The AOC system tries to define a product based on a geographic area, of which the product must be typical and culturally-linked. It sets rules as to how the product is grown, raised or made. The system has been administered since 1990 in France by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine.) Separate commissions for each product name monitor the production, and help decide who will be allowed to make it.
AOCs have mostly been applied to cheese and wine, though they are also applied to other agricultural products such as lentils, chickens, oysters, dairy products, and olives.
“Appellation” is a bit of an awkward word in English, being a translation from the French that doesn’t quite succeed. The closest thing we have in English to “Appellations” is a mountain chain where people play banjos and make moonshine. A better translation is “term of controlled origin.” For example, the names of products such as Roquefort Cheese are controlled terms. And by controlled, they mean controlled; it’s illegal to make anything called Roquefort unless the INAO feels you are meeting all the rules.
The AOC is explained as a guarantee of quality to consumers. It has as well the small added benefit of guaranteeing restricted competition and high prices for producers, which somehow often gets overlooked wax poetic about AOC goods.
The European PDO system, which applies to products anywhere in the EU, was based on the French AOC system. A European PDO is equivalent to a French AOC. Nevertheless, the French system continues to run in parallel, and for a French product to apply for a PDO, it must apply for an AOC at the same time.
Other countries offer their own equivalents of the French AOC system, which like the AOC system also continue to run in parallel with the European PDO certification:
- Austria’s Districtus Austria Controllatus
- Italy: Denominazione di Origine Controllata
- Portugal: Denominação de Origem Controlada
- Spain: Denominación de Origen
- South Africa: Wine of Origin (applied to wines only)
There are four categories of French AOC cheese.
- Fermier: made from raw milk from a herd kept at the same farm where the cheese was made;
- Artisinal: produced at a small home dairy; the milk may come from farms within the region;
- Cooperative (aka Fruitières): cheese is made at one dairy from milk provided by members of the cooperative;
- Industrial: produced in a larger commercial dairy, with milk from a variety of areas.