The geography of American wine can be summed up in three letters: AVA. Here’s why they matter.
Winemakers have always cared intensely about terroir: the idea that wine has unique qualities depending on where the grapes are grown—the soil, climate, altitude and so on. In America, we’re now becoming more and more knowledgeable about our own terroir, as evidenced by the push to establish more AVAs. An acronym for American Viticultural Area, AVA is a federally recognized geographic designation. The smaller the AVA, the more idiosyncratic the terroir. The movement to establish more AVAs is especially strong in California, which has 135—14 of them approved in 2014 alone.
AVA Turf War
Winemakers who source grapes from the newly established Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA know why it’s special: Its 250 acres of vineyards are covered with baseball-size volcanic rocks that keep the earth very warm, creating wines with remarkable complexity and depth. The Rocks is on the Oregon side of Walla Walla, an AVA that straddles the Washington border. Controversy: Only Oregon producers are allowed to specify the Rocks on their labels. Many Washington winemakers who use Rocks grapes are up in arms about this restriction and have banded together to appeal.
The Newest AVAs
When it was created in 1983, California’s Paso Robles AVA became a 32,000-acre vineyard sprawl with no real geographic delineation; elevations vary dramatically, and climates range wildly from coastal to desertlike. The result was a hodgepodge of wines all with the same Paso Robles AVA label. In November 2014, however, Paso Robles anointed a whopping 11 new AVAs, including the Adelaida and Templeton Gap Districts, giving distinct regional identity to the wines.
California: Howell Mountain
AVA it's Part of: Napa Valley
Vineyard Acreage: 600
Why It's Special: Volcanic soil, major elevation changes and big swings in day and night temperatures
Wine to Try: 2011 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet ($80)
New York: Seneca Lake
AVA it's Part of: Finger Lakes
Vineyard Acreage: 3,700
Why It's Special: Gravel soil and relatively moderate temperatures thanks to the effect of Seneca Lake
Wine to Try: 2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling ($19)
Oregon: Ribbon Ridge
AVA it's Part of: Willamette Valley
Vineyard Acreage: 500
Why It's Special: Ancient marine soil; limited water sources means vineyards are mostly dry-farmed
Wine to Try: 2013 Brick House Select Pinot Noir ($36)
Washington: Red Mountain
AVA it's Part of: Yakima Valley
Vineyard Acreage: 2,000
Why It's Special: Sandy soil, desert climate and big swings in day and night temperatures
Wine to Try: 2011 Cadence Ciel du Cheval ($45)