A very interesting question. You can deal with two terms at once and look at a couple of examples.
What is an appellation?
The appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical indication of the place where the grapes for wine originate. In addition, other types of products have appellations. For example, the famous Italian cheeses Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan are PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
Now we will not delve into the classification of each individual country, we will just mention the designations that can be found
- VdP (Vin de Pays), AOC – France
- IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), DOC and DOCG in Italy
- DO and DOC (DOQa) for Spain
- AOP / DOP is a common European designation that replaces DO, DOC, DOCG, AOC
In addition to the geographical boundaries that describe the appellations, there are other requirements and restrictions: the list of varieties allowed for cultivation, yield, production and aging characteristics, the level of alcohol in the finished wine, etc. Only by observing all these requirements, the manufacturer has the right to put the name of the appellation on the label.
These rules can be very different depending on the country and the specific appellation.
Appellation example: Chiati Classico DOCG
Besides clear geographic boundaries, there are other requirements.
This appellation can only contain red wines with a minimum Sangiovese content of 80% (+ other permitted red varieties)
- The maximum height of the vineyards is 700 meters
- To make Gran Selezione wine, grapes must only be harvested from their own vineyards
- Minimum alcohol level: 12% for Chiati Classico, 12.5% for Chiati Classico Riserva and 13% for Gran Selezione
- Residual sugar: no more than 4 grams per liter
- Aging: for Chiati Classico, minimum aging is at least 1 year; for Chiati Classico Riserva – at least 24 months, including 3 months in a bottle; for Gran Selezione – at least 30 months, including 3 months in a bottle.
An appellation is not always a single geographic area. An example is DO Cava in Spain. Despite the fact that more than 90% of Cava is produced in Catalonia, sparkling wines under this brand can be produced in several other Spanish regions.
Appellations can be nested. An example is Burgundy. Regional appellation AOC Bourgogne includes smaller sub-regional ones: Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, etc. In turn, even smaller appellations can be distinguished within the Cote de Beaune: Pommard, Volnay, Corton-Charlemagne, etc. And all of this will be AOC.
Speaking of nested appellations, in the most general case, the smaller its size, the higher the expected quality and level of wine will be.
An appellation can be very small and fully owned by one company. An example is Château-Grillet AOC (3.8 ha). The entire vineyard is managed by a single grower, Château-Grillet.
Knowledge of the appellation system is the key to understanding the wine shelf (mostly European wines). Very often, it is in the name of the appellation that all the information the consumer needs is “protected”.
What is Terroir?
Unlike the concept of “appellation”, it is much broader and narrower at the same time, often used and the least tangible, causing the greatest number of controversies: what is terroir and what is not. Everything described below is the author’s perception.
Terroir comes to the wine lexicon from the French language: the word terre is earth. The set of soil and climatic characteristics of the site, its height above sea level, exposure, etc. – everything that nature gave him initially. The nature of this particular place. The concept of terroir can be attributed not only to an individual vineyard, but in a broader sense, to an entire village or even a region.
Can the concept of “terroir” include winemaking practices (what happens on the site and at the winery)?
What we call “traditions”.
Probably not. Tradition and human influence are, in fact, about regional style, not about terroir. Although, it is also fair to mention that some wine-making practices and traditions are a consequence of the climatic characteristics of the region (for example, the formation of a vine “nest” on the island of Santorini to protect grapes in the harsh wind conditions of volcanic vineyards).
Is the grape variety terroir?
No. But there are varieties that “express” the terroir better than others. For example, Pinot Noir feels better in Burgundy than in hot Provence.
Can a winemaker be classified as a terroir?
No, although it is the winemaker who decides at each stage how he will “reflect” this very terroir in wine: when and how to pick grapes, how to process them, how to vinify, how much and what to age, etc. Some of these practices can be clearly enshrined in the laws of the appellation.
Does every wine reflect a terroir?
We can assume that yes. But only the degree of this expression will be more or less or completely tend to zero, if we are talking about a mass product.
How is it expressed and how to understand it?
Sometimes they talk about terroir when they find earthy notes in wine, flavor markers that reflect the soil on which the grapes were grown. But this is not entirely correct. Terroir is a much broader concept, because it affects absolutely all characteristics of a wine: from aromatic profile to acid level.
In addition, “terroir” is often found in biodynamic, natural wines. But often this is a “optical illusion”: wine has a number of production defects, which some pass off as terroir, while others are happy to be deceived.
Terroir is a useful idea (in a sense, even a philosophical one), a term that does not have a clear expression in taste, for all its inherent importance for this very taste. It is impossible to calculate in numbers how strongly one wine reflects the terroir and the other does not.
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