Why We Still Need Appellations

bordeaux mapJames Lawrence in Wine Searcher makes several important points in his argument that appellations have outlived their usefulness. I think there is an important perspective missing from his post, but first it’s worth reviewing why we have appellations.

A wine appellation was a snapshot in time: the cementing of traditions regarding viticulture and wine style; the protection (in theory) of quality and reputation. The raw materials behind the magic were mandatory and therefore (Alsace apart) superfluous to the wine labeling. Appellations represented the coming together of soil, climate, and vine; individuals were subordinate to the hive.

Most importantly, appellations were regarded as (almost) immune from being pillaged, as Pauillac and Chablis had the copyrighted protection of the law on their side.

As he rightly points out, the appellation system is no guarantee against copyright theft or the erosion of quality. There are few mechanisms for forcing regions to abide by regulations if they don’t want to. Bad wines are as plentiful when produced under the auspices of an appellation as they are when produced outside the appellation system. Many producers have found success by abandoning the restrictions imposed by appellations, and the idea of terroir is compromised by industrial production methods and varietal labeling.

As Liber Pater owner Loic Pasquet argues:

“The modern guarantee is that the consumer is buying a flawless and non-toxic wine. This is from the food industry. I stopped belonging to an appellation because I refuse to produce an industrial wine. What is the benefit of having an AOC? Nothing. They are managed by the wine industry with the overarching goal of producing a standardized product.”

Most appellations are run by a sclerotic bureaucracy that enforces rigid rules that can’t keep up with a dynamic wine market or the need to respond quickly to the contingencies of climate change.

I think all of this is right. So why are appellations needed?

Because we need some way of organizing the wine world and I can’t think of, nor have I heard of, an alternative that does that better than geographical location.

No doubt there are successful producers who pay no attention to appellation rules, and industrial winemaking techniques make geography less important. But there are thousands upon thousands of artisan winemakers who make wines with meaningful typicity. To them and their customers, weather, climate, and soil composition still matter. The wine world is not a monolithic entity.  The world of industrialized winemaking is one thing; the world of artisan winemaking quite another. Terroir-driven wines are still the engine that makes wine interesting

But more importantly, for those producers who no longer care about typicity and seek creative expression by breaking the rules, we still need some way of assessing their deviation, some way of explaining what they are deviating from. Conventions and traditions are not the enemy of innovation. They are the benchmark in light of which innovations are seen as significant. Without that baseline of similarity, diversity has no meaning.

We should strive to make the appellation system more responsive. But that is a different matter than tossing it out altogether.

6 comments

  1. You are correct in stating that consistent and accurate appellations would be a great boon to consumers. But before that happens you have to get those appellations to be more consistent in terms of winemaking styles and wine quality.

    Appellations are only meaningful when they do capture all the elements of winemaking, from rocks and rainfall to a consistent local culture that determines specific practices in viticulture and enology. If you can grow whatever you want however you want, and you can make the wine using any set of principles and technologies, then appellations become pretty darn superfluous…as is evident in the untold numbers of appellations of the New World–and some of the Old.

    And as winemakers in Old World appellations continue to innovate and explore, they, too, are finding that appellations aren’t really the best way to capture what makes their wine different or identifiable–or even good. One need look no further than that heart of terroir, Burgundy, to find experts who will always advise to buy Burgundies based on producer (good producers make good wines in all appellations, and in every appellation there are producers who fall far short of the mark.) In other words, experts advise buying Burgundies by brand first, rather than appellation.

    In regions where winemaking has evolved well beyond traditional practices, the typical characteristics of appellations have disappeared—N. B. Chablis, which now produces a wide range of styles from austere and chalky to ripe and fruity, or Prosecco, where rose has gone from being prohibited to becoming a major portion of the production. Market forces and climate change will only encourage producers and regions to increase this confusion.

    Can winemakers endorse and adopt stricter guidelines to more effectively define their local product? The trend seems to be moving in the other direction. Chianti Classico has completely re-written its production protocols from grapevine to glass, and added new grape varieties and riper styles to the mix. Rioja, where many producers are bristling under the limitations of the traditional regulations, is clearly under similar pressure. And we can certainly expect more of the same from other regions.

    Will New World winemakers submit their wines to a tasting panel for approval, as in the case of the DOCG and DoCa systems in Europe? I can’t imagine winemakers in Napa or Marlborough agreeing to such a plan. And St. Emilion has recently shown us that such a system, even with decades of practice, can quickly fall into crisis.

    Rather than asking winemakers to agree on consistent production protocols for their entire region for the good of the consumer, you might find more success in attempting to herd cats.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I’m not sure I agree. I don’t think you have to have stricter guidelines or perfect compliance with them, and we surely don’t need tasting panels. My point was about having enough consistency so there is a recognized identity to anchor judgment and appreciation. All you need is a critical mass of producers who respect typicity. If renegades want to violate the rules, that’s fine. Their is something against which their deviations can be measured. You can’t understand a deviation unless you know what you’re deviating from.

  2. Worth also reflecting on the relatively recent history of the creation of Appellations and how they have become defined . Prior to Phylloxera and large scale mechanisation both varietal diversity and locality were significantly different . The late Prof Pierre Galet was particularly vehement on the DOCG system as a manipulated construct

  3. Jonathan,
    Thanks for your comment. No doubt it is a construct. But “anything goes” is hard to manage from the perspective of learning to appreciate what your drinking.

    1. apologies my reference to DOCG – should have been of course AOC /AC in France- although that said, the varietal shifts are equally pronounced in Italy. For example prior to DOCG in Tuscany – the predominant grape variety in Etrurian Clango ( Chianti ) was deemed to be Canaiolo not Sangiovese.
      It might be that the appellation system grew on a need for collective communication of brand and marketing .As consumers we perhaps have had a our curiosity constantly fed and directed by always more choice. Once upon a time our drinking habits were more in line with our generic choices. Reference the consumer habits of our parents versus ours.
      With communication channels now open direct to the consumer – QR codes, web sites ,Zoom etc -we now tend to go direct to the source rather than the generic.
      A formula which will need to evolve is the relationship between varietal , place and producer – the first meeting a consumer taste expectation the second and third providing an individuality. Variables which are not necessarily mutually supporting !

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