This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wine and spirits, whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making everyday sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa, we want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers, and all the best.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses how appellation systems came to be, and what they look like around the world today. He begins by explaining France’s first system, the National Institute of Original Appellations, which created and regulated the Controlled Appellations of France (AOC). Together, these systems named, delimited, and oversaw various regions so that consumers could understand more about the wine coming out of them. Initially, these systems set out to show what was special about each region and established clear guidelines for vineyard practices.
Over time, the rules shifted to prevent fraud as large amounts of bulk wine came into France after the phylloxera outbreak. In the end, the appellation system was created in hopes of maintaining consistency in regional wine, combating fraud, and ultimately establishing brand recognition. Today, many appellations have succeeded within these terms with popular wines like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy.
Over time, most of Europe adopted its own appellation systems, and eventually these systems permeated into the “new wine world.” In the United States, winemakers began applying for American Viticultural Areas, which continue to delimit different regions like Napa Valley. These areas have helped consumers identify the strongest grapes each region is known for, but are now also pushing producers to challenge their regional norms. All in all, Beavers insists that appellations are not something to stress about, but are certainly something to focus on if you want to because, as he says, “that’s the beauty of wine.”
Or check out the conversation here
My name is Keith Beavers, and “The High Republic” is a story that starts 200 years before “The Phantom Menace,” and what it really is starting to show is how — oh sorry, what’s going on wine lovers?
Welcome to Episode 2 of Season 2 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Yeah. How are you doing? I feel like we all kind of understand the word “appellation,” but what does it mean when we’re talking about wine? What does it actually do? Let’s get into the word appellation and what it means for the world of wine and for you as a consumer.
So one of the things that really stress wine lovers out — and it doesn’t matter where you are in your wine journey, you could be experienced, just starting out, whatever. Just looking at a wine label. Now, I know we talked about wine labels in the first season and you guys are all up on what needs to be on a wine label.
But wine comes from all over the world, all kinds of different cultures, all kinds of different languages. And even within a general language, there could be a wine that comes from a place that has a dialect. And that dialect is a language that just the people in that region really understand until we look into it and learn it, whatever. So it’s not only that the wine labels are confusing because of the legal information, but because of the worldly information or regional information that is on the wine label. And one of the things about that is the information that you see on the wine label is trying to tell you where in the world the wine is from and what region from where in the world that wine is from, and then going further and further and further down until you get to a vineyard like a “cru” or “grand cru” from Burgundy. But what all this information is trying to do is not really bragging or trying to confuse you, it’s literally saying, “We are representing this place.” But what is that place? It’s a region. It’s a place where people planted vines, tended to those vines, made wine from those vines, and then did it for a bunch of years, figured out how it all works, which vines and grapes work in this place.
And they created, I guess you could call it a legacy. They created a consistent winemaking “thing” in said area. And if you build a reputation — let’s say it’s a good-standing reputation based on the wine that you make in this area, based on the land and the style and the practices in which you used to make this wine. When you share this wine with the world, you want everyone to know where this wine came from. You want them to know that all the hard work that you did to make this product is based on your hard work and the place in which you grow and make this wine. And to do so, you will put on your wine label or on your bottle indications of where this wine comes from so that you can secure your brand, your legacy, your style, or whatever. And also based on the terroir of this place, your fellow winemakers could be making wine and benefiting from what you’re benefiting from, but in different ways. But the result is similar, but their own style. So, the area in which you and your fellow winemakers make wine in a certain style becomes to be known as “wine from that area.” This, essentially, is how appellations begin and this has been going on since humans and vines have been interacting with each other and grapes have been crushed and made into alcoholic beverages, which eventually became wine. It’s been happening forever. I mean, the Roman Empire — and I had mentioned this in the terroir episode — they would stamp their amphora with the place in which the wine was made to make sure people knew that. And that actually helped the market, or marketing of the wine.
There’s even quotes from the Bible that mention wine and the specific place the wine is from. Ezekiel 27:18. “Damascus was your customer because of the abundance of your goods, because of the abundance of all kinds of wealth, because of the wine from Helbon and white wool.” I wonder what that wine was like. And we’re going to get into port this season, but the popularity of port throughout the Middle Ages because of its ability to travel, was so popular that the places that it was made in Portugal made sure to try to demarcate their areas, to let everybody know where the wines come from. And actually Chianti, the hills of Chianti, is one of the first documented sort of delimited areas to show this is actually the Chianti Hills, and this is where this specific wine is made. And that was in the 18th century, in 1716. And then even in Hungary, there was a very popular area called Tokaji. And in 1730, they also did some demarcating. So this whole idea of finding a place, drawing a circle around it and saying this is where a specific wine is made it’s very special, is very old. But it wasn’t until the French took it on and created an actual system that was very organized to the point where everybody else in Europe was like, “Oh, I like that. I’m going to copy that.” That started what is called the Appellation System, and that didn’t happen until the 1930s.
And that’s when a World War I fighter pilot turned viticulturist, Baron Elroy, and the agricultural minister of France got together and created what is called the INAO. And I’m just so bad at pronouncing French, I’m going to tell you what it means in English. I think if I had the translation correct, it’s the National Institute of Original Appellations. It was basically the INAO. So it’s changed hands a couple times. It’s the regulating body of agricultural products in France, which includes wine. This body created and regulates the controlled appellations of France. The acronym is AOC, which basically, in French translation, just means controlled appellation of origin.
And these appellations, as they would come to be called, were applied for, awarded, and delimited, really based on all the stuff we talked about before. All that stuff that just happened naturally when humans and vines interact and all that cool stuff happened, it was sort of the culmination of all that information that goes into what an appellation is. So appellations were awarded based on their geography and how that geography affects the vidi and vinicultural practices of the area and how all of that interacts or relates to the inherent characteristics of the place in which the wine is made, the place of origin of something special. That’s what it set out to do. And in doing so, it would put rules into place into these appellations, so that over time, there was a consistency so that nothing got out of hand. Now, a lot of this was based on fraud, because after the phylloxera epidemic — and guys get ready, we’re talking about phylloxera in Season 2, it’s going to be gross — once the phylloxera epidemic was brought under control, France had a whole thing going on. They had bulk wine coming from Algeria into France. There was a lot of manipulation going on, a lot of fraud. So beyond the beautiful romantic idea of a sense of place and the geography, there was also a fight to combat fraudulent wine being sent around the world, saying it was from a place, and it may not have been from that place. Or if it was from that place, it was manipulated so much that it didn’t really taste like that place, but it’s sold for the same price and people are making a good profit off the scam.
So when an appellation was awarded by the INAO to be put into the AOC, which is the controlled appellation system of France, they put rules into place to say, if you want to call your wine from here, you have to do this. And these things will do two things. It will combat fraud and it will also help to maintain consistency. And I guess in the end, brand marketing recognition, stuff like that. Each appellation had a list of varieties they could use to make wine from, based on past practices. And then they put rules into place about how much of these grapes you could yield to make the wine so they could maintain some sort of consistency of quality. And then also general vine management techniques like canopy management and irrigation laws and stuff like that. So this was an attempt to control consistency, fraud and all that. But the thing is, just because you put rules into place and everyone makes wine in a very similar way, it doesn’t mean that all the wine is great. People can maintain their vineyards terribly or wonderfully within the rules. It’s not like all the wine is going to be good coming from the place, but the ones that did could be recognized for where they’re from. Chianti, Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy: These are appellations. Then there would be other appellations within those appellations, and that’s when things get very confusing.
So fundamentally, this system worked very well. So much that other countries took this idea, and built their own controlled appellation systems off of the French system. And of course — because not everyone’s French — every culture had their own way of building their own system. But it was fundamentally based off of the AOC, created by the INAO. And every country basically named their appellation system after the French appellation system, but within their own language. So the acronyms are always going to be different, but they basically mean the same thing, based on their own internal laws. I know it’s crazy. And because of this and because of the success, the European success of this system and all these countries creating their own systems, more and more places and more and more of these countries would apply because they think that what they did was special.
And today, when you’re looking at European wine, that’s what all that is. It is a label that’s trying to tell you specifically where this wine is made because they are so proud of it, that they applied for an appellation and they got it. And then they’re part of the appellations system. So now, recognize us, and we will one day be prominent on the market. That’s kind of how it works out.
So this is the thing: Humans don’t always like to follow rules. Right? And the thing about appellations is as controlled and as great as they are, because they’re great. They’re good. It’s a good way to maintain. But it’s not the best. In the European models it doesn’t open up a lot of room for innovation. You can innovate within your rules, but once you start doing crazy stuff outside of those rules, that wine is no longer considered part of that appellation, even though you made it in that appellation. And these rebellious wines, at some point in history, become popular. The most popular and we’re going to talk about it this season is the Super Tuscan. Get ready for that fun story. So wines that become popular outside of appellations, sometimes these regulating bodies within Europe and these countries create different new acronyms to help publicize those wines. And it’s crazy. So in 2009, the EU said, “OK, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to have two acronyms, a PDO and a PGI.” The PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, is the category that encompasses all the original appellations that were created since the 1930s and beyond into other countries that are in the EU.
Then there will be something called PGI, Protected Geographical Indication. These will represent quality wines made within appellations outside of the appellations’ laws, but are still considered part of the indication of the geographical area in which the winemaker was making the wine.
I know, it’s crazy. And all this can be very confusing. So just so you know, when you’re enjoying wine, please just enjoy wine, enjoy it. Where it’s from, the minutiae of where it’s from is cool, and it’s actually very important, but it’s not required to know for your enjoyment purposes. It’s just really cool to know, because if you fall in love with a wine, and let’s say it’s a Chianti Classico, you’re going to want to get more wine from Chianti Classico. So you start to learn this particular system, and then you get familiar with it, and then you’re drinking all these different Chiantis and now you know everything about Chianti.
Now, that’s Europe. When you leave Europe, what in the wine world is sometimes considered “the Old World” or Old World wines, you go to “New World wines” basically everywhere Europe went with ships and found land. South Africa, the United States, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia. These are all New World wine regions. And when you get into this part of the world, anything goes, man. We’re going to do a New Zealand episode, but in New Zealand, there are areas in which wines are made, like Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay in Marlborough, but there is no formal appellation, controlled appellation system. So what they’re doing in New Zealand is they’re saying, “Hey, these areas where we make wine are special because of the land, and the soil, and the climate, and the way these certain grapes do well here.” For example, in Central Otago in New Zealand, Pinot Noir reigns supreme. But people are also making Riesling there. They’re making all kinds of stuff because they can.
When it comes to the United States, we have a similar idea. When we had the success at the Judgment of Paris in 1976, and there’s a story there that I’m going to tell this season, and you’re going to love it. That was our watershed moment. That was like, OK, we are a wine-producing country. Thomas Jefferson’s like “sweet.” I mean, he was dead by then, but it’s what he wanted. This is what he wanted initially for the United States. In the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, our regulatory body called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, started to imagine and create our own appellation system, which would eventually be called American Viticultural Areas or AVAs. Nowadays, there’s an arm of the BATF called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that actually does the regulating these days. But back in the day, it was the BATF, not the TTTB. How many acronyms are going to be in this episode?
And for us and a lot of the New World wine regions, it’s kind of an anything-goes approach. I mean, there are some things like, to apply to become an American Viticultural Area, you need to have geographic boundaries, which is sort of loosely based on terroir. There should be a unique climate situation going on there. Also, it’s nice to have some historical proof of the ability to make wine a certain way in a certain place. But the thing about American Viticultural Areas is sometimes they’re political, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re meant for, blatantly made for marketing purposes, and then others that are made strictly for terroir purposes. Now the thing is, in the United States, a lot of our AVAs that were awarded between the 1980s and then 1990 were because of a fever of this success that California had.
And most of those, I think it was a hundred AVAs were awarded between 1983 and 1990. And that was based on the popularity of California. And most of those AVAs were actually awarded in California. But there were other AVAs awarded outside, and then it kind of slowed down to a bit of a trickle.
And then when the organic movement came around, and people started really caring about where their wines came from, we saw another surge in applications for American Viticultural Areas. The first American Viticultural Area to ever be awarded to the United States is in a place that was once called Mount Pleasant in Missouri. It’s now called Augusta, Mo. And that is where the first AVA was awarded. And eight months after that, Napa became Napa Valley, and then everything went from there. The wine being made in Missouri — one of the reasons why it was awarded was, the way it was awarded is because there was a time when the river, the Missouri River around that area naturally changed course. And when that river changed course, the soil that was called a bottom — because it was once a river bottom — that soil was great for wine. So wine started being made there, and actually, their Norton red wine is very good. Also, they make port there. It’s awesome with a really good stinky cheese, but that’s what appellations are. So whether they’re completely restrictive or they’re open to interpretation and do whatever you want to do, they’re just places to say, “Hey, something special is happening here.”
And even though an AVA might be politically awarded, that’s the initial reason. But winemakers will always go into a place where vines can be grown and made unique and special and find something. Sonoma County is huge. There are 18 AVAs in Sonoma County for a reason, and that reason is terroir, soil history, all of that. One of the most recent AVAs to be awarded in Sonoma County would be the Fort Ross Seaview on the coast. And that is there because there is a specific kind of climatic awesomeness that comes with that area, and it produces a very specific kind of Pinot Noir. And the people in that area that work so hard to make it so, wanted us to know that. So in 2011, they were awarded an AVA.
See how it works? It’s kind of cool. It’s not something to really, really focus on, but it’s also something to really focus on if you want to. That’s the beauty of wine.
@VinePairKeith is my Instagram. Review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, it really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits. Wine 101 was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cici for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week. See? Totally awesome credits.
This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wines and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa. We want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers, and all the best.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.