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08.16.2008

When is The Right Time to Establish Wine Appellations?

The birth of a wine region is a fascinating thing to watch, and I'm sure an even more fascinating process to be a part of. Much of the wine that we drink comes from regions that have been established anywhere from decades to centuries ago, but the quest for great wine and great places to grow it (not to mention the changing whims of the global climate) means that there are always new frontiers when it comes to wine growing.

All new wine regions begin the same -- with a pioneering spirit and a hell of a lot of determination. Someone decides that a certain place is the right spot to grow wine grapes, and they stake a lot of sweat and money on whatever knowledge they've got backing up that decision, whether it be a hunch, or a GIS enabled geologic survey.

Eventually, the initial prospector may be joined by others, especially if he or she manages to survive and produce a product that doesn't suck.

For a time, these early farmers and winemakers operate out of sheer passion and determination. They need no more organization than their own collegiality or happenstance might offer. It is enough that they are growing and making wine in the place they dream of doing so.

But with enough success, and enough producers, questions of legitimacy and marketability inevitably arise. That is to say, eventually, it seems to make sense to make the wine region "official" and to use its name as a way of distinguishing the wine grown in that region, from wine grown elsewhere. At the very least, it makes sense to agree on a name for this place that everyone can use. At the most, it may make sense to establish rules and regulations that determine the quality and nature of the wine made in the region.

But when exactly does it make sense to do this? In the case of new regions emerging within or alongside existing ones, there are legislative answers to this question already.

But when the region is entirely new, this question gets very interesting. The winemakers of Guadalupe Valley and the Mexican government are currently wrestling with the issues surrounding this question at this very moment.

The Government of the State of Baja has suggested that the fledgling wine region adopt regional appellations and a set of regulations along the lines of the Denomination of Origin laws in Spain, Italy, or France.

It's easy to see how the region could benefit from such laws. They add credibility to any wines that carry the designation on the label, and the wines can be marketed to the world under specific regional names, with guarantees of quality. In short, such regulations could help increase prices and demand for Guadalupe Valley wines.

On the other hand, say many of the vintners, no one has any idea what the boundaries of the region should be, what the wine regulations ought to require or forbid, or how to measure the quality of this new region's wines.

And frankly, they have a point. We wine lovers are so used to the codified traditions of our global wine regions. We know that Brunello is required to be 100% Sangiovese, and that Burgundy must be 100% Pinot Noir, but at some point people had to decide that this was so. Of course, those decision makers had many decades (or more) of winemaking traditions to back up their regulations.

Who is going to decide what the permitted grape varieties are in the Guadalupe Valley? And more importantly how on earth could someone decide that so early in the region's evolution as a wine locality? And what is the definition of quality in a region where only in the last couple of years have global critics even suggested that there might be high quality grapes being grown there? These are tough questions, and scary ones to contemplate a bureaucrat or some other ministry official forcing on a burgeoning wine region.

For now it may be best to simply make the geographic region more official, and wait for the perspective of some history to guide more definite judgments about what will make for great Mexican wine.

Read the full story.

Comments (4)

hamishwm wrote:
08.17.08 at 9:05 AM

Don't look to St.Emilion or Brunello for 'organising' AC or DOCG.
Here in the Languedoc in the South of France the AC's are completely useless for a qualitative guide. At the end of the day you have got to follow the growers for real authentic quality.

08.18.08 at 7:36 AM

With recent eruptions of AVA’s, we have seen the birthing process that is the polar opposite to the entrenched thinking of our friends across the pond. But what are the hidden mechanics of it all?

The way I see it, you have to consider the geographical boundaries that would permit a varietal (a whole different problem to sort out, what grape will be the spokesperson for Guadalupe wine?) to be grown to the best of its ability and to maximize the unique geography the government is wishing to pedestal-ize?

Where do you draw that literal line of demarcation? Whose land gets bisected, or worse, left out on the wrong side of the fence? Do you just fudge it to the nearest tributary or other geographical border? We all know that tons of land, despite falling within the Enchanted Kingdom of Napa, will never sustain Cab, Chard, let alone heartier varietals like Zin, Petite, Syrah, etc…

And what about that pesky varietal issue? Unless you were once part of an Axis nation, you need at least a white and red to carry the local war cry, less you be mistaken for Southeastern Washington where everyone tries to grow everything it seems (or central Texas for that matter, though with decidedly less success.) And will just one varietal be the geographical “decider” for the whole AVA? If Cabernet was used to define “acceptable growing regions” in Burgundy, all of our detailed wall maps of the Cote d’Or would have to be redrawn if not trashed altogether, but that doesn’t mean that Cabernet was never grown there at some point way back when.

This is a very interesting question. I am not really sure how on earth these decisions are made. I know there is a fair amount of politico folded into the mix, but I imagine there has to be a liberal sprinkling of soil geeks, grape growers, and property evaluation accountants all chiming in to make this work.

Oh how I’d hate to chair that kind of local government cluster… Recall the fuss in Willamette when an AVA was named that happened to bear the hills it straddled, oh and the name of well known winery, Chehalem. More than a few kids were less than pleased that the AVA they resided in would also be indirectly if not subliminally pushing a competitor’s wine into their own buyer’s collective heads. Or at least that is what some people feared when debating the AVA’s naming and borders…

I hope someone who has had a hand in the process would enlighten us on how the process is undertaken, defined, agreed upon, and finally etched in the proverbial stone.

Morton Leslie wrote:
08.18.08 at 4:37 PM

The concept of "permitted varieties" is a bad one for any wine region...including Bordeaux, Chianti... wherever. It stifles experimentation, competition, and progress. If someone can make a great white wine from Chardonnay in Bordeaux they should be allowed to do so. If they make a lousy wine, no one buys it, they go out of business. The concept is a free market. (though not a popular one in Europe)

I do think marking out the boundaries of a growing region based on topography, geology and climate is best done sooner than later. If the Napa Valley had done so it would have excluded Pope Valley, Chiles Valley, and other areas that are not really part of the valley. Once regions outside the main topography and climate start using the designation then politics become the fourth factor. The sooner the outlying regions get their own appellation the sooner they will find the best grape and winemaking for their situation and the less need to pretend to be what they aren't.

Dylan wrote:
08.18.08 at 8:35 PM

This posting makes the appellation process seem to be a complete nightmare. I have no idea how the government will go about making decisions.

I find it as interesting that appellations are different on a country-by-country basis.

Is wine not an international market?

Even the spanish language has an international group called the Royal Academy which upholds the official maintanence of all acceptable words, conjugations, dialetcts, etc across countries which speak the language.

Are there not ways that we can establish similar decision making power dedicated to the cause of handling these issues of appellation on an international scale?

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