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Saturday, May 26, 2012

AOC and AOP on France's Foods and Wine labels? Why did the AOC add an AOP?

Behind the French Menu.
Bryan G. Newman
Last updated October 2017
First, there was the AOC, and now there is AOP as well.
Why? What, if anything, has changed?
Firstly the AOC and its history.
The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, the Controlled Mark of Origin.
It all began with grading wines.

The first attempt to create a list of wines graded with a set of publicly accepted benchmarks was the listing of Bordeaux wines in 1855 and 1856.

The grades called "crus" were created then.
 and they have confused most of us ever since.
The grading began, in the late 1800's. Then, the best wines of Bordeaux were grouped into 5 categories called Crus; the AOC designation came much later.  (A single cru is pronounced croo, the plural is crooz). The different crus graded the unique places where the grapes were grown along with the type of soil; that and the wine's popularity. The methods used in making the wine were not part of the rating, and the primary criterion was that of public demand.  At that time, it was expected that the crus were divisions of quality that could and would be changed as a wine improved or failed to keep up its standards. However, since 1856 only one wine in Bordeaux has upgraded its status, none has ever been downgraded.  Public demand as part of a grade is always important, as that does represent a grade that could be changed; nevertheless,  that, unfortunately, is not used today. Moreover, modern agricultural methods and equipment have leveled the playing field for many wines along with other criteria.  Nevertheless, the lack of movement, up or down, for any Bordeaux wine, lamentably, shows that we can no longer rely on the crus alone.

What the AOC label promises today.

The AOC guarantees that each individual product is produced in a unique way, in a very clearly defined place. All the ingredients and additives, if any, are public knowledge. The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée; the Controlled Mark of Origin, guarantees the origin.  The rules for the award of an AOC have changed over time. The AOC began with wines and has since added fruits and food products. Now there are regulations covering animal husbandry, drugs and food additives and what, if anything may be added to a wine or liquor.

When did the label receive government authorization?

Without a legal background, anyone and anything could be labeled as its producer decided and misrepresentation was rampant. The first French law enacted in 1919 gave the background to the AOC for wines. The years that followed saw other legislation that created an institution to inspect and control the allocation of the grades. In 1925 the first cheese to be awarded an AOC was the Roquefort sheep's cheese. Following on came laws in 1935 and 1936 that created the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the national institute for signs of origin and quality, known as INAO.  INAO now controls all of France's government-controlled food and wine labels including AOC, AOP, Label Rouge, red label, IGP (the English language PGI)  and AB, Agriculture Biologique, the AB organic farming label.
Many consumers around the world, and surprisingly that includes quite a number of French men and women assume that the products carrying that AOC and or an AOP label has been tested for both quality and taste. Though, who did the tasting for the Foin de orCrau AOC, which is a hay grown for animals and the Huile Essentielle de Lavande AOC, an essential lavender oil, used in aromatherapy has never been questioned.
Taureau de Camargue AOP
Photograph by courtesy of Sean Rowe
The first French grade of beef cattle to have been awarded an AOC, now an AOP, for the constant and superior quality and also the taste of the beef was the Taureau de Camargue. None of the animals may have been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. All young animals must be raised by their mothers until they are weaned
Now the AOP
The AOP, with a few minor changes, covers and replaces France's AOC, Portugal’s DDOS, Spain’s DOP, and Italy’s DOCG  etc.  All the AOP regulations within the European Union and Switzerland are exactly the same.

There is no difference in taste, color or texture between a French product with an AOC and a Pan-European AOP.
You, the diner, will not notice any differences in taste, color or texture between any product that held a French AOC and now has an AOP. With the very smallest of changes in the regulations the AOP and PGI labels is ending or has already ended, the European label wars. Confusion in names has ended. When before there was a Swiss AOC Gruyere and a French AOC Gruyere there is now a Swiss AOP Gruyere and a French IGP Gruyere.  Wherever you travel with the European Union and Switzerland the AOP includes the same regulations and controls.
 How do I choose a wine?
When traveling I recommend that travelers buying French wines use one of the excellent English language (and up-to-date) pocketbooks on wines.  You do not need a wine tasting course before you leave though that would help.  With a book for the local wines on hand, you will be respected in a wine store or by a sommelier in a restaurant. They will, hopefully, not try to get rid of old stock on someone who can clearly check what is being sold. The AOC and AOP labels do not control the taste. While it controls how a product was made it cannot control how it was stored or cooked. 

Wines on a budget.

On principle, I try never to pay more for a wine than the main course. That's not always possible but certainly, no wine should cost more than the whole meal for one diner. Nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to have French friends and business acquaintances who have chosen and paid for a wine that would have been far above my budget.  Some of these wines were incredible; they were good enough to be worth the price that was paid; they were genuinely fantastic. I have also tasted other expensive wines that should never have been uncorked and when I was paying they were sent back. There is no way that you can accept a wine that has gone off.  (A wonderful wine, within my budget, in one restaurant, has on more than one occasion become undrinkable in another). With wines, storage is very very important. Caveat emptor: Despite having the same vintner and the same year on the label if the wine has not been kept well you can taste it, and in some cases, you may need to choose something else.  
Discount wines in wine shops and supermarkets.

I have been in wine shops and supermarkets where a fairly old bottle of a fairly well-known Bordeaux wine is on sale.  N.B. If the wine on show was really a great deal the French cognoscenti would have been there long before I arrived and that raises my antennae. Secondly, my wine book lets me know how the specific wine was rated by the experts.  When I find the reason for a suspiciously low price I usually end up looking for something else.

Unfortunately, Since 1935 with one or two exceptions no AOC wine has had its rating changed.

From 1935, there have been legal changes in the regulations behind AOC for food products and wines. Products that have received an  AOC award since the 1950's have been held to higher standards. Now there are tests for taste and smell tests called organoleptic tests. However, stripping a product of its AOC, once it has been awarded is unheard of.  Since AOC was first awarded one-hundred years ago not a single wine has been taken off the list.  Listen to friends, listen to the sommelier, and read what the books say. Remember, that for wines storage is very very important and for food products storage and cooking is paramount.
Food products with an AOC
        Three hundred wines.  
One crème fraiche
One cream,
Two grape brandies, Cognac and Armagnacone Apple brandy Calvados(and Calvados is really three different apple brandies) that all come from the French mainland. The rum from the French overseas department of Martinique has an AOC.
One Rum.
A limited number of fruits and vegetables including two magnificent table grapes, the Muscat du Ventoux grapes, and the Raisin Chasselas de Moissac AOC
Some tasty sausages.
Some truly special poultry, the Volaille de Bresse.
Two strains of lamb the Prés-salés de la Baie de Somme AOC and the Prés-salés du Mont-Saint-Michel AOC
One unique small, farmed mussel the Moules de Bouchots.

Non-food products with an AOC.
A particular type of hay for animal fodder the Foin de Crau AOC and an essential lavender oil used in aromatherapy, Lavender Fine AOP.
The Pan European AOP

The French AOP label.
Most French AOC labels have now added 
 the Pan-European AOP.
AOP stands for the Appellation d'Origine Protégée, the Protected Mark of Origin, in English that is the Protected Designation of Origin, the PDO.
How a product receives an AOP today.
Producers must keep to all the AOP Pan-European unified standards and that includes those who already have a French AOC. Following on the award of an AOC another committee made up of representatives that include other European countries check the approved product for presentations to the AOP.  That procedure involves many steps and many inspections and controls. To be awarded n AOC and an AOP is a process that can take years.
The use of the AOP  label on French AOC products
As with all changes, not everyone is happy. The existing French AOC holders, along with products with similar ratings from other countries, were grandfathered in without any new checks. That included wines that have not been rated in the last 50 to 150 years.   For the producers, the holders of the French AOC, the AOP implies added value across the European Union. The AOP label of quality will be accepted by consumers in all the 28 countries. At the end of the day, nearly all French AOC labels also carry an AOP.
If you are a French farmer, cheese maker, vintner or producer of products that have the right use the initials AOP, then you are practically made for life.  That same bankable value is the target for by all those waiting for approval of an AOP.   
Appellation origin Controlee.  
Photograph courtesy of  Pierre Pouliquin.
The AOP label and logo.
The same AOP logo and label is used for the whole European Union while the languages used may be different. The label is available in  French, English, Italian, and German; no doubt other languages will be added later.

The English language PDO.

 The label has the same color and design for French, Italian and in German.
The AOP label also cleared up disputes among member countries with similar products sold under the same name. 

The Italian language Denominazione di Origine Protetta.

g.U. = AOP
The  German language Geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung.
(Try and pronounce that).
Photograph courtesy of JM Gaillard.
The AOP is still a work in progress with some of the newest members of the EU. They need some more time until all their producers and consumers have accepted the controls. On the upside, all have been forced to upgrade their production methods. One of the largest areas growth areas is in organic agriculture and livestock. For more on organic agriculture and products in France click here. For more about France's new wine labels that include the AOP, the wine IGP, and the Vin de France click here
Finally, to be clear, for the consumer there are very few differences between a product with an AOC and an AOP.
A vintner who produces a wine with a famous appellation, its area of production, may use an honored name, that genuinely points the way to a unique product. But how to deal with products that have never been tested in the last 50 or 100 years remains a problem. How do you know if product has been badly stored? How do you know when a good product has been badly cooked? An AOC and AOP guarantees that the product is unique but when you are seated at the table, only you may decide on the taste, and it was worth the price you paid for it.
Bon Appétit.
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Bryan G Newman
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