An appellation is a named region in which grapes used for the production of wine are grown. Most of the major wine-producing nations have administrative bodies that oversee appellations and set rules for what standards a vineyard must follow to be considered a part of the appellation. In some countries, appellation is also used for other products in which region of origin is considered important – such as cheese in France.
The French appellation system is the most complex and well-defended in the world, and is handled by the Appellation d’origine contrôlée, commonly referred to as the AOC. The AOC administers more than 300 appellations in France, which fall within a number of larger regions. Some of the well-known regions include Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Alsace, Beaujolais, the Côtes du Rhône, the Languedoc, and of course, Champagne. There are many less famous regions, however, such as Est, Savoie, and Corsica, some of which produce some exceptional wines.
Under the AOC guidelines, it is against the law for a wine to represent itself as belonging to a specific appellation if it fails to comply with the guidelines set out for that appellation. This means that any wine with an appellation on its label meets certain standards for that region, contains certain minimum and maximum quantities of a specific grape, and follows certain limitations on how the grapes are grown and the wine is produced.
In Italy, appellations are regulated by the Denominazione di origine controllata, or DOC. Unlike the AOC, which places a large amount of importance on the characteristics of the land where the grapes are grown – the terroir – the DOC tends to focus more on the varieties of grapes used in producing the wines and the actual method of production. Any Italian wine with an appellation on its label has also been tested by a government employee and bears a seal covering the cork to indicate that the wine has not been tampered with after inspection.
American wines tend to be labeled based primarily on varietal, and so the use of appellation is much less important. For this reason, the American equivalent of the appellation – the American Viticultural Area – indicates much less about a wine than in many European nations. Rather than including limitations on production methods or amounts of various grapes used, an American appellation is simply a geographic area. There are nearly 200 American Viticultural Areas in the United States, more than half of which are in the state of California.