Are Appellations Still Useful?

wine appellationThe Wine Scholar Guild recently hosted a comprehensive discussion of the future of appellations featuring Andrew Jeffords and Robert Joseph. Only the first half of the conversation is available to non-members but that is sufficient to get the issues on the table. Jeffords begins by making an important distinction between geographical indications and European appellations that specify production methods. They raise distinctly different issues.

Jeffords points out that the original aim of the appellation system was to guarantee that the grapes from which the wine was made indeed came from the region on the label. That is especially important if the region makes distinctive wines since a core function of an appellation is to defend a protected name from being hijacked by low quality, inauthentic products. In Europe, in order to offer such protection strict regulations about production methods were introduced to guarantee quality.

For Jeffords, this is a matter of telling the truth but also of enabling small farmers to brand themselves. He says:

Finally, remember that wine is a product sold across the globe, and commonly exported, yet wine production is highly atomised and fragmented. Appellations are therefore brands for the brandless. They are banners under which the products of tiny agricultural entities can make commercial sense in distant export markets. So, yes, for me appellations are still necessary.

By contrast, Robert Joseph argues that only a few appellations are really distinctive enough to deserve a brand, and most modern appellations are nothing but a label selling too much wine at bargain basement prices, with margins too low to engage in effective marketing.  Only established regions with good reputations and strong brands can make effective use of the system as a marketing device or as a mechanism for keeping prices at a level that allows for sustainable quality.

Furthermore, he argues, the regulatory rules in European appellations stifle innovation by inhibiting experimentation.

Jeffords responds:

“I still think that most growers in Corbières are better off with their appellation than they would be in a world in which that appellation didn’t exist, and they had to make their way in a global market from commercial ground zero. In most cases, if you want to do your own thing and ignore the appellation altogether, there is a legislative framework to allow you to do that. And because consumers cannot understand and learn the name of every appellation, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get any intellectual purchase on appellations at all — most consumers learn a few names of wines they like, and are quite happy with that, and that’s fine.”

My take on this is more from the consumer/ wine appreciation perspective. I don’t see how we get an intellectual handle on the wine world without appellations. The key to serious wine appreciation is variation. Wine enthusiasts enjoy tracking variations from region to region,  producer to producer, and from vintage to vintage. A wine world in which consumers have to keep track of trends within thousands of brands with no way to anchor them within broader categories is a prescription for chaos. Appellations are like genres in music—they give us a rough indication of what a wine might taste like and what we should be comparing it to. Just as there are many musical works that don’t quite fit a genre, there are many wines that don’t neatly fit what is typical of an appellation. But the only way we can track a variation is to know from what it varies, to know what difference the variation makes. And that means we need a conceptual anchor (which is hopefully also a taste anchor) that enables us to compare a variation to what came before.

Granted the wine world is changing rapidly and climate change is playing havoc with the notion of typicity that is central to appellations. But I don’t see change as the culprit undermining appellations. Appellations have always changed. The idea that winemaking in Burgundy or Barolo hasn’t changed in centuries is just bunk. The problem is that, in the contemporary world, change is happening very quickly. Nevertheless, we still need appellations to make sense of that change. We know that geography and culture matter. How they matter is no longer fixed. But, as noted, we can understand the significance of change only if we know the state prior to the variation.

But what about regions without really distinctive terroirs or strong brands? It seems to me the value of an idea is not defined by its weakest manifestations. That some appellations fail isn’t a reason to get rid of appellations. All we can expect from an appellation system are an acknowledgment of tendencies. Not every region will be a Barolo or Bordeaux. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t identifiable trends, even in weak appellations, that help us understand what is going on there.

So I think there is a good argument at least for geographical indications.

But Joseph’s argument that European-style appellations stifle innovation because of their regulations is a serious consideration. Furthermore, it would seem that many wine producers would agree with him—increasingly many producers throughout the world are electing to stay out of the appellations they are eligible to join. Consulting winemaker Andrew Halliwell reports on the situation in Spain’s Cava DO appellation with points that resonate with Joseph’s critique.

There would seem to be two main problems. One is that potential or ex-members don’t feel that the DO is strict enough. Cava’s probably the best example of this, where in recent years a number of the best producers have left. The key problem is that the Cava DO does not defend a territory with unique characteristics but defends the traditional method sparkling wine process, as applied to wines across a large swathe of Spain. Penedès is clearly the home of Cava and has little in common with Extremadura (closer to Lisbon than Madrid), yet both are in the same DO. With Cava selling for as little as £3.49 in the UK recently it continues to be difficult to raise Cava’s image, hence the continuing exodus of producers who aim to defend quality Penedès sparkling and get a fair price for their efforts. Perhaps the other main issue is that DOs haven’t moved with the times. Often set up decades ago they seem structured to provide a minimum floor on quality by stating for example the maximum yield per hectare and by specifying the minimum time in barrel. Yes but, almost all the most exciting producers today don’t care about that. Many of these won’t get anywhere near maximum yields and people will use barrels or not as they see fit, perhaps preferring large format foudres, concrete or tinajas. In some cases DOs don’t seem to have understood this. And so, ambitious, generally newer producers who pick early / don’t use oak / make natural wines might find themselves making wines outside of the rules or ones that don’t even pass the generally pretty slack tasting panels. So in some cases DOs might defend mediocrity but shun ambition.

He reinforces this point later in the essay:

Even if the right DO exists they have generally been about homogeneity. Does the wine tick these boxes and is it good enough? But today that’s not necessarily enough. Fashion has swung towards understanding origins, in wine this generally means that more favoured villages and single-vineyards tend to trump complex regional blends. This is something that DOs have been slow to embrace with the tragic situation that even if you make a village or single-vineyard wine, you might not be allowed to label it as such. Again mediocrity can prevail over highlighting something special.

These are the core issues that face European-style appellations with their regulations on production. The Cava situation is odd because it protects a process, not a region. Although the traditional method of making sparkling wines is important, it at best establishes a minimum level of generic quality. It is hard to see what is distinctive about it. If the rules are too permissive or the appellation too large and diverse, it will inevitably fail to preserve distinctiveness.

On the other hand, as Halliwell points out, restrictive rules also drive creative producers away. So how should appellations balance innovation with tradition?

We should watch out for unwarranted assumptions. Creativity is seldom served by total freedom; creativity is often enabled by working under constraints. The constraints force innovation that is genuinely important; not just a novelty. Despite the restrictions in regions such as Barolo, Bordeaux, or Rioja, some producers are able to produce new variations. Almost all traditional appellations—Barolo being a salient example—are embroiled in debates about new school vs. old school. So innovation occurs even where traditional constraints are powerful. But these variations will not satisfy producers who want to push the innovation further.

Given that some appellations really do produce unique wines that can be found nowhere else in the world, the cause of distinctive variation is advanced by the regulations. It would be sad to see producers in Barolo or Bordeaux produce wines that taste like they could be made anywhere. But, in these instances, we are talking about those strong brands that, as Joseph pointed out, benefit from the appellation system. Only if an appellation is particularly distinctive can strict production rules be justified. Of course, the other side of that argument is that it takes decades to develop a distinctive terroir and the taste references that express it. For new appellations, finding their identity is a work in progress. These are not decisions that can be made in the short run.

To my mind, the answer is for appellations to create subdivisions—alternative designations within an appellation—where innovation is not only permitted but expected. For decades, appellations have expanded their reach into less select vineyard sites. Chianti Classico separated from the larger, allegedly less distinctive Chianti region. Chablis is split between Chablis and Petit Chablis. Bordeaux has Bordeaux Superieur and Crus Bourgeois. If appellations are willing to create designations for less select vineyard sites, why not create designations where innovation is the norm. Such an arrangement would not harm the reputation of the main appellation and innovative producers could use their reputation as an “avant garde” in their marketing, while still benefiting from their association with the appellation. As a marketing device, this would confer greater distinction than the more generic geographic indicators such as Vin de France or Italy’s IGT system.

Appellations are still valuable but the wine world is rapidly changing and appellations need to find a way to accommodate these changes.

Here is a link to Andrew Halliwell’s informative article on Spanish DO’s.

2 comments

  1. Nicely summarized! Appellations can only really mean something to consumers when they are small enough and focused enough to truly capture unique elements of a wine’s character. But such appellations are often so small they they can’t produce enough wine to reach the general market…

    And when they ARE large enough to reach significant distribution, the quality or character is often diluted to the point of a meaningless distinction.

  2. After looking at wine regions from a research perspective for years, the move to GIs will make it harder to identify unique characteristics of where something comes from. GIs are about regional recognized names and as such are a blanket, not the detail needed. I agree that regulations imposed on appellations, can be stifling in some ways, but at least the boundaries of AOC, DOC, AVA, etc. capture the region that produces the product, not the uber area’s name only as in GIs.

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