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Looking for Good Wine? Start With The Appellation

There seem to be an infinite number of ways to classify and categorize wine these days, though none are quite so helpful–or quite as intimidating– as the appellation system. Very basically, an appellation is how countries categorize their wines into specific grape-growing geographical regions. An appellation not only indications the country and region where the wine’s grapes were grown, but also the laws and regulations that dictate how that particular wine was made. Typically, the more specific the region’s boundaries are, the better the wine that carries its name. That’s why it’s so helpful to become familiar with at least a handful of appellation names and acronyms to help inform your wine purchases.

To get you started, let’s look at a summary of the top 4 wine producing countries and how they classify–and qualify,–their wines.

United States

AVA: American Viticultural Areas

An American Viticulture Area (AVA) is a grape-growing area with unique geographic and cultural features that influence a wine’s taste and quality. The AVA system began in 1980 and and has since expanded to include 230 AVAs across the United States. Some AVAs, such as the Mississippi River AVA, span across millions of acres of land while others have only a few hundred acres. In order for a wine to carry an AVA label, at least 85% of the wine’s grapes must come from a single AVA.

AVAs are a little confusing because there is no regional or quality-based hierarchy and some larger AVAs contain smaller ones within their boundaries (known as sub-appellations). For example, Calistoga AVA is a sub-appellation of Napa Valley AVA and the Napa Valley AVA is a sub-appellation within the much larger North Coast AVA.

TIP: Regions that are divided into sub-appellations tend­ to make higher quality wines… just an interesting observation.


AOP: Appellation d’Origine Protégée

France organizes wine with the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée/Protégée (AOC/AOP) system which first started in 1937. Today, there are over 360 AOCs in France and most are within 11 primary growing regions (e.g. Rhône, Loire, Alsace, Bordeaux etc.). The French AOP system has rules that apply to nearly every aspect of wine production, including grape varieties that may be utilized, minimum alcohol level, aging requirements, and even vineyard planting density. Such meticulous management of a single industry may seem overwhelming, but the geographic label implies what winemaking regulations were in play and can therefore serve as a guide for consumers. For example, a Crémant d’Alsace Rosé is required to be 100% Pinot Noir. Thus, when you buy this wine you can expect a sparkling wine made from 100% Pinot. It’s simply a matter of cracking the AOP code.


Vin de Pays (IGP)

Vin de France


DOC: Denominazione di Origine Controllata

The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) system was first established in 1963 and today there are 329 different DOCs and 73 DOCGs. The Italian system was originally designed to champion the indigenous grapes of Italy by elevating wine made with Italian grape varietals to the highest tiers of the DOC system, DOCG. SThat’s not to say, however, that foreign grape varieties are anything to look down upon. In fact, producers make very high quality wines with French grapes, such as the Super Tuscan blend with Merlot and Cabernet. However, since the grapes are not of Italian origin, the wines are typically–and arbitrarily,– demoted to IGT status.

Here are some common Italian wine terms that are useful to know:

  • Classico: Between the 1960’s and 1970’s many DOC boundaries were revised to include a larger area. The “Classico” denomination thus refers to the original smaller boundaries of the wine-making area. You can see an example of this on the Chianti Wine Map.
  • Superiore: Superiore is often used as a production quality standard usually indicating a higher minimum quality of wine grapes and often a minimum aging requirement before the wine is released for sale.
  • Riserva: Riserva is typically used as a production quality standard most often referring to extended aging of a wine prior to release. Many producers only make Riserva wines with grapes from exceptional vintages.


DOP: Denominación de Origen Protegida

The Spanish qualify their wines with the Denominación de Origen (DO) or Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) system. The Spanish system currently has 79 DOP’s, 2 DOC’s, 15 Vino de Pagos (VT) and 46 Vino de la Tierra (VdlT/IGP). The newest addition to the system was a single-vineyard category called Vino de Pago and many Spanish wine enthusiasts will agree that this category has some very intriguing wines.

Aging is a very important aspect of Spanish wines–especially Tempranillo,– so the country has an aging classification system as well. Keep in mind that each region may have slightly different rules attached to the following terms, so check with Wines of Spain if you want to know the specifics:

  • Tinto/Roble: “Roble” literally translates to “oak,” but this style is characterized by having little-to-no oak aging.
  • Crianza: This style has some oak and bottle aging, typically 9–12 months. For example, Rioja requires 12 months of aging.
  • Reserva: This style is required to have both oak and bottle aging. Typically, Reserva wines will undergo an entire year in oak and sometimes an additional 2 years in the bottle.
  • Gran Reserva: This style is required to have extended oak and bottle aging, which generally means up to 2 years in oak and up to 4 years in the bottle.

About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly