Understanding the French wine classification system, Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)

“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.” -Keats

Understanding the French Wine Classification System, Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)
Photo source.

Part of understanding a country’s wine is understanding how the country controls (and therefore labels) its wine production. Perhaps the best place to begin is the system that many modern wine wine governances are modeled after: France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC).

Understanding the French Wine Classification System, Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)

Appellation d’Origine Controlee: Definition and Purpose

The term appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) means “controlled designation of origin” in French. The classification system was developed as a way of certifying geographical indications for wine; however, today the AOC extends to many products including wine, cheese, butter, lavender, and lentils. The certifications and the process are controlled by an organization called the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO for short).

The AOC concept is based on the concept of terroir: “terroir” means “land” in France, and the term represents the idea that the land is the key factor in agricultural products and that the products should reflect the unique geography and climate of the land. In the case of wine, “terroir” means the wine should reflect the unique qualities the soil and climate impart onto the grapes–the “soul” of the grapes and the wine–and the wine should not reflect overhandling during the winemaking process. AOCs are regions whose grapes expected to reflect similar terroir (qualities) in their subsequent wines.

France has nearly 500 AOCs and they vary in size.

History of AOC and the INAO

Today’s AOC reflects the beliefs of the INAO, which was formed in 1935 to oversee the winemaking process in French wineries. However, government monitoring of agriculture dates back to monitoring Roquefort in the 15th century. The AOC seal was created in the 1950s; in 1990, the INAO extended its work to agriculture products other than wine, including the above-mentioned honey, cheese, meat, lentils, and lavender.

What prompted the formation of the INAO and the AOC system? In the 1930s, producers of higher-quality wines voiced concerns with the overabundance of lower-quality wines and other industry issues, such as fraud and mislabeling. The organization and AOC system were formed in response, with hope of providing a “guarantee” of quality and consistency and the solidification of what practices (in the vineyard and throughout the wine-making process) constitute wines from each region.

The INAO consists of twelve regional committees: Alsace and Eastern France, Champagne, Southwest, Loire Valley, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, Rhône Valley, Provence-Corsica, Vins Doux Naturels, Cognac, Armagnac and Eaux-de-Vie de Cidre.

Understanding the French Wine Classification System, Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC)
French vineyards in 1900, shortly after the designations were developed.

AOC Designations

With the AOC, French wines are placed into four main categories that I’ve listed from what is considered the lowest quality to the highest; Vin de Table, Vin de Pays (VDP), Vin Dèlimitè de Qualitè Supèrieure (VDQS) and Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC).

Vin de Table

Did you just order a “house red?” You are drinking a Vin de Table, or “table wine.” These are the unassuming, every-day drinking wines that are known for affordability. In relation to the price (often just a few euros), the quality is actually quite high. A Vin de Table will not list the area that its grapes have been grown.

Vin de Pays

Unlike the Vin de Table, Vin de Pays (“country wine”) distinguishes the region where it was produced. Not only does this tell consumers the area that the wine was made, but it also indicates the types of grapes used in the wine. If a consumer learns which regions grow which grapes, he or she will have a good idea of the makeup of the wine by only knowing its region. It is also important to note that Vin de Pays wines are also analyzed (and of course tasted!) before receiving the Vin de Pays designation in order to ensure the wine meets the qualities of the region.

Vin Délimité de Qualité Superieure (VDQS)

Perhaps the least known of the four designations, VDQS wines make up just 2% of the French market. This category is often joked as being the “waiting room” for the well-known (and higher esteemed) AOC designation. A step up in quality and price from the Vin de Pays, these wines can still be a great deal in comparison to the AOC wines that are held in such high regard. Like all of other AOC designations other than Vin de Table, VDQS wines are tasted before receiving their title.

Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

The highest designation is of course the one with the most restrictions and requirements. Like the Vin de Pays and VDQS wines, AOC wines must be tasted. It is important to note that because every vintage is different, no wine is guaranteed an AOC designation two years in a row. Exceptionally good years lead to more AOC wines, and the opposite is true for years that see unfavorable growing conditions.

Criticisms of the AOC

The AOC system is revered by many for its dedication to preserving traditional wine-making methods in each of France’s wine regions, and its system is considered the most effective of all designation systems in Europe. However, there are some criticisms of the INAO and the AOC system. Many argue that while the AOC keeps traditional wine-making methods alive, its rules also stifle any form of “creativity” for the winemakers. With the AOC restrictions, only specific grapes can be grown, only certain pruning methods can be used, etc. Winemakers looking for leeway shouldn’t expect much in France.

Final Sip on France’s AOC

Above all, the AOC system is used by consumers as a buying guide. Understanding the requirements for each designation will ensure that the buyer understands exactly what he or she is paying for. But taste is always subjective. If you prefer the taste of a particular “lower” quality Vin de Pays to a “higher” quality AOC wine, then it is better. Do not let labels determine what wines you think are better as taste always wins in the end.

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