Europe you eat local food and drink the local wine but, in America, it doesn’t matter where you are, you can always get a hamburger and a coke, and the taste never deviates.
At least as far back as ancient Greece wines were identified and valued by location of production. Some were said to be particularly good and others as not so good. The Portuguese were the first to create a legally recognized growing zone for wine grapes in the late 18th Century, to control and protect the production of their famous Port wines. It was the French who really set to work organizing wine production zones in the 1930’s. As the vineyards were recovering from the phylloxera infestation that nearly destroyed the wine industry of France, it was decided that the most famous wines needed to be more regulated and protected in order to thrive once again.
The French thus created the appellation system. An appellation is a delimited geographical zone. The best French wines were in very short supply in the 1920’s and 30’s but poor quality bulk wines from southern France and Algeria had taken over to fill the gap. These cheap wines were co-opting famous names and in some cases being distributed as if they were the famous wines. Laws passed in the first twenty years of the century were aimed at eliminating this fraud, then the French began to create AOC; Appellation d’Origine Controlee. The idea was to certify that wines with a famous name were actually produced in the particular place their name identified. Chateauneuf du Pape, a wine growing area in the southern Rhone valley, became one of the first recognized AOC wine appellations.
The system matured through its first decade under the direction of the INAO, the Institute National des Appellation d’Origine, which took it’s lead from Baron le Roy in Chateauneuf. The Baron had recognized that it was important to specify more than just where a wine is produced, but also how and from what. Modern INAO rules govern everything from where a named wine can be made, what grape types can be used, how ripe the grapes must be at harvest and how alcoholic the wine must be, as well as the maximum yield that can be harvested and even the number of individual vines that can be planted. Lot’s of rules.
The return to prominence of the great French wines over the following decades was enough to convince every other wine making nation to adopt a similar system. The Italians have their DOC zones, the Spanish and Portuguese have DO, the Germans have QbA and in America we have AVA, “American Viticultural Areas”. The French system is the most detailed and offers the best guide to what a consumer should expect from any of its various wines. But the INAO’s numerous rules are also a break on experimentation and freedom of expression. The rules were not drawn up to encourage the best possible development of French viticulture but to protect current practices. Although they are constantly being revised the AOC rules are perhaps limiting France’s competitiveness in the new global wine market.
Speaking of the new global wine market the question arises; does an AVA in California carry the same cache as an AOC in France? The French clearly believe that location is important and that rules must be established. Do we feel the same way, and do our appellation rules assure wine quality in the same way?
Geographically based wine making systems assume that a wine made in a particular spot should taste a particular way. The French have a phrase for this concept, as you might expect. It is gout de terroir, “taste of the earth”. Wine makers all over the world are today claiming their wine expresses its terroir. Terroir has become an almost mystical idea, layered on top of whatever appellation system is in operation in different parts of the world. But in France there are many rules that go along with the AOC zones that make all the wines from a particular place share many characteristics. The same is not true of American AVAs.
Think of the Russian River Valley for instance, a place in northern California that could fit many times over into the French region of Bordeaux. There are well over one hundred wineries in the Russian River AVA producing well lover 1000 individual wines. Selecting one of the producers, Dry Creek Valley Winery as an example, they make Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel. They also make “Bordeaux Blends”, which refers to a red wine made from the same grape types used in the Bordeaux AOCs of France. The wine making is not controlled by the government to any large extent. Russian River wine makers can use oak barrels or not. They can harvest at any time they choose and in whatever volume they are capable of. They can age the wine before its release, or not at all.
The Bordeaux AOC in France is a much larger place with many more than a thousand producers and a volume of production that would flood the Russian River. But, as has been pointed out above, a French wine maker must follow many more rules, from the vineyard and its management right through to the wine making and the aging of the wine before sale. In the vast region of Bordeaux all the red wines are made from a blend of the same three or four grape types and all the white wines are blended from the same one or two. In many Chateaux, as the Bordeaux wineries are called, just one or two different wines are produced each vintage.
It is obvious from this comparison that the wines of Bordeaux should have more in common with one-another than even the wines of a small spot on the map like Russian River. And it is also clear that just the words “Russian River” on a bottle of wine tells you very little about the wine, while the word “Bordeaux” tells you quite a bit.
This is the main reason why European labels rarely mention grape type. Grape type can be assumed if you know what grapes are grown in a certain region or AOC. The grape type has to be pointed out on a California wine because so many grapes can be used, you’d have no way to know otherwise. It’s also clear that an American AVA does not mean the same thing as a European AOC, an Italian DOC or a German QbA.
This is not to say that the place of the grape’s growth, and the location of the wine making has no impact on the finished aroma and flavor of a California (or Australian, or South African …) wine. The wine grape is an agricultural product and weather, vineyard conditions and wine making practices all contribute to the final result. But, we’ve been at the wine making game for only a couple hundred years, the Europeans have had much more experience. It seems premature for a California wine maker to declare that his wine expresses the “terroir of its vineyard site.” How does he know? It seems natural, given the length of the centuries, that expectations for individual wines and styles should be more established in Europe than in the New World.
Some grape types have found a home in New World vineyards. Napa Cabernet, Russian River Zinfandel, Carneros Chardonnay, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Noir, Finger Lakes (New York) Riesling and Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah are some noteworthy examples. Given time, we may get to the point of having grape types securely associated with AVAs but probably never to the extent that France has established.
Knowing where a wine comes from is still helpful. Different grape types respond differently to cool or warm climates, to mountain or coastal zones, to places with regular rain fall or more arid places. Paying attention to this detail will help you understand your wine and understand what to expect from it before you’ve opened it.
Hopefully, this relationship of place to grape and wine will encourage you to appreciate the differences between European wine and New World wine, and to fully explore both.