AOC – APPELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTRÔLÉE – Or: Location, Location, Location

Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or “controlled designation of origin,” is the French certification that is bestowed upon certain geographical indications which correspond to specific locations. This certification is most widely known for wines, such as Champagne and Côtes du Rhône, but also is applied to cheeses, butters, lavender, and many other agricultural products. AOC is overseen by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, known as the INAO, which was created as a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture in 1935.

Though wine is the most classically well-known of the AOC, these designations exist for other agricultural products as well. Have you ever had Roquefort cheese? How about Gruyère? Calvados? All of these are AOC products. Every product designated AOC on the label must adhere to a rigorous set of clearly delineated standards laid out by the INAO. This ensures that AOC foodstuffs are produced with consistent and traditional methods, and that only approved ingredients from explicitly classified producers are used.

For example: a Côtes du Rhône red wine is typically made from a blend of five grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre. Though other varietals can and are grown in the region, a vintner cannot blend Cabernet Sauvignon into his wine and call it “Côtes du Rhône.” He could, however, bottle and label a Cabernet blend as vin du pays, which translates to “country wine” and is applicable to any wines made in a specific AOC that fall outside of the classification of that particular AOC.

The idea of terroir is central to the INAO and the AOC classification. Terroir is a truly unique French concept that has been appropriated all around the world to describe the exceptional differences in wines based on geography, climate, soil composition, other plants growing in the vineyards, and the human component of tending the vines and blending the wine. At its core, terroir suggests that wines from a particular region are unique and specific and therefore different from other wines, and are impossible to reproduce anywhere else. This idea of “unique wines from a unique area” is the basis for the AOC classification system, and for the protected designation of origin, or PDO, system that the European Union has put into place.

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