Chris and I have spoken on air several occasions here about appellation wine—the most prestigious category of wine, wine made according to the rules you might say. On a recent segment we chatted about wine that flaunts the rules. You could call it outlaw wine if you wanted to be dramatic, but perhaps we’d be better off just to describe it as wine that plays by its own rules. To explain, let’s first quickly go over what we mean by appellation wine.
Every country with a wine industry has established a system by which wine is identified, categorized, and, to some degree, standardized. Appellation rules are law, not just trade association guidelines. Break them, and you can go to jail. Essentially, the appellation system says that if you want to make wine that takes advantage of the appellation identifier, you’re going to do so in a manner prescribed.
Generally, appellation wine is geographically-designated wine (for example, Champagne can only come from Champagne, Bordeaux from Bordeaux, etc.) and in addition to being linked to a delimited geographic area, it must be made using permitted grape varieties grown, vinified, and matured in the authorized way.
Your reward for playing by the rules is that you get to use the appellation name on your label—which presumably means something to consumers.
The appellation system was created as a way to build in a certain predictability and maintain a minimum level of quality in wine, so that, for example, the words Cotes du Rhone on a French wine label raises expectations that the wine will have a particular style, a certain profile and provide some guarantee against disappointment. I occasionally liken appellation wines to purebred dogs. The American Kennel Club identifies breeds and sets the standard required in order to call a dog a Springer Spaniel, for example. Appellations laws do much the same for wine.
Now, appellation wine is all fine and good so long as you—as a winemaker—can be happy with making a consensus wine. But the appellation system is by definition both authoritarian and conservative and cannot make any claim to exhausting the possibilities of what wine can be in a given place. So what happens if you want to make a different kind of wine—if you want to write your own rules? Welcome to the world of non-appellation wine.
This world is bigger than most people think, and while historically it has been a refuge for those who just want to make lower quality wine, it’s not true that all wine labeled, for example, Vin de France or in Italy and Spain, simply vino is low quality. This is because there are all sorts of very good reasons why a winemaker might decide that he’s better off leaving the appellation (or scaling down a category or two) and giving himself a freer hand to operate as she pleases.
Appellation wine is all fine and good so long as you—as a winemaker—can be happy with making a consensus wine.
Perhaps the most famous example of this are the Italian wines Sassicaia andTignanello created in the 1970’s. These wines eschewed their respective appellations to go their own way and have been amply rewarded for the decision. They are some of Italy’s most sought-after and highest priced wines and have begotten a whole new category of non-appellation wine: the so-called Super Tuscans. It’s important to distinguish wine made as a result of a conscious decision to forego appellation status (the subject of this segment) from wine that is simply of too low quality to qualify for it.
To introduce Chris to the world of non-appellation wine, I poured four examples. In each case, the producer has intentionally left the appellation system to follow his own lights. Note, however, that the choice to make one or more wines by his own rules doesn’t prevent the same property from making a full range of appellation-conforming wine, too.
Jo Landron “Atmospheres” is a sparkling wine from Muscadet country on the French Atlantic coast. This perky and satisfying bubbly is non-appellation for the very simple reason that no sparkling wine is authorized for Muscadet. Landron makes his fizz with some folle blanche and some chardonnay. It costs less than $20, and it’s a favorite at Formaggio and at my house where it serves as our go-to, everyday sparkling wine.
Domaine de Mirebeau “Le Gué des Mûriers” Grolleau. Grolleau is a historic grape in the central part of the Loire Valley where it made sturdy red wines for generations before the Anjou appellation was created, and cabernet franc, an import from Bordeaux, was made the official grape of red wine there. Grolleau was relegated to making simple sweet or lightly sparkling wine. Rochard found himself with some strands of very old vine Grolleau on his property and longed to see what it could do if made into a proper red wine, which he is free to do — but only under the lowly (but less restrictive) Vin de France category.
Monte Bernardi “Sangio” Rosso Toscana. Monte Bernardi makes a range of wonderfully characterful Chiantis in Panzano in the heart of the Classico zone. This one is made with all estate fruit and would qualify for the Chianti Classico appellation most years. However, the fruit for this wine comes from the highest elevation on the property—heights where owner/winemaker Michael Schmelzer cannot be certain of obtaining enough ripeness each and every year to reach minimum alcohol levels required. His solution: to label it as the less restrictive Rosso Toscana.
Domaine de Trévallon, IGP Alpilles Rouge. When they were planning their wine estate in the south of France in 1973, Eloi Durrbach and his father, René, learned that much of their area had once been planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Intent on respecting the terroir, they divided their red grape holdings equally between Cabernet and Syrah – 50/50. Later, when the appellation for their region was created, a maximum of 20% cabernet was authorized for the blend. Rather than re-plant or re-graft the vines they had been so assiduously cultivating, they opted to stick with their original plan and now market their wine not as Les Baux de Provence but as simple Alpilles Rouge.
The takeaway? When perusing a wine list or scanning the shelves in your local retail shop, bear in mind that a less-than-prestige classification doesn’t mean a less than exciting wine experience. On the contrary, some of the most interesting and engaging wine in the world is now being made outside, or on the edges of, appellations systems. Don’t be afraid to go there.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org