A wine label tells us plenty about what we’re drinking or looking at on a store shelf and, aside from the grapes used to make it, where those grapes are grown is perhaps the most useful information in determining a wine’s basic quality. The topic of ‘place’ is an enormous one that could fill pages and one I’m happy to go into with greater detail if you visit the store, but to get a good handle on the notion consider these points:
A wine growing region is referred to as an ‘appellation’. In a pure sense, appellations are established to acknowledge climatic, geographic and geologic that are distinct or unique. An appellation is recognized legally and misuse of its characterization on a label can bring federal wine geeks a knockin’ on the door. An appellation may be very broad – ‘California’ -or a very tiny and specific ‘sub-appellation’ such as ‘Green Valley’. Green Valley, which covers a total of 19,000 acres, lies within the larger ‘Russian River Valley’ which is within ‘Sonoma County’ which is included in the ‘North Coast’ appellation of ‘California’, a state within ‘America’. Wine with an ‘American’ appellation usually sells by the gallon.
85% of the juice in a bottle must be made from grapes harvested from the declared appellation. Therefore, 15% of a wine labeled from Sonoma’s Green Valley could come from another place in Sonoma, or California, or even Spain. It’s highly unlikely however that a winery in the hallowed Green Valley has ever blended juice from any vineyard outside of The Golden States, let alone Spain however you might be surprised at how that 15% latitude is exorcized with respect to some mass-produced ‘California’ designated operations when the global market is awash with unwanted wine from places like Missouri, Sicily and Brazil.
While a vine will yield fermentable grapes if planted in any but the coldest corners of earth, GOOD wine comes from places with better suited climates and GREAT wine comes from specific places with ideal climates and soils. Different varieties of grapes take better, or worse, to a variety of conditions. Sonoma’s Green Valley is a very cool region near the Pacific Ocean where summer afternoons usually see fog folding in over the hills above Occidental to the west or creeping down from the Russian River through Forestville. The Laguna Ridge, to the east, walls off warmer air on the Santa Rosa Plain. Green River is unique. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow exceptionally well there, especially those used to make sparkling wine. Iron Horse Vineyard calls the appellation home and makes some of the best bubbly on earth. Remarkable Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc wines are produced in the area and a few intrepid growers even dabble in Zinfandel but grapes such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon are wholly ill-suited rather they flourish in warmer weather as might be found just 18 miles away in the Sonoma Valley a.v.a. or 30 miles east in Napa Valley.
Generally speaking the more specific the place, the more distinct the wine. Distinction comes with a price tag but the idea is hardly a rule since specific places are occasionally challenged, or even devastated, by specific molds or specific rains, frosts or hailstorms. The sourcing of grapes from broader regions allows wineries to spread risk and usually hold down costs while being able to make very enjoyable and accessible wines.
Of course, your sense of taste, budget and curiosity should be the key factors in deciding which wine to pick up and the language on a label can steer you in the right direction.