Deciphering the language on wine labels can be a bit like putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. So where's it from? And what's the grape? And what's this word mean? Seeing "estate" on a wine label may be adding to your confusion, but it doesn't have to. In fact, understanding the definition of estate wine can help give you a better understanding of a wine and how it was produced.
What Is an Estate Wine?
Overall, "estate" means the winery and vineyards must be in the same designated geographic area, the farming of the grapes is managed by the winery, and the wine is made from start to finish on-site, at the winery. Okay. That's the gist. Then it gets a little more convoluted, as wine does. In the U.S., there is no legally defined term for "estate." There is, however, a legally defined term for "estate-bottled." So, an American wine with "estate" on the label doesn't 100% guarantee those three points listed above, but an American wine with "estate-bottled" on the label does. In other parts of the world, like France and South Africa, the single word "estate" is more of an equivalent to the American "estate-bottled" term.
Breaking It Down
Exlore what each of these criteria mean for wines.
Wines with "estate-bottled" designations must also designate an appellation of origin or an American Viticulture Area (AVA). Both the vineyards and the winery must be located in this AVA. What does this mean? Well, say for example, that a winery is in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, but the vineyards are in another part of Sonoma County, like Alexander Valley. In this case, "estate-bottled" cannot be on the label. The vineyard fruit must be sourced from the same AVA where the winery is located.
The grapes must come from vineyards owned or controlled by the winery. So say a winery purchases fruit from another vineyard owner. In order for the wine to be labelled "estate-bottled" in this instance, the winery must have control over the vineyard. This mean the winery is making all of the calls on how much fruit to grow, how much fruit to drop, whether or not to use irrigation, what kind of canopy management to employ, and all other decisions made in the farming and fruit growing process. If the winery does not manage all the farming practices, they cannot use that term on the label.
The wine must have been produced, from crush to bottle, in a continuous process without leaving the winery's premises. This seems obvious, but in reality, many commercial wineries are so big they have a crush facility in one location, and other facilities to finish off the fermentation and bottling. In the case that a wine is transported to another location for bottling, or any other phase during winemaking, it can not be labelled "estate-bottled".
What Does This Mean in Terms of Quality?
There tends to be a little more transparency with estate wines as the winery is managing all aspects from field to cellar. While it is easy to think that this translates to higher quality wine, that is not necessarily the case every time. It is still important to ask questions and do your research about their farming and winemaking practices to understand what their philosophy is. Do they inoculate commercial yeast? Do they add chemicals to correct for acidity or color? Do they use oak barriques or oak chips? While the quality varies, a wine labelled "estate" or "estate-bottled" will likely be a bit more expensive compared to its counterparts due to the extra steps involved in keeping it in the family, so to speak.
Adding to Your Wine Lexicon
Scanning a bunch of wine bottles in a long aisle at the store can be overwhelming. But breaking it down piece by piece and learning some of those specific words and phrases can actually help you to understand a bit more about a wine and where it came from.