The Appellation Situation

IN

We’ve been concerned with ideas about “how Scotch is Scotch” and “how Islay is Islay whisky” for a long time now. See our Port Charlotte pages > 

Christine Allen is an insider from the world of wine, working for Maisons, Marques et Domains, whose portfolio covers some of the most renowned producers and iconic wineries from the New and Old world. We asked her what the Appellations system in wine is all about, and what difference it makes having those rigorous rules in place.  

Christine Allen [CA] :We can’t speak of “one world of wine” when it comes to talking about what Appellation d’Origine Protégée (or AOP) legislation means to producers and those enjoying their wine. With no agreed international standard, and a lack of consistency from country to country, it is a labyrinth. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why wine is so confusing to most? But it is exactly these AOP laws that protect each individual region and ensure that what you have in the bottle is exactly what it is supposed to be. 

Terroir is so important across the wine world, it refers to how a certain region’s climate, soils, and aspect, as well as the traditions, hand of man and history of the region, affect the taste of wine. The legislation was built strictly on geographic delimitations and traditions, ensuring that the individual terroirs are protected from fraudulent use. This has grown and been further refined to regulate not only on production area, but also the vine varieties that can be planted, the ripeness of grapes and alcoholic strength, control of yields, and various aspects of viticulture and winemaking. Terroir has associations with quality. 

I’ll examine the explicit and implicit quality dimensions of terroir and the tensions surrounding all that in a separate article. Here, I’ll look at how each country regulates differently, names wines differently, and even within a country individual regions can have varying rules. 

In Rioja, the DO laws (Spanish equivalent to the AOP) have undergone revisions over the last year with new classifications being introduced to reflect single estates, single vineyards, and individual villages so the focus is on their specific terroir and sense of place, rather than the historic classification of three large sub regions, and barrel ageing. This needed revising, as time in oak barrel doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better wine – it just has more oak!

The French AOP system (formally AOC) was introduced following the financial crisis of 1929, when the depression coupled with a surplus of wine prompted some questionable blending of wines being sold under very prestigious names. Rightly, quality producers wanted their regional name and their produce protected – you can’t make blue cheese anywhere and call it Roquefort, and the same is true for wine. 

As many in my industry joke, the Burgundians have spent centuries arguing over which side of the road, wall, hill etc. produces the best grapes and now their model is perhaps one of the most intricate classification systems in place. It legislates down to individual vineyard sites within the famous villages. Surely, you ask, there can’t be a great deal of difference between two adjoining vineyards? But, as Erwan Faiveley, seventh generation of Domaine Faiveley, says “being from Burgundy, it is all about the villages and the truth of the terroir, and this is what the AOP laws help us to protect.” This absolute and highly particular, personal, truth is the essence of Burgundy and why the AOP laws and classification system is so revered. The regulations, while complex when first learning the different villages and vineyards, offer a guarantee of origin and confidence in the authenticity of the wines.  

Map showing “Nuits les St Georges” in Burgundy. Note the 1km scale.

The Burgundy model is being used as a basis for changes in appellation controls in some New World regions, who understand that their unique terroir and regional diversity need to be recognised. In Marlborough, New Zealand, there is a growing move towards a recognised sub‐regional classification system, and in 2018 the Appellation Marlborough wine scheme was launched by 36 of the regions most respected wineries. They now administer a system remarkably like a European appellation – the first outside of Europe – appreciating the need for classifications.

We have seen a similar movement in California where originally the focus on categorisation and marketing was on individual grape varieties and estate names but now producers are seeing the benefits of following the individual terroirs and sub‐regions to classify their wines.

The AOP guarantees that the wine you are enjoying in the bottle has come from the specific site, in the named village or region on the bottle. It really is a basic pleasure of life to have an emotional connection to food and wine; people want to know where their wine comes from. Is that the same for whisky?

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Read more about our approach to Terroir in whisky >

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