I’ve been involved in quite a few discussions of late about developing new appellations (technically, geographic indications [GIs]) in new world countries, particularly New Zealand.
Currently, New Zealand only has regional GIs: Marlborough, Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay and so on. Within each of these regions there are unofficial sub-regions, but these are not officially defined. So Central Otago has Gibbston, Bannockburn, Lowburn, Alexandra, Bendigo, Wanaka and Pisa, while Marlborough has Awatere, Southern Valleys, Rapaura, Wairau Valley, Upper Wairau, Lower Wairau, Brancott, Omaka, Waihopai, Fairhall and Ben Morven, plus probably others. These aren’t defined and in some cases are overlapping. And if Awatere were its own region, it would be the second largest in New Zealand.
Currently producers are free to use these additional names on labels, as long as they are telling the truth. And there are also instances where producers’ names include places in them. For example, Rapaura Springs have just bought over 100 hectares in the Awatere, so they aren’t making wines that are just from Rapaura, which would create an inconsistency if Rapaura were to become a GI.
There have been moves to create official GIs in New Zealand. In Central Otago, the first GI will be Bannockburn, but plans to get this approved have run into a slight hitch: conjunctive labelling. This hurdle also foiled attempts to get Seaview in the Awatere recognized.
Conjunctive labelling is when the name of the subappellation is accompanied by the larger regional appellation, and usually it’s a very good idea, and ideally it should be mandated. So in Bannockburn’s case, the wine should be labelled ‘Bannockburn, Central Otago.’ This is important because it helps consumers who might not already know Bannockburn, and because it maintains brand equity in Central Otago. But the EU, an important export market, doesn’t allow New Zealand producers to practise conjunctive labelling.
Now a famous producer like Felton Road could label their wine ‘Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir 2016 Bannockburn, New Zealand’ and still sell it easily because everyone who buys Felton Road knows they are from Central Otago. But for most wines, the lack of the regional name would be a problem.
In France, for example, just the appellation name is allowed. You have Chambolle-Musigny on the bottle, and consumers are expected to know this is in Burgundy. Some appellations are so well known, this isn’t a problem. And in some regions, such as Alsace, the only appellations are Alsace AOP, Cremant d’Alsace AOP and Alsace Grand Cru AOP. That’s for quite a sizeable region.
Then there’s a separate discussion: does New Zealand need subregional GIs? There are many possible answers. Regions such as Marlborough and Central Otago are relatively young (1973 and 1982, respectively), but they are now at the stage where people are beginning to unravel the subregional identity as it applies to wine. In some ways, it’s a good thing that regions take their time because if you rush into this, it can stifle the healthy evolution of a region. Identifying subregionality is part of the journey of a wine region and it can enhance the region’s prestige and help ‘premiumize’ the offering. At the non-involved consumer level, though, it is often unnecessary and confusing. Geeks like complexity, and GIs help a region tell its story, once we reach the fine wine dimension.
GIs can be polarizing, and it’s bad news if they are established for political motives. They have to mean something in terms of wine quality and character, or else they are worthless. So for Marlborough, I think a good start would be ‘Southern Clays’, referring to the bits in the southern valleys with clay-based soils, often on hillside sites, which are producing most of the region’s best Pinot Noir. I would also do something that’s rarely done in the New World but which is common in the old: restrict the GI to specific grape varieties. So for Southern Clays, the GI should just be for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varieties that do really well here. This would be a useful GI that would really help Marlborough’s reputation with Pinot Noir, in particular. Such a GI would merely be an official sanction of what quality producers are already observing.
There are also examples of unofficial appellations, and New Zealand has a few of these. In Hawke’s Bay, there is a Gimblett Gravels association, and also a Bridge Pa Triangle group: both of these are producer clubs, effectively, where a distinct terroir is being promoted. Chile has the Vigno group (for old vine Carignan-based wines in Maule). And Germany has the Grosses Gewachs, which is a special member club for top-level wine estates. Soon Marlborough will have the ‘Pure Marlborough‘ designation, which is likely to cause some controversy.
An example of a new world wine region where some new GIs are badly needed is the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia. This is a very diverse region, with distinct climatic differences between the northern and southern ends. The problem this creates is that it’s a region that grows a lot of different varieties, and this dilutes its marketing message. New GIs would really help, and a BC Wine Appellation Task Group has made some sensible recommendations, including mandating conjunctive labelling.
And finally, one example of a sensible new world GI that has been thoughtfully defined is Gualtallary, in Argentina’s Mendoza region. This high altitude subregion has been defined on the basis of distinctive terroir differences, following an extensive scientific survey. If GIs are created with a lot of thought on the basis of good evidence, they can be a very positive step in the evolution of a wine industry.