There is a lot of hard work that goes into producing that bottle of wine you are thinking of plucking off the retail shelves for tonight’s dinner…as a libation derived from one of the world’s oldest ways of life, wine is fundamentally a byproduct of farming (and of course, fermentation…). And farming doesn’t just happen everywhere….
That bottle of wine you are thinking of buying comes from somewhere. One of those “somewheres” is the winery that produced it; another “somewhere” is the origin of the grapes that go into the bottle. Many wineries have their own vineyards, some of which may or may not be located on the winery property. Many wineries own and operate vineyards miles (if not hundreds of miles) from their winery facility. It is also a very common practice for a winery to purchase grapes from a vineyard they don’t own. Regardless of how the grapes come to be part of a bottle of wine for our consuming pleasure, they all have to come from somewhere and that somewhere is referred to as an American Viticultural Area or AVA, for short.
AVAs are wine industry specific and were created by the federal government as a system of geographical designation to aid the consumer in identifying the geographic pedigree of the wine. AVAs are not intended to identify the quality of particular grape growing regions over others (the opposite of the French system of origin designation which designates quality regions and regulates what growers can and can’t grow) but, rather, designate grape growing areas in the US as distinct from one another. You, the consumer, can decide what you like and what you don’t like about every region you sip from…
There are over 200 different AVA designations in the United States, today. Among several criteria, all proposed AVAs have to prove their area contains distinctive growing conditions such as elevation, soil, and climate. These distinctive growing conditions give wine its sense of place but let’s not forget the winemaker – he or she also has quite a bit to do with how a wine will turn out.
My home state of Oregon has 17 official AVA designations. Pinot Noir is the most widely produced and well-known varietal in Oregon. Considered a rather finicky grape to grow, those crazy enough to cajole its temperamental nature do so in Oregon’s cooler climate growing regions and primarily in the Willamette Valley AVA and its many sub-AVAs; although Pinot Noir is also grown throughout the entire western half of Oregon. The Elkton AVA, contained within the larger Southern Oregon AVA designation, is Oregon’s newest AVA on the block and also one of the coolest growing regions in the state, temperature wise, which is surprising to some as Southern Oregon is generalized as being much warmer than its other grape growing counterparts.
You can find the AVA designation on every bottle of wine as it’s a legal requirement of wine labeling. So, next time you are at the grocery store or your favorite local wine retailer, poke around for a wine from a different AVA than the last bottle and see if you can taste the difference!
Sarah Wolcott is a Zephyr Adventures guide. Join Sarah and Zephyr on our upcoming Oregon Wine Adventure, August 18-22.