Terroir… and AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) Are they one and the same?

If you have been to any of my “Tasting with the Winemaker” sessions in our tasting room, chances are you heard me saying, “A wine has a sense of place.” What this really means is that a wine acquires some unique characteristics from the geographical place that the grapes are grown which can identify the region. The classical name for a “sense of place” is terroir, derived from the French word terre, which means land.
The concept of terroir (pronounced “terwah”), was created by the French and is the basis for the French wine appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system. The AOC system presumes that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts unique characteristics to the wine that distinguishes it from wine grown in other regions. In old world wine regions, this concept is taken to such an extreme that wines are not identified by their variety but by the region in which the grapes are grown. As an example, in Burgundy, winemakers believe that they are producing a Burgundian wine that happens to be Pinot Noir and not a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region.
The new world wine producing countries borrowed the concept of terroir from the French but interpreted it in their own way. In the United States we established the American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) which are the designated wine growing regions. According to our rules, a wine has to be identified by the variety of the grape, provided it uses a minimum amount of this grape and the AVA in which the grapes were grown. At this time, we have 107 appellations and sub-appellations in California with the first being Napa Valley which was designated in 1981.
Conceptually, what creates the terroir are natural elements beyond the control of human beings. The major ones are climate and composition and type of the soil. Viticultural practices and winemaking techniques can either increase or decrease the expression of terroir in a wine. In winemaking, excessive use of oak, high alcohol levels in wine or blending for the purpose of modifying some attributes that are a part of the varietal identity are among those that will tend to mask the influences of terroir. On the viticulture side, in order to emphasize the effect of terroir, we need to create conditions in the vineyard that will promote uniformity.
The concept of terroir also carries a perception of exclusivity and quality. It is not a given that every wine made in a specific region will fully utilize the potential of the terroir. Terroir is like a god given talent that requires learning and discipline to achieve its prospects. Sometimes people misunderstand the concept of terroir. Terroir creates diversity as opposed to exclusivity. Just because a wine comes from an AVA that has a reputation of producing some top wines does not mean that any wine made in that region will excel.
Napa Valley, which is considered one of the premier wine regions of the world, got a break in 1976 because of the Paris Wine Tasting, better known as “The Judgement of Paris,”, which resulted in a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay beating several French well-known labels in a blind tasting. This is what put the Napa Valley region on the map. With its 16 sub-appellations, Napa Valley is a very diverse grape growing area. While St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville and Staggs Leap are considered moderately warm, Los Carneros, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak have cooler climates. The question is why combine these sub-appellations which show distinctive differences in their Terroirs into Napa Valley? I thought that the idea of creating AVA’s was to establish wine regions with specific identities.
I think that I will stop right here. Since this writing is generating more and more questions that I know not their answers. As they say in French “cela suffit , merci” “That’s Enough, Thank you!”
Cheers!
Chaim