Restrictive appellations are good

August 31st, 2009

Many a wine enthusiast (and Old World winemakers, no doubt) would thoroughly enjoy using the current Old World wine regulations, particularly the French ones, to light a fireplace. However, in the context of modern history of wine, these regulations are the reason why Old World wines are the global benchmarks – and for good reason.

Admittedly, these regulations are products of the early or mid-20th century legislation and they are plagued by shortcomings and weak points. In some cases, wines receive appellation status by virtue of the letter and not the spirit of the law. Nevertheless, there is rationale behind these rules.

Regardless of historical, economical and political issues which may have contributed to the need for their codification, appellation regulations were created for very real and practical winemaking reasons. I don’t think it makes sense to seek ulterior motives in the intentions of those writing those regulations when they define the most appropriate varieties for a region, limit crop yields and prohibit winemaking practices which would muddle the characteristic style of a region. We have to assume that they were seeking to protect quality – which is often based in typicity. And typicity, for the large part, resides in the DNA of each cultivar.

It stands to reason that appellation systems, like the French AOC system, were created in consideration of the vast experience with – if not empirical understanding of – viticulture and enology. Prior to the institution of appellation regulations, modern cultivars and their clones were selected and propagated in their respective regions because they offered fairly consistent and distinct characteristics which then came to define the wines and regions. Whether it was organoleptic traits of the finished wines (which define the variety/cultivar) or farming performance parameters like crop size, tolerance of climate, soils, pests, etc, the AOC prescribes permitted varieties, their proportions in blends and other parameters which have been demonstrated to produce the most appealing wines while exhibiting a distinct character and unique regional personality.

It has to be acknowledged that, in some cases, regional typicity has been the result of factors previously attributed to terroir but now identified to be resulting from endemic micro fauna (in the vineyard and the cellar). This is, admittedly, more than an issue of philosophical contention and represents an outright shortcoming of the criteria for determining typicity.

Many contemporary winemakers bemoan the inability to experiment under current appellation parameters. Within every category and classification of any product, there will be better and worse examples. Freedom to experiment is the proverbial Holy Grail of wine making and carries illusions of guaranteed quality. This is nicely illustrated in the New World where adjoining properties, growing the same varieties, apply different growing and production methods. There seems to be no clear correlation between growing practices (Biodynamic, for example) or production methods (traditional or avant-garde) and quality of the resulting wines. This variation, then, seems to put the contribution of micro-terroir and cellar practices and skills of the less successful producers in a very unflattering limelight.

Much of the clamor against the “restrictive” appellations is borne of economic pressures: the need to capture a market share by contending with competitors fro the New World – where the wines are a completely different beast. However, as the character of environment of the growing region changes from that of the benchmark, so does typicity (varietal and regional) change – for better and for worse. Arguing that a producer in one region should strive to be the best of their region and not emulate another is painful as it chafes against financial realities.

The greatest fear for those who can see regional differences and also see them being increasingly blurred is that, as producers bend to meet market demands, this variation will fade. In fact, this is not too far-fetched. It’s not alarmist, “slippery slope” thinking, either. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish wines of the same variety, but from different regions. This is not because quality is globally approaching some universal standard of quality. It is because wine is becoming increasingly homogenized. It is also more difficult to distinguish between varieties – something that comes as the vines and wines are pushed to inappropriate extremes of growing regions, farming practices, harvesting decisions and elevage practices.

There is more than heritage and tradition at stake. The mainstream wine consumer may not distinguish or care about regional and varietal differences. They may not like certain varietal or regional styles, but this does no invalidate the quality of those wines. But in catering to the purported “wisdom of the masses”, a luxury good is being deteriorated and devalued.

Loosening appellation regulations is very much a consumer protection issue, then. There is no value in a high-priced wine which touts a region and variety on the label if nothing about the stuff in the bottle is distinct and can be clearly associated with the words on the label.


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4 Responses to “Restrictive appellations are good”

  1. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    Couldn’t agree with you more, which makes two people I know who, by present standards, must be nuts…

  2. Morton Leslie Says:

    I am pretty much turned into a libertarian on this issue. The horse is out of the barn, keeping the door closed now will ensure you never see the horse again. Appellations should never mandate how wine should be made or grown. The one goal of appellation control should be to ensure the customer gets what he thinks he is getting. If it says Haut Medoc, it should be made from Haut Medoc grapes. No cheating with crap from the South. Truth in labeling.

    While some of what we bemoan as a loss of regional distinction is, in fact, imitation, a lot of it comes incrementally from what everyone would agree is \product improvement\ all conducted within AOC, DOC and AVA regulations. Virus free, early ripening CTPS, TCVS. and FPS clones, low vigor rootstocks that favor ripening, increasing percentage of earlier maturing varieties, dense spacing, vertical shoot positioning, leaf and cluster thinning, intelligent crop and water stress management have taken out a lot of the risk and guaranteed ripe fruit each harvest. An example… vineyards in the Napa Valley used to be turning color this time of the year and winegrowers were happy to get 22.5 Brix on their Cabernet late October. Cabernet on deep Napa Valley loams were a disaster most years. They were only good for grazing. Now $100 wines come from 26 Brix grapes grown on former cow pastures and the vines stay green all vintage, turning yellow, then brown after the harvest. Despite nostalgia for some wines, this is what progress looks like.

    And we haven’t talked about winemaking yet. Or market pressures where everyone thinks there’s a problem if someone is still trying to sell a three year old wine. Hell with appellation, tell me what is new and hot!

    We end up with wines that are all dark in color, all made from ripe grapes, made to mature early, aged in the best oak, and on the market before the second birthday. None of this has to do with appellation or regulation. In fact, many of the regulations help guarantee a lack of diversity and drive us toward homogeneity. Give the consumer more choice and there is a chance (albeit slim) they will make the right decision.

  3. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    So, the wine was made from grapes grown in the appellation. So what? What does that information mean if all it conveys is the name of a place?

    Then, I read on in your comment and realize that you are bemoaning all the things that Arthur has bemoaned–yet you come to a different conclusion.

    I submit that your conclusion that appellations should not direct how wine is grown and produced is exactly why we have the situation that you bemoan concerning your final paragraph.

    For the first time since reading your comments online, I get the sense that you aren’t making sense. What gives?

  4. Dylan Says:

    More to Arthur’s point are the basics of creativity itself. I’ve found as many would profess that the creative endeavor is heightened by the limits set upon it. When we are forced into a corner and put into a box, we do our best creative thinking. It’s the restrictions set forth that can actually allow us to advance further. When creativity is left boundless, it becomes too wild and incapable of being trained in. We all need our walls and restrictive appellations can be considered good for that reason.