In the International Wine Review’s tastings and travels around the world, we always encounter the question of how to interpret the classifications of wines found on the labels of wine bottles. We encounter this question once again as we taste our way through wines for our upcoming reports on Chianti Classico and Oregon.
As the market for wine becomes increasingly globalized, wine classification becomes both ever more important and of questionable value. It is important because classification can signify unique characteristics of the wine. It is of questionable value because the reality is that some classifications are in fact meaningless and because no consumer can possibly be expected to understand and interpret each country’s classification as printed on the wine label.
Why classify wines in the first place? The answer appears to be part quality control, part history, part consumer information, and part marketing. In Europe, where a regional classification (e.g., the Chianti Classico DOCG) usually specifies the varietals that can be grown in that region as well as the growing conditions, the argument is usually one of quality control married to history. A region that has traditionally grown certain varietals and used particular winemaking techniques is, rightly or wrongly, presumed to have arrived at those varietals through some process of natural selection. The classification system is one means of preserving the results of that process.
In the New World, where a regional classification (e.g., Willamette Valley AVA) does little more than designate a geographic region with special soil, altitude, and temperature characteristics (in short, terroir), the label may say something about the potential of the region to grow quality grapes, but it neither sets nor enforces quality standards. Obviously, terroir can vary immensely within a small geographic region, which is the rationale for the growing number of sub-regional classifications (e.g., Red Hill Douglas County), especially in Oregon.
It would appear that the burgeoning number of wine classifications is driven as much by marketing as other considerations. Yet in Chianti Classico, where one could make sound arguments for sub-regional classifications for Radda, Gaiole, Castellina, and Greve, there are none.
In a world where  the quality of wine is determined at least as much by the winemaker and the vineyard as it is by regional location and  the brand name of a winery often has greater marketing pull than the name of a region, the marketing value of a regional or sub-regional classification is increasingly being challenged. After all, the ultimate sub-regional classification is the vineyard itself.