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What’s an AVA or appellation?

Defining a wine by the area in which the grapes were grown is a long-standing practice in winegrowing regions throughout the world. That’s why when you look at a wine label, in addition to the name of the winery you’ll see the name of a place. The United States has its own system for defining wine-growing areas, which we call American Viticultural Areas or AVAs (also sometimes known as appellations).

AVAs are defined as legally designated wine grape-growing regions that have specific geographic features, with boundaries that are defined and approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the United States Department of the Treasury. The bureau approves these areas based on a number of the area’s characteristics such as it’s elevation(s), soils, and climate. An AVA may also take into consideration historical precedents.

Labeling rules established by the government require that an AVA can only appear on a wine label if at least 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine were grown in that area. AVAs can be large, such as “California,” or small, such as “Cole Ranch” (the smallest AVA in California). There are even AVAs within AVAs; for instance, the Santa Barbara County AVA is within the larger AVA of the Central Coast which is in the larger AVA of California. To date, there are 108 AVAs in California, with several more pending.

Why do growers and winemakers like AVAs? Well, the physical characteristics that define AVAs impart a certain signature onto the grapes and the final bottle of wine. Similar to a baseball player hitting the ball on the sweet spot on his bat, these areas are considered the sweet spots of wine-grape growing. Fans and wine industry professionals closely follow and energetically discuss the nuances imparted by particular AVAs. And wineries like to display the pedigree of the geographic area in which its wine grapes have been grown by listing the AVA on the label.

AVAs are further evidence that much of a wine’s flavor and complexity is developed far before the grape ever leaves the vine. So, check the label on your next California wine and see what AVA your palate finds pleasing. Do you prefer Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley or Lodi? What about Petite Sirah from Central Coast versus Mendocino? Tasting California wine is like taking a trip through the Golden State, so uncork that bottle, follow your tastebuds and enjoy the journey!

Visit our Stewards of the Land section and Wine Regions map for more information on California wine-grape growing regions and the growers who work there.

For a full lists of U.S. and California AVAs, visit the Wine Institute’s AVA Database.

Source: Wine Institute, and “The Wine Bible” by Karen MacNeil.

Photo courtesy of Russian River Valley Winegrowers.

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American Viticultural Areas are designated wine-growing areas, which many wine drinkers feel can impart special characteristics on the wine grapes that are grown there.


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