So you’re sitting at the bar top of your favorite local restaurant listening to the bartender or resident sommelier explain why your wine tastes the way it does, yet they keep talking about the Russian River AVA or the Sonoma Coast AVA...or any other AVA. You nod along, half in panic because you’re not sure what an AVA is and half relieved that no one is there to witness this moment.
Since you’re alone, you find the courage to ask, “What is an AVA?”
Thankfully, the bartender or sommelier is a hospitality professional and they gladly help further along your wine education. We, too, are professionals interested in your wine interests, which means answering the question, “What is an AVA?” is right up our alley.
The term AVA stands for American Viticultural Area–put more simply, a designated wine growing region here in the good ol’ USA. Within these designated wine growing areas are microclimates, unique soil mixtures, slopes, peaks, valleys, coasts, and every other meteorological and/or geological feature one could imagine. All of these factors influence a wine, from its flavors to its structure. Coastal breezes shooting through the Petaluma Gap in western Marin County reach all the way to southernmost sub-AVA of Napa Valley, in the AVA of Carneros, and keep that spot cooler than the rest of Napa. Thus, the region is stylistically suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This effect is unique in Napa and by establishing an appellation specifically for that area, we now have something for consumers to grasp onto when buying, drinking, and then re-buying wine. You like Napa Valley Chardonnay? Great, me too. But over time, you might notice that Chardonnays from Carneros have a bit more verve than those compared to, say, Calistoga. Whether you know “why” it has that verve or not, showing the appellation on the bottle offers you a reference point for your future purchases, setting the distinction between wines from there or not.
In Europe, appellations carry even more importance as they regulate not just where a wine comes from, but what grapes go into the wine, how those grapes were farmed, minimum alcohol levels, and techniques required for the winemaking and aging processes. This specificity is reflected on the labels. Here, a wine might say “Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.” In France, you’d see “Nuits-Saint-Georges.” This indicates that the wine is from the designated area of Nuits-Saint-Georges and has farmed, harvested, and produced according to the rules of that region, which dictate that red wines be Pinot Noir. Confusing? Maybe, at first. But once you begin to dive in and explore, you’ll start to notice that you might favor Chambolle-Musigny to Nuits-Saint-Georges (both Pinot Noir), Barolo to Barbaresco (both Nebbiolo), or Sancerre to Pouilly-Fume (both Sauvignon Blanc).
Like many things on the wine route, more and more layers reveal themselves the further down the rabbit hole you go. We mentioned Carneros being a “sub-AVA” of Napa Valley early: this is the idea that while Napa Valley Chardonnay tells you roughly where the wine is from, Carneros Chardonnay gives you much more specific information. There are other sub-AVAs of Napa like Oakville, Calistoga, St. Helena, Stag’s Leap, Rutherford, and more. Again, this is all about communicating more detailed information to the consumer about where the wine is from and identifying areas with unique characteristics that will ultimately influence how the wine your glass tastes. If getting less specific is your jam, here’s a fun fact. The largest AVA in America is the Upper Mississippi River AVA, encompassing territory in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
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