Wine Laws and AVAs in the USA
The USA’s official wine regions are called AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Wine labels can include an AVA name if at least 85 per cent of the wine comes from that area. However, the usage of AVA names is not a strict appellation system – it is not comparable to the French AOC or Italian DOC classifications.
The AVA System
The original system of wine appellations in the USA was based simply on political boundaries such as counties or states – “Napa“ meant Napa County. In 1978, however, the government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco (BATF) published its first laws and regulations for a system of Viticultural Areas (AVAs) based on geographical and climatic considerations. This supplemented the political appellations rather than superseded them.
By 2006 there were more than 160 AVAs in the USA, almost 100 of them in California, with the number growing each year. In many cases, wine growers themselves petition for official AVA status. Some AVAs embrace entire counties; others may encompass fewer than 100ha. Sub-AVAs exist within larger ones, and their boundaries can overlap. Green Valley AVA, for example, is an enclave within Russian River Valley AVA, which in turn is within Sonoma AVA, which itself is within North Coast California AVA.
Generic appellations for whole states and the word “American“ are also recognized.
Limitations of AVAs
AVAs differ fundamentally from the European appellation systems because they are simply geographical descriptors with no qualitative criteria. In France, an appellation such as “St.-Émilion Grand Cru“ can be used only for wines sourced from a handful of venerable old vineyards and made in a highly specialized way. In the USA, by contrast, there are no AVA rules governing the varieties grown, methods of training employed, yield allowed, or the style of wines produced.
On the one hand, this freedom can be a positive force for it allows enterprising wine producers to experiment in ways that Old-World producers are unable to. On the other hand, consumers have no indication of style and quality even when the label includes a famous name like “Oakville, Napa Valley“. Furthermore, there are many semi-generic appellations, such as “American Burgundy“ or “American Chianti“, which are allowed by US Federal Law but have little in common with their European forebears.
Alcohol Warnings in the USA
One legacy of the temperance movement in the USA is that alcohol is perceived in a more negative light here in comparison with attitudes in other wine-drinking countries. US wine labels must by law include a government health warning issued by the Surgeon General, stating “women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects“, and “consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery and may cause health problems“. Wine producer websites require viewers to confirm that they are over the age of 21 before they can enter the site. A few counties, mainly in the South, are “dry“ and do not permit the sale of alcohol.
Reading a US Wine Label
Wine producers in the USA like to name the grape variety (varietal) on their labels, but this is not always possible for blends. The AVA name or general appellation indicates which part of the USA the wine originates from. If you are familiar with the US wine areas, this can give you an idea of whether you are looking at a cool-climate Oregon wine, for example, or a big, fruity Californian wine – but it is not an indicator of quality. “Estate Bottled“ means that all the grapes come from the estate’s vineyard, and the wine has been made and bottled on site.
General Appellations Permitted on US Wine Labels
• county appellation The county name may be used on a label if at least 75 per cent of the wine originates from the county indicated.
• state appellation The state name may be used if at least 75 per cent of the wine orginates from that state, except for California which requires 100 per cent.
• multi-county / multi-state appellations The percentage of wine from each county or state must be clearly indicated.
• American (or USA) A description for blends or varietals from anywhere in the USA. Labels are not allowed to carry a vintage.
The following terms have no legal definition on American wine labels but are allowed under US Federal Law when qualified with their true place of origin, such as “California Champagne“. Such wines bear no resemblance to French chablis, Italian chianti, Spanish sherry etc.
• burgundy Used loosely in the USA for basic red wines, usually full-bodied and dark in colour
• chablis Blended white table wine
• champagne Sparkling wine
• chianti Medium-bodied, basic red wines
• claret Basic, light red wine
• madeira Any fortified wine of 17–24 per cent, usually a sweet blend of American sherry and angelica.
• malaga Similar to madeira, but usually made from Concord grapes
• marsala Fortified wine, often amber or brown and flavoured with herbs
• moselle Light-bodied white wine, often Chenin Blanc and Riesling.
• port Fortified wines made from various grape varieties, sometimes Portuguese (Tinta port). Some American ports are very good.
• sauterne(s) Sweet wines.
• sherry Sweet, fortified, oxidated wines.
“Hock“ or “rhine wine“ are terms allowed under US Federal Law for light, dry, white wines
Whereas “burgundy“ and other semi-generic terms are allowed, the words “bordeaux“, “rhône“, and “liebfraumilch“ are banned from labels.