Wine 101: Wine terms explained, AVA

An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a specific US wine-growing region that is legally designated by the TTB, short for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The idea is based on similar laws in other countries, like France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Appellation of Controlled Origin (DOC). In 1980, the first US appellation was granted to the grape growing area around Augusta, Missouri. California’s Napa Valley quickly followed as the second AVA in the United States. Currently, the US has 257 established AVAs in 33 states, with another 16 pending and several others proposed.

AVAs offer wine drinkers an important way to better understand the wines grown in America. Before the TTB legally approves a new AVA, the submitted petition must prove evidence and a convincing argument of the unique geographical, geological, and climatic characteristics that influence the grapes grown in the proposed area. Together, these factors must produce distinct wines unlike those found elsewhere in the country. It’s just like the real estate manta– all about location, location, location!

Once the TTB has approved the new appellation, vintners who use at least 85% of fruit grown within the AVA boundaries in their wine are legally allowed to list it on their wine labels. This base percentage is stipulated by the TTB, however, states have the legal authority to require even higher amounts. Currently, Oregon and Washington require 95%, Idaho follows the TTB’s mandatory 85%, and California requires 100% of any designated AVA wine to be made solely from fruit grown within the appellation’s borders.

As wine regions mature, smaller, nested, sub-AVAs have been created within larger ones. These smaller, “child” appellations have even more unique features and characteristics than those found in the “parent” AVA. All nested/child/sub-AVAs lay wholly within the larger, parental boundaries. For example, Oregon’s Willamette Valley contains 9 nested AVAs and California’s Napa Valley is home to 16 nested AVAs.

Because American Viticultural Areas are based, in part, on geological features, they can straddle state lines. Both Oregon and Washington share the smaller Walla Walla Valley AVA, which is nested wholly within the greater Columbia Valley appellation. And neighboring states Idaho and Oregon share the Snake River Valley AVA.  

As a wine consumer, knowing where the wine grapes in a particular bottle were grown can provide valuable insights as to how the wine might taste. I always include the AVA information in all my wine tasting notes. Here’s an example:

AVAs in my wine tasting notes

For some background, I began my wine studies in earnest while living in Santa Barbara’s wine country. My home was just to the west of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, located within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, and my daily commute took me past many of its vineyards. I started spending a lot of time wine tasting and chatting with vintners in those hills. My desire to better understand the wines grown there ignited my passion and launched the start of the wine journey I continue to explore today!

From one wine lover to another, I encourage you to taste wines grown within the same appellation, wherever it may be. Doing so will help you get a better, more comprehensive understanding of place, just like I first did in the Sta. Rita Hills.

It’s also fun to taste wines made with the same grape varietal, but grown in different AVAs!

In both tasting scenarios, you’ll see firsthand how the climate, soil, elevation, precipitation levels, and other elements impact the wines. As you get a sense of an AVA’s terroir, you’ll discover your likes (and dislikes) and become a better wine buyer. And, if you haven’t read my Wine 101 on terroir, you won’t want to miss it.

Click here to see all the established US AVAs

Check out our Royal Slope AVA infographic and deep dive into the appellation, including links to tasting notes on 13 wines from there

Stay tuned as we highlight Washington’s new Candy Mountain AVA and Oregon’s new Van Duzer Corridor AVA in the coming months!

Oregon wine AVAs

(21 as of 7/20/21)
Applegate Valley
Chehalem Mountains
Columbia Gorge
Columbia Valley
Dundee Hills
Elkton Oregon
Eola-Amity Hills
Laurelwood District
McMinnville
Red Hill Douglas County
Ribbon Ridge
The Rocks District
Tualatin Hills
Rogue Valley
Snake River Valley
Southern Oregon
Umpqua Valley
Van Duzer Corridor
Walla Walla Valley
Willamette Valley
Yamhill-Carlton

Washington wine AVAs

(19 as of 7/20/21)
Ancient Lakes
Candy Mountain
Columbia Gorge
Columbia Valley
Goose Gap
Horse Heaven Hills
Lake Chelan
Lewis-Clark Valley
Naches Heights
Puget Sound
Rattlesnake Hills
Red Mountain
Royal Slope
Snipes Mountain
The Burn of Columbia Valley
Yakima Valley
Wahluke Slope
Walla Walla Valley
White Bluffs

Idaho wine AVAs

(3 as of 7/20/21)
Eagle Foothills
Lewis-Clark Valley
Snake River Valley

California wine AVAs

(142 as of 7/20/21)
Adelaida District
Alexander Valley
Alta Mesa
Anderson Valley
Alisos Canyon
Antelope Valley of the California High Desert
Arroyo Grande Valley
Arroyo Seco
Atlas Peak
Ballard Canyon
Ben Lomond Mountain
Benmore Valley
Bennett Valley
Big Valley District–Lake County
Borden Ranch
California Shenandoah Valley
Calistoga
Capay Valley
Carmel Valley
Central Coast
Chalk Hill
Chalone
Chiles Valley
Cienega Valley
Clarksburg
Clear Lake
Clements Hills
Cole Ranch
Coombsville
Cosumnes River
Covelo
Creston District
Cucamonga Valley
Diablo Grande
Diamond Mountain District
Dos Rios
Dry Creek Valley
Dunnigan Hills
Eagle Peak Mendocino County
Edna Valley
El Dorado
El Pomar District
Fair Play
Fiddletown
Fort Ross-Seaview
Fountaingrove District
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Guenoc Valley
Hames Valley
Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
High Valley
Howell Mountain
Inwood Valley
Jahant
Kelsey Bench–Lake County
Knights Valley
Lamorinda
Leona Valley
Lime Kiln Valley
Livermore Valley
Lodi
Los Carneros
Los Olivos District
Madera
Malibu Coast
Malibu-Newton Canyon
Manton Valley
Mendocino
Mendocino Ridge
Merritt Island
McDowell Valley
Mokelumne River
Monterey
Moon Mountain District Sonoma County
Mt. Harlan
Mt. Veeder
Napa Valley
North Coast
North Yuba
Northern Sonoma
Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
Oakville
Pacheco Pass
Paicines
Palos Verdes Peninsula
Paso Robles
Paso Robles Estrella District
Paso Robles Geneseo District
Paso Robles Highlands District
Paso Robles Willow Creek District
Petaluma Gap
Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak
Potter Valley
Ramona Valley
Red Hills Lake County
Redwood Valley
River Junction
Rockpile
Russian River Valley
Rutherford
Saddle Rock-Malibu
Salado Creek
San Antonio Valley
San Benito
San Bernabe
San Francisco Bay
San Juan Creek
San Lucas
San Miguel District
San Pasqual Valley
San Ysidro District
Santa Clara Valley
Santa Cruz Mountains
Santa Lucia Highlands
Santa Margarita Ranch
Santa Maria Valley
Santa Ynez Valley
Seiad Valley
Sierra Foothills
Sierra Pelona Valley
Sloughhouse
Solano County Green Valley
Sonoma Coast
Sonoma Mountain
Sonoma Valley
South Coast
Spring Mountain District
Squaw Valley–Miramonte
St. Helena
Sta. Rita Hills
Stags Leap District
Suisun Valley
Tehachapi Mountains
Temecula Valley
Templeton Gap District
Tracy Hills
Trinity Lakes
Wild Horse Valley
Willow Creek
York Mountain
Yorkville Highlands
Yountville

If you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment! Do you have a favorite wine AVA? If so, we’d love to hear why!
Don’t miss our other Wine 101 articles:

Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Tannins

Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Terroir

Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Acidity

Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Mouthfeel

Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part one

Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part two

Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part three

Wine 101: Wine Bottle sizes and names

Wine 101: Use Your Words

Wine 101: Smell & Memory

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About the Author: Michele Francisco

Michele Francisco, a founder and regular contributor to Winerabble, a blog primarily about Pacific Northwest wines, is living the dream in Portland, Oregon. Her passion leads some to believe she's got wine running through her veins. Contact Michele at michele@winerabble.com & be sure to visit her online portfolio at www.michelefrancisco.com.

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