Linguistically, the American wine industry spent a good chunk of the last century annoying the French. However, France is a country that installed a government office devoted to creating and ratifying new words to maintain the purity of the tongue, so maybe they’re a little over-the-top about words. But their vinicultural concern is actually pretty down-to-earth: the protection of a reputation, usually one that has been earned over the course of a few centuries. So when wineries over here - in a country that hasn’t even been around for “a few centuries” - started calling their sparkling wines “Champagne,” their mixed-varietal reds “Hearty Burgundy,” and their generic whites, “Chablis,” it got under some French winemakers’ skins a bit. Now that we’re having some of the same problems – look at the arguments over who gets to use the name “Napa” on their labels – we too are showing some more respect for the older European ways. There are still exceptions out there: Australia soldiers on producing “ports” that have never seen the Portugese sun, for example. And some producers from the Rhone Valley find South African producer Charles Back’s punning “Goat-Rotí” and “Goats-do-Roam” wines less a tribute to their style of wine and more of an attempt to piggyback on their reputation.
On top of the practical use of appellations, many of the names have pretty good backstories – even in France. The Burgundian appellations of the Cote d’Or, for example, include more hyphenated names than you can shake a stick at. The story is that over the years – many years – certain vineyards became famous for the quality of their wines: Chambertin, Clos St. Denis, La Romanée, etc. Being famous they could command higher prices. Meanwhile winemakers with nearby vineyards had to settle for labeling their wines with the name of the village, or with a lesser-known – and hence less profitable – vineyard name. So to borrow some of the thunder of the famous vineyard, the village forefathers decided that maybe they should call themselves not just Gevrey but Gevrey-Chambertin: we’re not just a village, we’re a village that has a famous Grand Cru vineyard in it. Morey became Morey-St. Denis, and Vosne tricked out its charter with Vosne-Romanée. Montrachet is a special case, because it actually straddles the border of two villages. So Montrachet remains the Grand Cru, but the village names Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet were added to the books. Vineyards that neighbored famous sites followed suit, giving us Griottes-Chambertin, Romanée-Conti, Chevalier-Montrachet, and so on. As if their labeling laws weren’t complicated enough in their own right.
Most appellations are derived from geographical features or towns, but there are exceptions. “L’Etoile” AOC in the Jura is named after the star-shaped fossils common in the rocks of the area, and the wines of the “Grosslage Ewig Leben” apparently promise “eternal life” (in German; it’s hard to get at the truth of that; I’ve never come across a wine from that appellation). In Italy, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC is certainly an eye-catcher; yes, the exclamation points are part of the name. The form suggests a varietal name; many Italian appellations give the grape and then the region: Pagadebit di Romagna, Verdicchio dei Matelica, etc. But Est is not a grape. The story goes that a 12th-century German bishop who had been summoned to Rome employed a servant to scout out the inns on the road ahead of him for wines of quality. To mark a good find the servant would write Est (Latin; “this is it” or “here it is”) on the door. Apparently he was quite taken with the wines at one particular inn in the town of Montefiascone and marked it with the triple Est to express his enthusiasm. Legend suggests that the bishop concurred with his servant, forgot about the pope, and settled in Montefiascone to live out his days.
One case of an appellation expanding or losing its exclusivity is the Hungarian wine Bikavér; in English, Bull’s Blood. Under Communism production of Bull’s Blood was confined to Eger, northwest of Budapest, but now Szekszárd is entitled to produce it as well. The regions have competing claims to the origin of the wine’s name as well. According to Eger, the heavy-drinking soldiers in István Dobo’s army fought against the invading Ottomans in wine-stained beards and armor; the deep color convinced the Turks that the strength of their opponents came from imbibing bulls’ blood – the real thing, not wine. The story in Szekszárd is tamer; János Garay, a local poet from the mid-19th century, refers to the region’s wines as “red…like the blood of bulls” in one of his works. Given that the name has not been codified into a clearly defined style of wine, you can decide which story fits the wine on a case-by-case basis.
Closer to home, the newish (2002) Rockpile AVA in Sonoma was named by convicts. A local sheriff called Tennessee Bishop had a cattle ranch in the area and used chain gangs from the prison as labor to build a road out to his place. Instead of breaking up rocks in the prison yard, they did similar work out by the ranch, so they referred to the place as “the Rockpile” – and stony ground it is. But for a really romantic New World appellation, head to Australia: Who could resist a picnic by a stream with that special someone, nibbling on foie gras and cheese, listening to the birds, and sharing a bottle of… Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area? The charm never ends.
Some producers from the Appellations Mentioned:
Burgundy: Despite the very detailed mapping of the vineyards of the Cote d’Or, producers continue to vary greatly in quality, so it’s important to know who’s doing a good job with their grapes from these ancient vineyards. Reliable, high-quality producers include P.L. Rossignol, Domaine Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Armand Rousseau, and, for high-budget special occasions, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. South, in the Montrachet, Chardonnay area, look for Michel Colin-Deléger, Maison Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, and Domaine Michel Lafarge. There are many others, but it’s best to do some investigation before shelling out what could become some serious cash.
L’Etoile AOC: Can be hard to find in the U.S., but there are some fresh and charming wines coming from this and other Jura appellations. Keep an eye out for Domaine Rolet Père & Fils and Chateau l’Etoile; other producers from the Jura but outside the L’Etoile appellation include Domaine Frédéric Lornet and Chateau Béthanie.
Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC: Nowadays it can be hard to see what the bishop was so excited about, but Falesco and Italo Mazziotti are creating some refreshingly crisp summer whites under the appellation.
Bull’s Blood: Tóth István’s Barrel Select Bikavér is a standout and is available in the U.S.; overseas also pick up a bottle of Tibor Gal’s rendition should you come across one.
Rockpile AVA: Rosenblum Cellars has released some intense Zinfandels from this AVA; because of the appellation’s youth, many currently on the market are labeled as “Rockpile Vineyard” within the Dry Creek Valley appellation. This is also true for J.C. Cellars Northern Rhone-like Syrah. Seghesio Family Vineyards and St. Francis Winery and Vineyards have also taken up the name.
Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area: For a long time known mainly for affordable plonk, in the eighties this area developed a reputation for botrysized dessert wines. De Bortoli makes some of the latter, along with some more modest table wines.