What is a Wine Appellation?

What is a Wine Appellation?

The dictionary definition is- a geographical name (as of a region, village, or vineyard) under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine.

While the word appellation is typically the word used to describe Old World or European wine regions; the word region is the most common term you will hear coming from New World wine regions like America or New Zealand.

Essentially, appellation and region are interchangeable, although appellation is often used to describe the quality designation part of things (explained below).

There are different systems in place for how European and American determine and control their appellation or region.

How Countries Determine Appellations

Looking at any wine region map, you will see clear and defined lines that distinguish the wine growing area. These borders do not typically coincide with state or district lines within a country, however, they will stay within the same country for legal reasons.

These borders are not set in stone. For some Old World wine regions, these invisible borders have been there for hundreds of years. However, many New World wine countries are continuing to add more sub-regions and further distinguish their wine growing areas.

Factors that determine the growing area and appellation include laws of the country or region regarding wine, varietals grown, grape yield, and wine production. The most important factor is geography and climate. You will see similar climate, soil types, and geography throughout the same region or appellation.

Sub-regions or sub-appellations

Important differences in soil type, climate, or geography within a single appellation or the growing area will allow for sub-regions to come into place. An example would be Napa Valley. Within the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) are the sub-regions of Diamond Mountain District, St. Helena, Rutherford, Yountville, and more. It can also just be California wine, encompassing the entire states region into one to make things easier.

There can even be sub-regions within sub-regions of a region…if that makes sense. Because of this, appellations can be as large as an entire country or as small as a single vineyard.

Appellation Systems

The word appellation is often used to refer to the system in which countries organize their wine growing areas and wine production.

These systems are used to distinguish:

  • What can be put on wine labels (varietal, name of the region, quality designation)
  • Grape varieties 
  • Winemakers laws
  • Alcohol levels
  • Quality wine

These appellation systems have large impacts on that countries wine industry.

What are some key difference between wine appellation systems

One thing that has a large impact on the international wine market is what each country puts on its wine labels.

  • American wine
    • Only required to put the geographic origin of the wine
    • American wines typically always name the varietal of the wine
    • At least 85% of the wine needs to be of the varietal labeled. Example: The wine can be labeled only as Cabernet Sauvignon but can also include 15% or less or Merlot or any other varietal. This type of blend is common in order to add complexity to the wines.
    • At least 85% of the wine needs to be from the region on the label. Example: If the wine is produced in Yakima Valley, but a majority of the grapes came from elsewhere around the larger Columbia Valley AVA, then the wine will be labeled as Columbia Valley AVA.
    • Surgeon General’s Warning is required on all labels
    • There are no quality designations
  • Italian wines
    • Appellations label their wines by place, grape, and name
    • Labels include quality designations
  • German wines
    • Appellations label their wines by region and the ripeness or sweetness of the grape
    • Labels include quality designations
  • French wines
    • Often named after the region of which they are produced (Beuajolais=Gamay, Chablis=Chardonnay)
    • Labels include quality designations
    • The grape varietal is not required to be on the label

What are the different countries appellations called?

The term appellation that refers to the system and regulations aspect often has different names in different countries. Not all wine producing countries have these terms.

United States of America:

  • AVA (American Viticultural Area)
    • The vineyards have to be within a recognized AVA to be labeled as one. Most of the grapes that are used need to be from the region specified on the label.

Italy:

  • DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata)
    • Quality wines
  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)
    • Highest quality level
  • IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)
    • Table wines, or wines that have not reached the quality requirements

German: 

  • Qualitätswein
    • Quality wine
  • Prädikatswein
    • Superior quality wine

Spain:

  • DO (Denominación de Origen)
    • Table wine, or wine that has not met the quality standards of the DOCa
  • DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada )
    • Highest quality wines. The only two regions who have met these standards are Rioja and Priorat. While France allows each individual winery the opportunity to qualify for the AOC, Spain requires the entire region to quality.

France:

  • AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) 
    • Certain requirements need to be met in order for a wine to be labeled as that region. These can include vineyard yield, blending percentages, wine grapes used, wine production practices, region-specific winemaking laws, and more
  • VDP (Vin de Pays or table wine)
    • This is reserved for wines that do not meet their regions specific appellation requirements.

These terms will follow the region name. Example: Napa Valley AVA

Tip: Use appellations and quality designations to buy good wine

As a sommelier, I often get the question- How do I pick out good wine?

My simple answer is not to go by price or a cool label, but to go by quality designation when you are still new to drinking wine. As usual, the best bottle of wine is the wine that you enjoy.

Reading up and remembering these designations can make sure that you get a good bottle of wine every time. I often tell people to learn quality designations before they learn wine regions because picking out quality wines while you are learning about them is important to get accurate representations of the varietal and region.

If you are looking for natural, organic, or biodynamic wines; look for the certification stamp on the bottle that will indicate which certification it has.

Learning wine can be extremely complicated. There is so much to the laws, varietals, regions, and everything else that makes it seem impossible to learn. Take things one step at a time and learn small portions of the big picture.

Understanding your wine makes it better.