Location, location, location
Why it’s good to know a wine’s source
By Tim Protzman firstname.lastname@example.org
Where a wine comes from tells a lot about how it will taste.
Climate conditions, soil and grape varieties impart their own fingerprint on each wine. And location can be a sign of pedigree. That’s why most wine counties have some sort of agency that monitors wine producers to make sure that the region given on the label is really where the wine grapes were produced.
In France there’s the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) (translation: Controlled Term of Origin), which ensures that a wine from the Alsace in northeast France can’t say it’s from Bordeaux and command a higher price. In France there’s also an AOC for cheeses. The first product to have an AOC was Roquefort cheese; the name Roquefort was protected in the 15th century by parliamentary decree.
In Spain wine is protected by the Denominación de Orígen (designation of origin). Australian wines are covered by “the Guide,” a set of laws that regulate the percentages (usually at least 80 precent) of grapes from a certain area needed in order for the maker to say the wine is from that area. The Guide also states the minimum amount of grapes needed to say a wine is a Shiraz or Cabernet. This is usually 75 to 80 percent.
The United States uses American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to ensure wines are from the region they claim.
Italy has an interesting system. “Vino da Tavola” (“Table Wine”) denotes wine from Italy. Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) indicates what specific region within Italy the wine is from. It means “indiciative and typical of that geographic region.” Usually it’s either local wine or more rustic wine. But some fine and expensive wines that use non-typical grapes get the IGT designation. Super Tuscans, those heady blends of the traditional Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, receive this designation even though they may cost more than $100 per bottle. Top-quality wines from Italy carry the DOC and DOCG designations. DOC stand for Denominazione di Origine Controllatta, meaing the origin of the grapes is controlled. The finest wines, like Amarone and Barolo, receive the DOCG, which means Denominazione di Origine Controllatta e Garantita, which guarantees the origin of the wine.
Chile, South Africa and New Zealand all have laws that restrict producers from saying on the label that the grapes in the wine are from a certain geographic place.
Germany is different. Ancient laws dating back to Charlemagne enforce the geographic rules. But they go one step further, and this is why German wines are often confusing: they also have a ripeness scale. The best German wines are marked with Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), which refers to the vineyard location and the fact that sugars have not been added after the crush. QmP wines are ranked by the ripeness of the grapes — Kabinett (ripened light wines), Spätlese (a late harvest wine), and so on. And soon QmP will be replaced with Prädikatswein to designate wines of distinction.
To look at wine regions in depth let’s start with the United States. Wine is made in practically every state in the union, and some places do it better than others.
The biggest region is California. To be able to say California on the label, the maker must be sure that at least 75 percent of the grapes in the wine come from California. E.J. Gallo Twin Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is an example of a California AVA wine. The grapes could be from the sub region of Napa Valley or the sub region of Temecula or a mix of regions. The wine could also have grapes from New Zealand or Washington State in the wine, but not more than 25 percent.
Usually most vineyards want to mention the more prestigious sub region on their label. However, some wines, especially in newer growing areas, offer no geographic classification. Some vintners source their grapes from faraway places. This is especially true for the harsh-climate AVAs, whose producers may opt to use grapes from Chile or Australia and forgo any geographic references on the label. This doesn’t mean the wine isn’t a quality product, it just means the grapes weren’t grown at the estate where it was bottled or in the AVA in which the estate is located.
California is divided into five major AVAs: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, Sierra Foothills and Lodi. Two smaller up-and-coming standalone AVAs of note are Dunnigan Hills (west of Napa) and Clarksburg (adjacent to Lodi). The North Coast AVA has 40 sub AVAs within its borders. You probably know Napa Valley, Sonoma and Russian River; you probably don’t know Rockpile, Suisan Valley or Yountville.
The best way to get acquainted with AVAs is to look at them on a map. The best online map is at themapstore.com, which has Viticultural/AVA maps of Europe, the West Coast and Australia.
The Wine Encyclopedia has references to four North Coast sub AVA’s — Lake County, Mendocino County, Sonoma and Napa Valley. And within Napa and Sonoma there are many AVAs. I call these sub sub AVAs. Look for great wines from Anderson Valley sub region of Mendocino County. Premier producers include Scharffenberger Cellars, producers of sparkling wines, and Roederer Estate, the California venture of prestigious Champagne producer Louis Roederer.
To get more acquainted with California’s sub regions try these wines:
• Anapamu Central Coast Chardonnay, $12.99
• Domaine Carneros Brut Sparkling Wine, $19.99
• Turnbull Oakville Sauvignon Blanc, $16.99
• Gallo of Sonoma Russian River Pinot Gris, $10.99
• Blackstone Monterey Pinot Grigio, $8.99
• Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel, $27.99
• Beringer Limited Vineyard Selection North Coast White Zinfandel, $8.99
• Turner Road Lodi Shiraz, $7.99.