We all have our own personal interests that may seem just a tad bit odd to the outside world. Whether its Scandanavian house music from 1988, collecting vintage Scooby Doo posters, or memorizing every line of Bull Durham (Hubs!). These interests are what make us unique and I admit to very much having one of my own: sub-AVAs. This shouldn’t come as a complete shocker as two of my very first blog posts/outlines were on the teeny tiny sub-AVAs of Ancient Lakes AVA and Stags Leap District, and my most recent outline details Oregon’s smallest AVA – Ribbon Ridge. I’m curious what exactly makes these sub-AVAs distinguishable from the larger (and more well-known) AVAs in which they’re contained: namely, Columbia Valley, Napa Valley and Willamette Valley.
If you found your way to this blog, then you probably already know that “AVA” stands for American Viticultural Area. These are geographic designations that establish boundaries of a specific grape growing region. Unlike a state or a county where boundaries are usually historically and/or politically based, an AVA’s boundaries are formed for the purpose of encompassing an area that shares a similar climate, soil type or geographical features. In general, for a wine to be labeled with an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes must be from that area. Oregon takes this a step further and requires that 95% of the grapes be from an AVA in order for the AVA’s name to appear on the label.
A sub-AVA (sometimes called a “nested AVA”, or as Hubs asked me “are these kinda like Russian nesting dolls?”) is a smaller AVA that is wholly contained within a larger one. To form a sub-AVA, it must be shown that this smaller area is “sufficiently distinct” from its larger, encompassing AVA.
Ribbon Ridge is a sub-AVA of both the Chehalem Mountains AVA and the Willamette Valley AVA. It was granted its own AVA status because, among other reasons, it has a different soil type than these larger AVAs and it also possesses a different climate due to its higher elevation as an “island-like ridge” in the middle of the Willamette Valley.
Wineries in sub-AVAs like Ribbon Ridge have the option of “defaulting” to any larger AVAs that encompass them. So if a Ribbon Ridge winery wished to label their wine Chehalem Mountains AVA or the more recognizable Willamette Valley AVA instead of Ribbon Ridge AVA, they could do so.
As of December 2017, there were 240 AVAs in the United States – 139 in California alone! An up-to-date list can be found here.
Rules confusing enough so far? We haven’t even started talking about the government’s involvement in all this . . .
To become recognized as an official AVA, a detailed application must be submitted for approval to the TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). If you’re curious about what all this entails – here’s more information. Warning: this is some seriously boring shit. Back in my lawyering days, I dealt with the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) a lot. You’d think these would be right up my alley since they’re set up in outline format (!!) but somehow, the government has managed to butcher even outlines on wine-related subjects.
Moving on . . . once an AVA is established, grape growers within that AVA may cultivate whatever grape varieties they want, decide on farming methods, and produce wine with their choice minimum alcohol % and grape blend. They also make their own decisions on how long to age their wines before release to the public and whether to age in oak or not. This is very different from European appellation systems where all (or most of) these winemaking decisions are strictly regulated. Essentially, the AVA system regulates the “where” of wine and the European appellation regulates the “where” and the “how” (and sometimes the “when” too!)
Let’s compare Chablis AOC in France (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) with Red Mountain AVA in Washington:
France: In order for a wine to be labeled “Chablis AOC” the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Chablis. The wine must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and have a minimum 10% abv (alcohol by volume). Additionally, yields are limited to under 60 hectoliters/hectare.
United States: In order for a wine to be labeled “Red Mountain AVA”, the grapes must come from the geographical region designated as Red Mountain AVA. And . . . well, that’s it. No restrictions on varieties, yields or alcohol levels here. Winemakers have complete freedom on viticulture and winemaking decisions and can grow as diverse of varieties as they choose.
While freedom of choice and diversity of ideas are ideal foundations upon which to build a republic, perhaps not so much in wine production as it can lead to a hodgepodge of wines with no common characteristics. According to the TTB, the establishment of an AVA allows “vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.” In other words, the basic premise behind an AVA is that wines from this specific area will share certain, hopefully discernable, characteristics. However, with such freedom given to winemakers, this is often difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish.
I thought I’d try this out for myself by tasting two 2015 Ribbon Ridge AVA Pinot Noirs to see if I could identify any common characteristics:
Archery Summit 2015 ‘Looney Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (14.5% abv)
- Color: Medium- ruby, bright & clear
- Aromas: Bright red fruits – cherries, raspberries & red plum. Red licorice. Spice and cedar. Roses.
- Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins. Ripe red fruits are present here too, along with some tea leaves.
- My Thoughts: Very elegant, red fruit driven Pinot Noir.
- Technical Bits: Looney Vineyard is Archery Summit’s only vineyard in Ribbon Ridge. The winery’s website describes wines from Looney Vineyard having “an appealing precocious quality that can be seen in the distinctive sense of blue fruit they deliver to the palate. Fresh plums and red currant flavors combine with notes of citrus—particularly blood orange—and baking spices to deliver a juicy wine with great density and vigor.”
Gramercy Cellars 2015 ‘Le Pre du Col Vineyard’ Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge. (12.9% abv)
- Color: Medium ruby, slightly hazier
- Aromas: Funky earth & farmyard. Dirty cherries. Fall leaves. There’s a definite stemminess here (no surprise, as a Gramercy mantra is “stems rule”!).
- Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium tannins. Lots of earthy/stemmy fruits along with cranberries and herbal tea.
- My Thoughts: This is a funky-ass Pinot and I love it.
- Technical Bits: This wine was fermented on 75% stems – which explains the more earthy/funky characteristics when compared to the Archery Summit. Aged in large neutral barrels – might be why there’s a lack of oak/baking spices on the nose or palate.
Although these two Pinots had similar structural profiles, their aromas and flavors were quite distinguishable. This probably is due to different winemaking decisions – whole cluster fermentation by Gramercy, partial new oak aging by Archery Summit. So as far as “common characteristics” go, besides these both falling into my “yummy!” category, they’re very different wines. Would I have guessed they’re from the same teeny-tiny sub-AVA of Willamette Valley? Probably not.
So . . . what’s the point of having these small AVAs? Do they have any real meaning in the marketplace? Even though I couldn’t discern many commonalities between the two Ribbon Ridge Pinots (admittedly a tiny sample size), I did enjoy them – and several others from this sub-AVA that I’ve had in the past. So would I be likely to purchase another Pinot from this area? Definitely. So maybe that’s enough to justify sub-AVAs.
Tom Warks of Fermentation Wine Blog fame has a great post about how Napa Valley sub-AVAs are basically meaningless. He sums it up beautifully:
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the most experienced Napa Valley palates couldn’t successfully and consistently identify the AVAs from which a selection of different Napa Valley Cabernets originate. And if they can’t do this, what are the odds that Jimmy Bigcellar from Dallas can identify the AVA of different Napa Valley Cabernets?
Full disclosure to Mr. Warks: I’m totally stealing “Jimmy Bigcellar” in future posts!
I’d love to hear some readers thoughts on sub-AVAs. Do you pay much attention to them when purchasing wine? Do you have a favorite? If so, why? And is anyone else out there a Ribbon Ridge Pinot fan? Perhaps you prefer Scandanavian house music? 🙂
Here’s the outline on Ribbon Ridge.