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Should America Have French Wine Appellations?


Rebel Rose
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Several times recently I have heard the argument put forth that if American wine regions want to claim "terroir" in their wines then they should subjugate themselves to the same arcane rules that French vintners are subjected to . . . only specified vines may be planted, only certain blends produced.

This is not the same question as "What is terroir?" So if anyone wants to chew on that bone, please visit our ongoing thread, Terroir: Earth vs. Man.

Why can't Americans, who pride themselves on being uniquely individual, re-define the concept of terroir? Clearly Mendocino, with its unique topography and organic farmers, has an individualistic character. Wine aficionados claim to understand and identify particular sub-climates of Napa. Russian River zinfandels have a recognizable character. Do we need AOC and DOCG type laws to "establish" terroir?

How would you answer someone who insists that:

a) American wine regions aren't "old enough" to have terroir

b) there can be no understanding of "terroir" without rigid planting/blending rules, or

c) France is the prime [only] example of wines that speak of "terroir"

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Here's my take on the subject highlighted in red

Several times recently I have heard the argument put forth that if American wine regions want to claim "terroir" in their wines then they should subjugate themselves to the same arcane rules that French vintners are subjected to . . . only specified vines may be planted, only certain blends produced.

This is not the same question as "What is terroir?" So if anyone wants to chew on that bone, please visit our ongoing thread, Terroir: Earth vs. Man.

Why can't Americans, who pride themselves on being uniquely individual, re-define the concept of terroir?  Clearly Mendocino, with its unique topography and organic farmers, has an individualistic character.  Wine aficionados claim to understand and identify particular sub-climates of Napa.  Russian River zinfandels have a recognizable character.  Do we need AOC and DOCG type laws to "establish" terroir?

How would you answer someone who insists that:

a) American wine regions aren't "old enough" to have terroir

Geology and geography pre-date all wine regions new and old world. If terrior is a sense of place then NA is entitled to a terrior

b) there can be no understanding of "terroir" without rigid planting/blending rules, or

maybe...the providence of the old world is based on centuries of specific plantings and blends but grape variety is only part of terrior.

c) France is the prime [only] example of wines that speak of "terroir"

Not really... terrior can be tasted in Australian Rieslings, New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, South African Pinotage/Chenin Blanc. Oregon and Okanagan Pinot Gris, etc etc

Cheers,

Stephen Bonner

"who needs a wine list when you can get pissed on dessert" Gordon Ramsey Kitchen Nightmares 2005

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Oooohhh . . . hot button subject for me!

I'll presume North American terroir is real, because I believe I can taste it here in the Northwest. But terroir is a very different thing than American appellations, and that will probably always be the case.

I do believe that appellations in the U.S., called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), CAN reflect terrroir, but under our system they usually DON'T do so because most AVAs are defined for marketing reasons, not the intergrity of the region's winegrowing character (perhaps another way of saying "terroir").

Technically, AVAs have nothing to do with grape growing quality, and given the extent of layered American appellations today, I see little reason why this would ever change to a more European model.

To qualify for an AVA only three things are required: that the proposed AVA name have local or national recognition, that the area being applied for have definable geographical (inclduing climate, soils, elevation, etc.) features that distinguish it from surrounding areas, and that the boundaries be specifically described using physical features found on a USGS map. When you read the TTB requirements, there are no references to grape growing viability, quality, or character--let alone any notion of terroir. If I met the standards, I might be able to get my backyard approved as an AVA (ok, a little sarcasm here).

If an AVA application is written to reflect an area that has a recognizable terroir, then the AVA can come to be synomymous with that terroir--without imposing growing/production regulations. But if the AVA has been proposed in order to promote brand recognition of some region, then it likely will have little to do with terroir.

My positive example of a terroir-oriented AVA here in Oregon would be Ribbon Ridge. The wines from Ribbon Ridge vineyards (Beaux Freres, Patty Green, Brick House, Ridgecrest, to name just a few) have, I believe, a detectable set of characteristics reflective of the terroir of this landform. The AVA was carefully written to reflect a geography that does seem to produce definable characteristincs in the wines that come from there.

I would offer the appellation of Red Hill of Douglas County (what, you never heard of it?) as an example of the opposite. So little wine comes from this miniscule AVA (I believe there is only a single operating vineyard, though I've heard rumors of "new plantings") that I don't think there is yet any basis to say there is any sense of terroir at all--but it was a shrewd marketing move for a tiny place that had no marketing cachet or recognition prior to being approved as an "appellation."

If AVAs were to somehow be "redistricted" to reflect terroir, they would first have to be dissassembled and then redefined . . . and who is to say where one terroir would begin and another end as we go about unpacking the levels of sub-sub-sub appellations that currently exist. The politics of defining "marketing" appellations today would pale next to the emotions of defining who has what terroir.

American appellations will only ever reflect terroir if the people making the application choose to base their AVA proposal on terroir. I believe most AVAs are defined for marketing purposes (the Puget Sound AVA is hardly a premier wine growing region, but that is where many Washington wineries have their tasting rooms--even though almost all their grapes come from the Columbia Valley AVA--so it is good to have a Puget Sound AVA), and since there are so many marketing-oriented appellations, I simply can't believe that there will ever be an overhaul of AVAs in order to better reflect terroir.

European-style regulations that help define terroir, I believe, would never fly here. Yet the laissez-faire nature of our AVA system does allow for American appellations to reflect terroir--but ONLY if the wine industry stands up to define their (new) AVAs on the basis of terroir, and not marketing expediency.

OK, I'll get off my soapox now . . .

-Cole

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How would you answer someone who insists that:

a) American wine regions aren't "old enough" to have terroir

b) there can be no understanding of "terroir" without rigid planting/blending rules, or

c) France is the prime [only] example of wines that speak of "terroir"

A) American wine industry dates back well over 400 years.

B) If you search my definition of terroir on this board you will find that I have posted it around the world...I have had my definition validated by UCD and a very prominent Spanish research report...

C) France thinks too much of it self...my ancestors were making wine hundreds of years before the French

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Warning: Jaded, cynical remarks follow.

a) American wine regions aren't "old enough" to have terroir

I'll rephrase it. American wine producers haven't stuck with one variety long enough to know if there is terroir at play or not. When a vineyard has cab planted next to merlot planted next to chardonnay planted next to syrah planted next to zinfandel planted next to sauvignon blanc planted next to pinot noir, how much do we really care about terroir?

b) There can be no understanding of "terroir" without rigid planting/blending rules

Consumers of American wine, for the most part (there are some exceptions), buy wine by varietal and/or producer; they do not buy wine on AVA. No one wants to understand terroir. The words "napa Valley" will carry a modicum of cachet, but it won't have anything to do with terroir. People will be similarly "impressed" by "Napa Valley" no matter what grape the wine is made from.

c) France is the prime [only] example of wines that speak of "terroir"

Not so much anymore. Producers in France are going outside the AOC guidelines to make wines they like and wines that will sell to consumers who, again, are going to buy on producer or grape. I do think some areas of France (in particular, Burgundy), Italy (Piedmont), and Germany demonstrate terroir very well. And I think they do so more consistently from producer to producer than their American counterparts.

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Because Americans label their wines by variatal instead of appellation (or AVA) for the most part, this discussion is probably moot. Besides, there is a reason why Italian winemakers started making Super Tuscans, etc.

However, anyone who contends that there isn't a distinct "terrior" in American wine producing regions just needs to taste a Rutherford Cab next to one from say Carneros to be able to know there is a distinct difference, even when made by the same winemaker.

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Why is there any debate as to the existence of terroir in America (or wanywhere for that matter).

After all grapes gotta come from some place!

First, many assumptions about European wine laws are simply wrong. Wine laws and terroir are often two different things.

Wine laws are enacted to ensure quality in wine as defined by certain people at a certain point in time.

Wine making has always been evolving in response to the market place and driven by techniques or science of making wine.

Bordeaux and Burgundy styles were "established" in response to their chief market--the British Empire. port is not a Portugese tradition--either in making it or drinking it--it is a British tradition!

Let's remember that way back when, Burgundy for example was not the same style of wine we think of it as being today. In fact, for all those decrying the newer riper higher in alcohol styles emerging today, I would point out that at one time long ago Burgundy was riper, bigger and higher in alcohol! In fact it was often blended with syrah or wine from warmer climates. mainly because that is what the people who bought and drank it wanted. So which is the real 'traditional" Burgundy?

At one time in history, white wines in the North of Italy were heavy, often woody wines from so called native grapes. It wasn't until wine makers and grape growers from other countries (notably Austria and germany etc) arrived with new varietals and new techniques. So again, which is the "authentic" Friulian wine style?

I would argue that non traditional (native) varietals and stainless steel temperature controled tanks are more responsible for the flavor profile of these wines than wine laws or tradition or some revernce for the past.

As for mandating certain grapes for certain places. well, even this is a somewhat murky area. Interestingly cabernet sauvignon was, long ago, planted fairly widely in South of France. had they continued to grow and experiment with this so called "international varietal" they may very well have avoided the problems they face today in trying to sell unpopular wines from unpopular varietals. Incidently, it is believed that the Bordelaise had a little something to do with why cabernet sauvignon is restricted in Provence. The Rhone Valley producers may have more than a little interest isa seeing restrictions on Syrah in the Soutrh as well.

It is clear that politics play a significant role in the wine laws--it isn't always just about the "right" grapes in the "right" place.

Bordeaux? The classed growth system was developed not by terooir but rather what wines were selling at what prices in the marketplace. The market was/is responsible for the classification not terroir. Also worth noting is the market place once again moves faster than the authorities! We have de facto new classifications such as "super second." Wine makers also play a role. we have the garagists who make wines that out sell the classed wines.

The market place and wine makers have always been ahead of wine laws. The IGT designation in italy was a response to wine makers and the market place.

Laws often inhibit wine making and the market place rather than help it.

we can learn from the Europeans--not just the good but the awful mistakes they have made that now has them ripping out vines and destroying wine.

I would posit that AVA's in the US are already somewhat established. Wine makers and the market place "know" where they are. They are also evolving. Consumers "know" where the best wines come from and the prices reflect this. If the authorities look to consumers and wine makers and act conservatively AVA's make sense. They can be additional information for the market place. That is a good thing.

And let's remember that tradition isn't written in stone (or stainless steel)!

Edited by JohnL (log)
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I may have a practical take on this.

Every time I end up talking wine with a Californian, I end up getting a lecture on how no two adjoining acres in Napa or Paso Robles (had a nice Anarchy Blend the other night, RR :wink: )are the same: This one gets the coastal wind, that one doesn't. Alluvial soil. Volcanic soil. Bench land. Valley floor. Slope and drainage. Microclimates. Morning sun. Evening sun. Not to mention that they've planted every varietal known to man.

To have "terroir" don't you have to have a rather consistent soil/climate/slope/grape combination? I've been talking with a winemaker in Napa and they're playing all the usual California games of experimenting with different grapes and blends from with different clones of the same grape planted in different lots on the vineyard (which I found fascinating). I have no reason to doubt that they're looking for something that might be called terroir -- a grape combination that works perfectly for that particular 80 acres and offers the drinker a unique sense of place. But, unlike the relatively consistent hillside that is the Cote du Beaune, even I can see that his corner of the valley is very different from the adjoining vineyards, and I can't figure out how what works for him would work for them.

When you get so many different combinations of "ingredients" even if everyone is aiming to become a terroirist (as RG would say) doesn't it just get too confusing to be of practical use?

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I may have a practical take on this.

Every time I end up talking wine with a Californian, I end up getting a lecture on how no two adjoining acres in Napa or Paso Robles (had a nice Anarchy Blend the other night, RR :wink: )are the same:  This one gets the coastal wind, that one doesn't.  Alluvial soil.  Volcanic soil.  Bench land.  Valley floor. Slope and drainage.  Microclimates.  Morning sun.  Evening sun.  Not to mention that they've planted every varietal known to man. 

To have "terroir" don't you have to have a rather consistent soil/climate/slope/grape combination?  I've been talking with a winemaker in Napa and they're playing all the usual California games of experimenting with different grapes and blends from with different clones of the same grape planted in different lots on the vineyard (which I found fascinating).  I have no reason to doubt that they're looking for something that might be called terroir -- a grape combination that works perfectly for that particular 80 acres and offers the drinker a unique sense of place. But, unlike the relatively consistent hillside that is the Cote du Beaune, even I can see that his corner of the valley is very different from the adjoining vineyards, and I can't figure out how what works for him would work for them. 

When you get so many different combinations of "ingredients" even if everyone is aiming to become a terroirist (as RG would say) doesn't it just get too confusing to be of practical use?

Good points!

I think what is needed is perspective.

"Terroir" is important. It is a fact that one area has "potential" to produce better wines than another area.

The greatest wine maker in the world (whoever that would be) can take grapes grown in the Central Valley assuming a perfect vintage (weather etc) and not be able to make a wine as complex and interesting as he or she would if given grapes grown in, say, Howell Mountain.

The Cote Chalonnais just can't seem to produce a pinot noir on a level with La Tache.

So at a basic and very important level where grapes are grown is critical in how the wine will taste. Cool climate grapes don't ripen the same way that warmer climate grapes do. Thus wines produced from a South facing slope will "potentially" produce wine that tastes different from wine made from grapes grown on the North Facing side of the same hill.

I say "potentially" because there are so many variables. Viticulture and viniculture involve a huge a number of decisions all having the potential to affect the flavor of the wine.

Fermentation is one of the most complex chemical processes and wine itself is hugely complex with hundreds of chemical compounds. Throw in the human element at the end--our taste buds and the process that is "tasting" and it is easy to see why many people gravitate toward easy answers. Ah it is the "terroir" we are tasting.

I recently came across two situations that point up the difficulties in dealing with all these issues.

One, a French wine maker was asked why he picked his grapes at a certain time and couln't waiting a bit longer mean riper tasting wines? When grapes are picked is one , of many, decisions that are often critical to how the resultant wine will taste.

The wine maker worked in the Loire where the climate is cool and the wines tend to be less ripe tasting than say, wines from california.

The wine maker replied he had no choice. He had to pick his grapes by a certain date every year because the pickers needed to move on to Champagne where they were paid more money to pick the grapes there.

So when I hear people rhapsodizing about how the Loire wines are so reflective of their terroir, I wonder--is it the terroir they are tasting or the politics and economics!?

I also recall a quote from a well known and highly respected grower and producer of pinot noir in

the Russian River in California who grows grapes in several different parcels of land all over Sonoma County. He was asked why his "blend" often tasted better than his single vineyard designated wines yet sold for less. The wine maker replied that by blending the grapes from different vineyards he could and often did produce a better wine but that today's market is in love with the notion of terroir and was willing to pay more for wines that come from grapes grown in a specific place.

I believe that a wine from a single vineyard can posses qualities that make it more interesting to drink than a blend. Even though the blend may be a better wine. There is more to wine than just attaining perfection.

I have also tasted Zind Humbrecht wines from vineyards a few miles apart and the differences in the wines was striking.

Quality and differences are not one and the same. We taste differences in wines and describing those differences is relatively easy. It is when we try to source those differences and explain them where we run into trouble.

Terroir is important but it has been subverted. It is used to romanticize wine. Wine is about place and history and is IMOP, romantic enough. La Tache is often worthy of its lofty prices. Not because it comes from a certain place but rather because it is a magnificent wine. When one becomes blinded by the name one may overlook the fact that in a vintage with bad weather, La Tache may not be up to its own standards let alone those of other wines. When a wine maker makes bad decisions La Tache can also fail to live up to its potential. While it has the potential to be a truly great wine it also has the potential to be mediocre or worse.

So in the end, I think terroir is really about potential, sometimes realized, often missed.

AVA's can be a good piece of information for a consumer. It can indicate a certain potential. Let's not get carried away with it though.

If I see Howell Mountain on a bottle, I know the wine inside is from grapes grown in a certain place. I know that the wine may have certain attributes because of that place that I may or may not be able to recognize or taste. I would be willing to pay more for the wine vs a wine from Lodi or the Central Valley where the potential of the grapes is far lower.

I try to take whatever information I have about wine and process it in perspective when making a buying decision. More information, the better. For me, at least! :wink:

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Following SBonner's good example, my comments in separate mark-up color (green).

a) American wine regions aren't "old enough" to have terroir

BB:  I'll rephrase it.  American wine producers haven't stuck with one variety long enough to know if there is terroir at play or not. 

Exactly.  Within my memory people planted Pinot Noir in California Region-3 areas (3000+ F degree-days), against old-world experience, and wondered why the wines tasted coarse.  They just worked out those matters some 20 years ago (not 400, let alone the thousands of years some countries have been at it).

b) There can be no understanding of "terroir" without rigid planting/blending rules

Relationships of variety and blend to geography vary by country already, and as others pointed out, various countries have what could be called terroir in the French definition.

c) France is the prime [only] example of wines that speak of "terroir"

See above.  (It would help if you gave sources for argument c.)

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What does an AVA, AOC or DOC have to do with terroir? In a individual AVA there may be hundreds, or even thousands of terroirs. Within a AVA there are many soil and exposures that make unique terroir, but the AVA itself is exceedingly general. For a French example, what does the AOC Bordeaux mean as far as terroir. Obviously nothing because it covers too large an area. There are a few controlled place names that qualify as terroir like Burgundy Grand Cru, Chateau Grillet, but they are the exception. In general AVA, AOC or DOC designations refer to regional agricultural areas and are put in place to aid producers in using broad regional similarities to create a useful marketing program. What all of these wine laws have in common is that they are created for the use of producers and not as a consumer protection system.

All vineyards have terroir, be that terroir good, bad or ugly.

Edited by Craig Camp (log)
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Bordeaux? The classed growth system was developed not by terooir but rather what wines were selling at what prices in the marketplace. The market was/is responsible for the classification not terroir. Also worth noting is the market place once again moves faster than the authorities! We have de facto new classifications such as "super second." Wine makers also play a role. we have the garagists who make wines that out sell the classed wines.

Bordeaux is a prime example of why AOC often has little to do with terroir. It is an economic not terroir driven system. For example, Chateau Latour is not a fixed place as it could be anywhere within Pauillac. In fact it doesn't even have to be composed of contiguous vineyards, but could be a blend of vineyards from anywhere in the Pauillac AOC. It is the opposite of the terroir driven system of Burgundy where La Tache is a place and the grapes have to come from there. You can't expand the size of La Tache, but Chateau Latour can expand as much as it chooses.

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