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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.  (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. That all the ingredients and additives, if any, are public knowledge. The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée; the Controlled Mark of Origin, also guarantees that the product came from a clearly defined area, its place of origin.  The rules for the award of an AOC have changed over time. Now included, there are regulations covering animal husbandry, the forbidden drugs and food additives and what, if anything may be added to a wine or liquor.

When did the label receive government authorization?

The demand for quality grades for other wines and other products saw the first French law enacted in 1919.  The years that followed with other legislation created an institution to inspect and control the allocation of the grades. In 1925 the first cheese was awarded an AOC; that cheese was the Roquefort sheep's cheese. Following on those early laws in 1935 and 1936, other laws created the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, known as INAO.  INAO now controls all of France's government-controlled food and wine labels. Many consumers around the world, and surprisingly that includes quite a number of French men and women assume that the products carrying that AOC label had been tested for both quality and taste. Though, who did the tasting for the Foin de Crau 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 Pan-European AOP is very similar to the French AOC. The AOP, with a few minor changes that covered Portugal’s DDOS, Spain’s DOP and Italy’s DOCG  etc have been incorporated and all the regulations with the European Union and Switzerland are the same.

You, the diner, will not notice the differences in taste, color or texture but 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?
A knowledgeable sommelier (the wine steward) may recommend a lower cost and a lower cru wine. A wine that tastes good, and costs less than wines in higher rankings.  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. All French wines that hold an AOC are entitled to an AOP; nevertheless, most retain the AOC on the label.

Wines on a budget.

On principle, I try never to pay more for the 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 or 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.  Firstly, if it 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 if this was an awful vintage for this wine. When I know the reason for a suspiciously low price I usually end up looking for another wine. 

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

From 1935, there have been legal changes in the award of an 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.  Listen to friends, listen to the sommelier, and read what the books say. This is a blog on French cuisine and so I cannot ignore the wonderful alcoholic products of France Nevertheless, admit that I am no expert on wines and so I listen to others who know more than I do.
Food products with an AOC
Two grape brandies, Cognac and Armagnacone Apple brandy Calvados(and Calvados is really three different brandies) that all come from the French mainland. The rum from the French overseas department of Martinique has an AOC.
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.
Four strains of cattle bred for their beef: The Bœuf Maine Anjou, AOC, the Bœuf de Camargue AOC  or Taureau de Camargue AOC, Bœuf Charolais AOC  or  Le Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais AOC and the Bœuf Fin Gras du Mézenc AOC .
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 and an essential lavender oil used in aromatherapy, Lavender Fine.
The Pan European AOP

The French AOP label.
Most French AOC labels have now added 
 the Pan-European AOP.

The AOP was the European Union's answer to the slightly different rules that existed prior to the creation of the EU. The AOP rules were created to include the French AOC, the Italian DOC, the Swiss AOC and the Spanish and Portuguese DDoS.
The 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. For a new French product to earn an AOP, the final approval is given first by a French committee that awards the AOC. That is controlled by Government's publicly trusted office, the INAO.  (The INAO also controls the award of the Label Rouge, the red label, for inspected and recommended products, produce and animal products, but the Label Rouges does not include wines). 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.  At this time the label is available in  French, English, Italian, and German; no doubt other languages will be added later.

The English language PDO.
The Protected Designation of Origin,
 the label is the same as the AOP in French, the DOP in Italian and the g.U. in German.
The AOP label also cleared up disputes among member countries with similar products sold under the same name.  An example of an AOP being refused for a French product was the disagreement over who would hold the AOP for Gruyere Cheese. Years ago France and Switzerland had each awarded their respective Gruyere cheese their own AOC. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union; however, its wines and food products are included and protected, by Pan-European agreements.
The Swiss Gruyere AOC cheese
and the French Gruyere AOC.
As long as there were separate national AOC markings there were no problems. Then France and Switzerland both applied for the Pan-European AOP for Gruyere cheese.  An AOP designates a single area of production for a product. There can be no AOP in France, and in Switzerland, for a product with the same name. The AOP Committee could only give one AOP. They researched and established precedence in Switzerland for Gruyere as well as Switzerland being the source of the Gruyere name and the largest area of production. For France's excellent Gruyere cheese AOC there will be no AOP; it remains equally tasty with a Pan-European IGP.

The Italian language Denominazione di Origine Protetta.

g.U. = AOP
The  German language Geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung.
Photograph courtesy of JM Gaillard.
The European bureaucrats in Brussels worked to create equality and security for the producers and consumers in all EU member states. Nevertheless, AOP is still a work in progress with some of the newest members of the EU. They need some more years until all their producers and consumers have understood 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 the AOP, the wine IGP, and the Vin de France click here
Finally, for the French consumer and purchase or French food and wine products, there are very few differences between a product with an AOC and an AOP.
Products with an AOP  do undergo more tests. There is hope for changes in how much time may elapse between tests. Also, how to deal with products like many French wines that have never been tested in the last 50 or 100 years. Then the  AOP will genuinely point the way to a unique product. However, for the consumer, as always, there is a caveat emptor. The AOP guarantees that the product is unique. However, all inspections stop at the gate of the farm or chateau or wherever the product was produced. How the product was stored, handled, and perhaps cooked after it left the producer's hands cannot be controlled. So when you are seated at the table, only you may decide on the taste, and if the result was worth the price you paid for it.
Bon Appétit.
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Bryan G Newman
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