What does Appellation Mean, Exactly?
If we’re getting technical, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an appellation as an identifying name or title, a geographical name (as of a region, village, or vineyard) under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine or the area designated by such a name.
Don’t let that fool you though, appellation systems aren’t just for wine. Protected areas can apply to other products such as spirits, honey, milk, cheese, butter, and other agricultural products that carry geographic significance. For our purposes, we will discuss designations relating specifically to wine.
France originally brought appellation systems into existence with the use of a system called l’appelation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which means controlled designation of origin. This system has been replaced by l’appelation d’origine protégée AOP and serves to protect France’s wine regions with both naming and quality regulations. Both terms are still used regularly, much like the wine sweetness code that many North Americans are familiar with.
Why do we Use Appellation Systems?
While specific regulations, testing, and enforcement vary across different countries that have appellation systems in place, the general purpose is to protect the integrity of wines produced in various geographic areas by monitoring their quality.
How do you measure quality in relation to an appellation system? The wines are tasted by blind testers that ensure a wine represents the area in sensory evaluation as well as quality. It is then measured against a tasting standard (such as the 100-point scale or WSET’s systematic approach to tasting). The wines are put through extensive laboratory testing and analyzed to ensure that they don’t contain any faults.
Each system has different standards to adhere to. If you’re a winemaker, contact your applicable wine authority to inquire about becoming involved. Wines that carry a stamp or seal (such as AOC or VQA) are more highly regarded than those that do not, by both wine lovers and novices alike. We love drinking some delicious “un-certified” wines, too!
Appellation Systems of the World
Different countries have different systems and standards. Most systems are modelled after the AOC, and vary in important ways. In Canada, the system used is called the Vintner’s Quality Alliance, regulated in both British Columbia and Ontario.
VQA wines are guaranteed to represent quality and a sense of place. VQA Ontario wines must be made from 100% Canadian grapes, and labelling regulations get very specific. For example: wines with an Ontario vineyard-specific designation must contain only grapes from that vineyard, while wines from a specific Ontario appellation must contain a minimum of 85% grapes from that appellation and 100% of the grapes must be from Ontario.
In British Columbia, 95% of grapes must come from the designated area on the label, and 100% of the grapes must come from BC. Other places that use appellation systems include:
- France – l’appelation d’origine contrôlée/protégée (AOC/AOP)
- Europe – Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions (QWpsr or “Quality Wines”)
- United States – American Viticultural Areas (AVA)
- Italy – Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
- Spain – Denominación de Origen (DO)
- Switzerland also uses an AOC system name here or remove it
Lately, it seems that there are lots of changes and adjustments happening to systems around the world. If you’re unsure, reach out to us (and we would be happy to help you find out) or your local wine authority.
What are Sub-Appellations?
Because Appellations can span over large geographic areas, systems (as VQA) also recognize sub-appellations and regional appellations. A sub-appellation is a smaller area within an appellation that carries unique characteristics such as soil, climate, topography, and growing conditions.
Regional appellations are smaller than an appellation but can contain various sub-appellations. These areas are related primarily through geographic characteristics, like soil types.
Here is an example of the three different types of appellations:
- Appellation: The Niagara Peninsula
- Regional appellation: The Niagara Escarpment
- Sub-appellation: The Beamsville Bench
The growing area of the Niagara Peninsula contains slopes, plains, diverse terroir, and lake-impacted vineyards. Throughout the Niagara Peninsula there are a variety of soil types, elevations, and climates.
When we dig deeper, the regional appellation of the Niagara Escarpment is different from that of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Niagara Escarpment consists of bench topography, varied elevations, excellent drainage, and protection from Lake Ontario’s breezes. Niagara-on-the-Lake, while still having varied elevations, is flatter than the Niagara Escarpment and has an incredible mixture of geology. The Beamsville Bench gets more specific as wines from this sub-appellation are distinct in their reflection of the soil’s minerality, drainage, and consistent growing conditions.
Each wine authority classifies appellations with slightly different regulations. Where do your favourite wines come from? Let us know what your favourite wines are and how they represent their appellation systems! Can you taste the minerals from the soil, or is the wine sweet due to a hot growing season? If you have any questions about how to identify regional tastes in wine, feel free to reach out!