An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a specific vineyard zone based on geography and climate, which is why it is often compared to the French wine appellation system.
While it sometimes seems that France’s AOC system regulates every fine detail down to the wake-up time on a winemaker’s alarm clock, the US AVA system takes a relatively hands-off approach.
There are no specific rules on grapes that can or cannot be grown, for instance.
This is no free-for-all, though, and applicants must demonstrate why a specific geographic area deserves special recognition.
Anyone can apply to create an AVA in theory, but you’ll need to fly to Washington DC to deliver maps, evidence and a convincing argument to get past the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which keeps the official register.
As the TTB puts it, ‘An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown.’
You may also have to get the neighbours on-side, because there is normally a public comment period.
All in all, it may take several years, as this guide from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association in Oregon shows.
To use the AVA name on bottle labels, federal rules say at least 85% of grapes used to make the wine must come from within the area boundary. ‘Certain states have stricter standards’, according to the California Wine Institute.
There are also other types of appellations. If an appellation name is defined by a political boundary, such as county name, then 75% of the grapes must come from within this zone if it’s used on bottle labels, the Wine Institute says.
Any wine using the ‘California’ appellation name must be made entirely from grapes grown in the state.
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How many AVAs are there?
There were 250 AVAs as of 2 September, and it probably won’t surprise you that California is home to most of them – 140. See a full list here on the TTB website.
That said, one of the newest is in Washington State, where Royal Slope joined the exclusive club at the beginning of this month.
It’s Washington’s 15th AVA and actually sits within the larger Columbia Valley AVA zone.
This is an increasingly common phenomenon as the number of AVAs expands.
Napa Valley is an AVA in itself, for example, but it contains other, smaller AVAs that you might also see described as sub-appellations. In Sonoma, meanwhile, the Moon Mountain AVA created in 2013 sits within the broader Sonoma Valley AVA.
Some trade voices have previously argued that the proliferation of AVAs could confuse wine lovers, but others have said that adding more zones gives consumers greater choice and also highlights the diversity of soils and climate in growing regions.
Trade body Napa Valley Vintners highlights a range of climatic differences between the AVAs in its region, for instance.
Coombsville, which joined the club in December 2011, enjoys a more temperate climate thanks to the cooling influence of nearby San Pablo Bay, whereas one would generally expect the mercury to rise more sharply in the summer months in St. Helena further north, the NVV explains.
This is not to say that all wines in an AVA and based on a particular grape variety will taste exactly the same. While there may be certain discernible characteristics, decisions in the vineyard and the cellar offer artistic leeway, of course.
Certain vineyard sites or micro-climates within an AVA zone may also be known for bringing particular personality traits, too.
Does AVA status mean higher wine prices?
Gaining AVA status carries a degree of prestige, even if those in-the-know were long aware of the area’s ability to produce outstanding fruit, and wines.
Some research has shown that an AVA contributes to higher prices paid to grape growers, as demonstrated in a 2013 study looking at Lodi and Central Coast AVAs – with a reference to the development of the Shawnee Hills AVA in southern Illinois.
However, even more important for prices was the establishment of wine quality standards by winemakers in those regions, said the researchers, writing in the journal Wine Economics and Policy.