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What Is An AVA or Appellation?

by David on June 24, 2009

When you buy a bottle of wine, the vineyard location is the biggest single factor that influences its character and is one of the key things to check on the label. The appellation, district or AVA usually appears just above the varietal designation and gives you that vital piece of information. You’ll hear the terms appellation, district and AVA used interchangeably, for instance you might say that the Chardonnay is a Carneros District or the Cabernet comes from the Yountville AVA. In common use the terms appellation, district and AVA all mean the same thing.

Just for the sake of accuracy, you should know that in America the term appellation is the broadest term used to refer to where the grapes were grown. The appellation only identifies the location – it doesn’t have any requirements to distinguish the area one way or the other. The word appellation means “name”, in French, and the French Appellation d’Origine Controlée laws inspired our own appellation and AVA regulations.

The term AVA is short for “American Viticultural Area” and can only be used by a region that has been recognized by the federal government for a distinctive combination of soil, climate and topography which in turn contribute to identifiable regional wine character. It’s been said that AVAs are to appellations as grapes are to fruit. All AVAs are appellations, but not all appellations are AVAs. For instance, California is an appellation. Napa Valley is an AVA within the California appellation.

Wines named for states are examples of appellations that are not AVAs. Federal regulation requires that these wines, such as Oregon Pinot Noir or New York Chardonnay be composed of at least 75% grapes grown within the named state. California has a state requirement of 100% California grown.

In any case, the intention behind the regulations is to give you accurate information about what you’re buying. The federal government is interested in truth in labeling.

Throughout the country, and certainly within the Napa Valley, certain regions have been recognized to have a distinct mesoclimates and terrains that impart recognizable characteristics to the grapes and, therefore, wines grown within them.  Growers and vintners within these regions identify the boundaries of these growing areas, and give them names that reflect their regional designations, or appellations.

Before these growers and producers are allowed to put the AVA on the label, they must document the geological and climatic circumstances to justify being singled out. They compile evidence from soil experts and engineers, meteorologists and historians.

The government isn’t in the business of evaluating quality and an AVA isn’t any guarantee that the wine is better than a wine without one but the producers within the region wouldn’t go through all the work of gaining AVA status if they didn’t believe that all of those physical factors contribute to wine character that is unique to the region. In fact, usually the region is recognized as special by those who know it long before the approval process ever begins.

A wine that has a specific AVA on the label must contain a minimum of 85% grapes grown within the legal boundaries of the AVA.

Napa Valley was the first AVA approved in California, approved in 1981, reminding us how far the valley has come in a short time. It’s a rather specific AVA (AVA’s vary radically in size, sometimes even straddling states!), in that Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long, and a few miles wide. Many are unaware that Napa Valley produces less than 5% of California’s wine.

Generally speaking, the more specific the appellation, the more distinctive the wine is likely to be.

In the early days of winemaking in the Napa Valley, the most popular varieties were planted all over the valley without much attention paid to environmental influences. We just didn’t know any better at the time. As we came to understand the valley’s climates and soils better (an on-going process!), we realized the importantce of matching the right variety with the right place. As it stands, 33 different soil profiles, representing half of the soil orders that exist on the planet can be readily found in the Napa Valley2. This valley is a geologist’s dream! That, along with a number of different micro-climates that have been identified here, make the Napa Valley a diverse and wonderful winegrowing region indeed!

As we’ve grown to understand the diversity in soil and climate throughout the valley, we have subdivided it into more AVA’s according to those differences. This was a natural evolution, as we came to know the valley better. So, we have the entire Napa Valley as an AVA, and sub-regions within it too.

In the Napa Valley it is customary to name the Napa Valley AVA in addition to a sub-appellation, such as the Yountville District or Carneros District, when it is mentioned on the label. We work together as a community of vintners, promoting this very small region as a whole, but at the same time highlighting the unique qualities of the sub-regions. Many local wineries produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines from numerous sub-appellations within Napa Valley for you to experience and enjoy-each in its own way.

The advantage to you as a consumer is that the more specific the label, the better chance you have of knowing what to expect inside the bottle. The AVA supplies information that can guide you toward selecting a wine that’s more likely to make you happy. The Napa Valley is already internationally recognized as one of the finest winegrowing regions in the world. As you get to know the sub-regions within the Napa Valley, you may find that you cherish special characteristics unique to certain of these regions. The fun in the discovery! Click here for information on the Yountville AVA or the Carneros AVA.

1: Meso-climate: The climate of a vineyard site, hillside or valley. The term “microclimate” is used in its place extremely often. Microclimate correctly refers to the climate immediately surrounding the individual vine canopy (or green growth) and clusters. Vineyard and canopy management will strongly influence the microclimate, but not the mesoclimate.

2: Napa Valley Vintner’s 2004 Soil Report press release.

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