All wine marketed in the United States is required by federal law to carry its place of origin on its label. But “place of origin” can be rather non-specific.
For example, many popular wines carry simply a “California” designation. This means the producer likely sourced fruit from several different regions in California.
Some regions within California, like Napa Valley, are known for producing exceptional wine grapes. But it was not until 1981 that Napa Valley was recognized as the first unique wine grape-growing region by the federal government.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) within the Department of the Treasury is charged with propagating rules for becoming a recognized American Viticultural Area, or AVA.
An AVA is a specific grape-growing region distinguished by geographical features, the boundaries of which have been recognized and defined. For instance, Napa Valley is a defined area about three miles wide by 30 miles long. Its boundaries are established by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca mountain range to the east.
As American vintners became more cognizant of the significance of viticultural areas, the need arose to gain recognition for more specific areas.
Napa AVA contains 16 approved sub-AVAs, because producers proved these areas produced more exceptional quality fruit than the mere designation of “Napa” indicated. This is how some more prestigious growing areas like Stags Leap, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Rutherford came into prominence.
As a general rule, the more specific the site, the more expensive the wine.
Currently, there are 239 approved AVAs, including 138 in California alone.
While an AVA has defined boundaries, more difficult to define is the terroir of specific AVAs.
“Terroir” is a French word encompassing more than just soil and location. It has to do with everything that goes into making a wine what it is. Yes, it involves soil composition but also such things as rainfall, fog, sun, drainage, day and night temperatures, and proximity to bodies of water.
While it is easy to place “Stags Leap” on a label, it is more difficult to convey terroir. Back labels make a stab at this. More frequently, winemakers address terroir in their tasting notes, where such things as volcanic small pebbled soils, alluvial plains, daytime temperatures and evening fog are discussed.
I don’t know these things are that important to today’s average wine consumer.
Some producers name their wines to indicate their provenance or sense of place. Here are a few such wines I recently enjoyed at weekly Thursday evening wine tastings hosted by Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Anniston.
Mile Marker 71 Pinot Gris 2014: $16. Slightly sweet on the approach. This is an off-dry, versatile food wine with peach and honey flavors. From the Oregon AVA of McMinnville and its sub-appellation Willamette Valley, this wine takes its name from the mile marker located in the heart of the renowned Oregon growing area for pinot noir and pinot gris.
Proximity Twenty Six Cabernet Sauvignon 2015: $15. A cabernet ready to drink now. Pleasant on the first sip. Loaded with dark berry fruit flavors. Remarkably balanced. Good, easy, go-to sipping red. Proximity’s name relates to its Santa Barbara terroir, where fruit is sourced from “grapes grown 26 miles east of the Pacific ocean from vineyards situated at a climatic balancing point, a cusp area warm enough to fully ripen the fruit yet cool enough to ensure great balance and firm structure.”
B Side Cabernet 2015: $20. From Don Sebastiani and Sons, this tasty cabernet’s name refers to its origin on the flip side of Napa (like the B side of a vinyl record, when there was such a thing), away from some of the more tony Napa sub-AVAs. A complex, deliciously nuanced wine. Lush dark fruit flavors meld together when aged 14 months in oak. A wine of structure with a smooth finish.
Provenance 2012 Rutherford Cabernet: $39. “What’s in a name?” This one says it all, taking its name from the French word for “origin” or “source.” It doesn’t get any tonier than the sub appellation of Rutherford.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.