The purpose of the appellation system was to guarantee the origin of the grapes used to make wine so consumers would know what is in the bottle and regions could enforce a minimum level of quality for the wines being sold under their name. For those regions with distinctive terroir and for consumers who care about this, the appellation system in Europe, despite its flaws, has been generally successful. Most wines labelled “Barolo” or “Gevrey-Chambertin” meet minimal expectations about what such a wine should taste like.
But there has always been some ambiguity about what it means to protect or guarantee the origins of a wine. Is it to guarantee the mere fact that the grapes come from the designated region? Or is it to guarantee that the wine tastes as it should? In other words, are appellations protecting geographical origin or are they protecting the style associated with an origin? It is common practice in Europe for appellation administrators to have tasting panels to determine whether wines seeking to be labelled as from that region taste as expected, and appellation rules about the composition of the wine, yields, oak programs, etc. in some cases are quite strict. It’s the style that is regulated rather than origin only.
This protects the flavor profile of the appellation but at what cost? It hampers innovation and forces winemakers who want to try something new to operate outside the appellation system. In some cases, and increasingly so, these are the most interesting wines on the shelf.
Simon Wolff’s recent post shows the downside of the appellation system as it is now being administered in Europe
Wine lovers now face a strange duality. The budget booze in the supermarket flaunts a fancy regional name on the label, while the cutting edge bottle in a specialist wine shop is forbidden to give any clue as to its region, village, grape variety or even year. Such is the havoc wreaked by the seemingly innocuous acronym PDO – ‘protected denomination of origin’.
This practice of regulating flavor and texture profiles depends on the coherence of the concept “typicity.” And as Wolf points out the concept depends on a variety of arbitrary assumptions.
Most pernicious of all is typicity – a barbed term of which Portugal’s regional wine commissions now appear to be the gatekeepers. The problem? Who defines what’s typical in a wine region, and how far back does that definition go? If the supermarket plonk confected with lab yeasts, enzymes and all the technical tricky that modern wineries allow is taken as the benchmark, where does that leave winemakers working in a more handcrafted fashion?
As he notes, this can backfire on the appellation when one of their rejects captures the attention of wine lovers. The appellation loses the opportunity to enhance their brand.
But more importantly, as the more interesting wines decline to use geographical information on their label, the less geography matters and we begin to lose that connection with terroir that was the original purpose behind appellations. If a winemaker chooses to use non-approved varietals in her wine or uses, for instance, oxidation as a flavor note, the finished wine is no less reflective of its region of origin regardless of whether the tasting panel approves.
If terroir matters as the central organizing principle of the wine world, then show it in all its manifestations regardless of what tasting panels say. With their predilection for inhibiting innovation, one might surmise that the purpose of appellations is something else entirely—perhaps to keep established producers in business by keeping the innovators out.