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From French wine to cellars packed with fromages, specialty peppers, lavender, the hallowed AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) French wine classification system stands for meticulous tradition and quality above all.

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What Is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée?

Appellation d'origine contrôlée—French for controlled designation of origin—is a certification granted to certain French agricultural products, such as wine and cheese, to denote their place of origin, quality, and style. Location is at the heart of the classification, which values terroir as a unique, irreplicable asset in the production of agricultural goods.

What Are the Origins of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée?

While AOC classifications are often associated with French wines, a certain beloved blue cheese set the precedent for the designation of origin certification. In 1411, the production and origins of Roquefort, a sheep’s milk cheese, was regulated by parliamentary decree.

Regulations around French wine wouldn’t arrive until 1905. A turbulent period rife with fraud and lower-quality wines ensued until 1935, when the French government set up the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO). The INAO develops and enforces rules about the types of grapes that can be grown in certain areas, as well as how wines (and other protected agricultural products) need to be made if they wanted to garner the name of a given appellation. This gave consumers more information about the wine they were buying and raised the quality levels of French wine across the board.

Wine-producing countries across Europe and the New World have since adopted similar systems. The term AOC is now included in the broader, wider European appellation d’origine protégée (AOP)—in English, protected designation of origin or PDO—and the terms are occasionally used interchangeably.

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How Do French Wine Classifications Work?

This is how regional french wine classifications come into fruition.

  • Regional Analysis: Each region ensures that the wine made in certain areas meets the requirements to be granted AOC status. Some of the wine regions boasting wines with the AOC classification include Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley, Rhône, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Bordeaux. These regional committees base their decisions on a list of factors including production style, aging method, location and variety of the grapes, the terroir, and the volume of wine produced from those grapes
  • Committee Decision: If a wine satisfies these standards, the committees will grant AOC status for that calendar year.
  • Quality Check: If a wine receives AOC status one year, but the growing conditions for the following year are subpar, the wine can potentially lose AOC status.

French Wine Classifications

French wine classifications are both strict and subject to change over time. Many previous classifications, like VDQS (vin délimité de qualité supérieure), were deemed too narrow by regulating authorities or were folded into the other labels.

  • Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC): A rank of AOC means that a wine was produced in a specific region, and exhibits a level of quality, and style. Each appellation has its own outlines with regard to grape variety, growing conditions, and permitted blends.
  • Grand Cru: A grand cru, denoted within a specific AOC, is the highest possible classification of French wine, and requirements to meet it vary per region. It’s most often tied to a specific vintage from a single vineyard or estate.
  • Premier Cru: Within certain appellations, notably Bordeaux, there is the possibility of a Premier Cru within a Grand Cru classification. It can also denote a particular vineyard or estate within a region.
  • Vin de Pays: The broader Vin de Pays classification was first introduced in the 1970s, and is the pre-European Union equivalent of IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée, or protected geographical indications). IGP and VDPs are only concerned with the specific geographic region where a wine was made. An IGP is typically applied to a larger regional area than an AOC, it allows for wider boundaries with respect to individual styles of winemaking.
  • Vin de France: Previously known as Vin de Table, this is the most basic classification for French wines, with no hard rules for where grapes must be grown or requirements around stating vintages or blends.

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