Wine Regulations, Also Known As Acronymphomania
Chapter Fifteen, Part Two.
Laws regulating wine end when your blood alcohol level drops below 0.08%, but they start in the vineyard, even before grapes turn into alcohol. Inspired by European appellation wine laws, American wine grape-growing regions fall within demarcated geographic boundaries established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Before the creation of American Viticultural Area’s (AVA) wine regions were simply designated by county or state. Surprisingly the first AVA, established in 1980, was not in Napa Valley. It was in the Mecca of fine wine production, Augusta, Missouri.
Compared to European controls, AVA guidelines are relatively simple and unrestrictive. There are no requirements regarding grape varieties, vineyard practices, yields, alcohol levels, or winemaking methods. For an American wine to list an AVA on the label, 85% of the wine must come from that region and the wine must be fully finished (except for cellaring and blending) in the state where the AVA is located.
Although the French are generally acknowledged for creating the appellation wine laws that eventually became the basis for regulations all across Europe, the vineyards of Franken, Germany were painstakingly ranked according to the quality of wines they produced as early as 1644. That’s right. While the Thirty Year War raged and pestilence ravaged the population, Germany still had its priorities straight.
The first defined and protected wine region was established in Chianti, Italy in 1716, and fourteen years later Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary created a wine classification system, where sunshine, soil, and the ability of a vineyard to develop Botrytis cinerea (the noble rot that concentrates the grape sugars) meant a vineyard would be categorized as first, second or third class, much like its citizens.
Predating all of this of course are references to wine regions found in the Bible, where the divine wines of Carmel (lit. God’s vineyard) were often included in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Old Testament.
Speaking of God’s work, centuries of research by French Cistercian and Benedictine monks produced guidelines designed to protect the quality of their wines. Despite these precautions, France was awash in a sea of fraudulent and adulterated wine by the late 19th century. To protect the reputation of their wines, authorities in Chateauneuf du Pape instituted strict regulations in 1923. These controls regulated growing regions, grape varieties, alcohol levels, trellising and pruning methods, yields, and winemaking procedures.
Later, these protective lawmakers went so far as to pass a municipal decree forbidding flying saucers from taking off, flying over, or landing in the commune of Chateauneuf du Pape. This ordinance was passed by the village in 1954. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.
Other French wine regions emulated Chateauneuf du Pape’s regulations (sans flying saucer decree), forming a nationwide tapestry of appellation wine laws that were formalized in 1935 and revised in 1963. These rules eventually became the model for the wine regulations created when the European Union (EU) was formed. While no other appellations duplicated the flying saucer decree, several considered bans on other unruly pests like werewolves, Sasquatch, and Robert Parker.
When a wine meets all of the requirements of an appellation, the label gains title to an acronym that assures consumers it has met the standards of that designation. AOC, DOCG, and DOCa are a few of the familiar national acronyms that assure consumers that what’s on the label – is actually what’s inside the bottle. However, these acronyms are not a guarantee of quality but a certification of a wine’s authenticity and compliance with the standards of the appellation. In other words, a winemaker can comply with the guidelines of an appellation and still make lousy wine.
European wine producers have the option of labeling wine with the traditional designations of their native countries or use a parallel, if somewhat redundant, set of designations established by the EU. While presently national acronyms seem to be preferred by many wineries, you may also encounter EU designations such as QWPSR (Quality Wine Produced in a Specified Region) or TW with GI (Table Wine with a Geographic Indication). In 2009 this alphabet soup was shortened to Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) saving European regulators a small fortune in ink cartridges.
Appellation acronyms vary from country to country and if that’s not enough to make your head spin, the European wine hierarchy is further complicated by classifications and aging descriptions that exist side by side with appellation law. Terms such as Premier Cru, Crianza, and Riserva are legally defined designations dealing with wine quality and winemaking processes rather than geography.
Historically the term Reserve or Riserva signifies a wine that has been singled out for its exceptional quality and held back, or reserved, by the winery. When the European Union wine regulations were written this philosophy was put into law. For example a Spanish Rioja must be aged a minimum of three years, at least one of those years in oak, before it can legally call itself Riserva. American wine nomenclature by comparison is relatively unregulated and “Reserve” on a label may be nothing more than a marketing term. Kendall-Jackson labels its popular Chardonnay “Vintner’s Reserve” and they sell about 2.3 million cases of it each year.
Appellation regulations preserve long-standing traditions, give guidance to new generations of winemakers and protect the quality and reputation of a wine region. But in the end the laws governing the wine trade are designed to protect the consumer. I’m sure that’s what the Indiana legislature had in mind when they made it illegal to sell milk in a liquor store, or why trading alcohol for underwear in Hawaii is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.