Today we begin a new series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word will post every Wednesday and will cover anything and everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term. If you have a recommendation or request, please leave it in the comments.
Appellation (n.) Place Designation
In short, an appellation is a designated place - in this case a wine growing area - under the assumption (and arguably, presumption) that said area is unique among surrounding areas because it produces wines with certain inherent qualities not found in other places.
Take for example the highly respected Grand Cru vineyards of Échezeaux in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits. First, we have the region of Burgundy with clear parameters and rules about what can be grown there, namely pinot noir and chardonnay. Second, within Burgundy, we have the Côte de Nuits, known for its red wines. Finally, we have within the village of Flagey-Échezeaux, Échezeaux itself, which has been designated a Grand Cru vineyard because of its unique soil composition, vineyard slope and exposure to the sun, and other terroir related points. Confused? Good, such is the wormhole of wine.
France is considered the leader in modern day quality designations; their appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is the model for Italy's DOC and DOCG designators, Spain's DO, and to some extent Germany's QBA (not to be confused with pradikats kabinett, spatelese, auslese etc. That's different).
What does this all mean to the consumer? It means we know more or less what we're getting in each bottle. Appellations are not just lines on a map, but might also designate rules about how many vines can be planted per hectare, how those vines must be pruned (there are many styles), what grape varieties can be planted, how many grapes can be harvested per hectare, and how ripe the grapes can be which translates into how much alcohol the finished wine can have. Appellations might also designate rules on how the wine is made, how its aged and for how long. For example, in Spain's Rioja region, a crianza must spend a minimum of one year in oak barrels before it can be bottled.
Do you need to know all this before you select a wine? No! But it would be helpful if you can locate the appellation on the wine map and know the basic grapes grown there. This helps in narrowing down what you're in the mood for.
Every wine label will have a place designation on it, whether it's as broad as "California" or as specific as "Bernkasteler Badstube" which is within the Mosel region of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region within Germany on the continent of Europe on the planet Earth.