Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

aoc-labelI haven’t said anything about wine in a while, so just in case you thought I was on the wagon (yeah, nah), here’s a post about why New Zealand champagne isn’t champagne.

It all comes back to the giant of global winemaking, France. In the early twentieth century the French government began laying the legislative groundwork for what would officially become, by the middle of the century, the Appellation d’origine contrôlée, the ‘Controlled Designation of Origin.’ Here in the New World we identify our wines by the grape varietal or varietals used to make it, which is why most of my wine-related posts concentrate on profiling the varietal wines most commonly found in New Zealand. Back in the Old World (i.e. Europe) wine is identified by its place of origin.

Some people, especially in this part of the world, find this makes knowing what to expect from an Old World wine confusing. Will it be red or white? Dry or sweet? Full-bodied or light? This, of course, overlooks the fact that you can end up asking exactly the same questions about an unfamiliar varietal (why do you think I’ve spent so much time getting to know them?), and also overlooks another vital element in the wine-making process: terroir.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘terroir’ refers to the environment in which the grapes for wine-making are grown. The soil type, rainfall, sunshine, climate, altitude, aspect, and any other environmental factor you can name: all contribute to terroir, and terroir in turn affects the wine which is ultimately produced.


I like this map. This map is easy to understand.


Even in the New World the difference between wines of the same varietal produced in different areas is acknowledged, and wines from ‘premium’ areas are often identified as such on the wine label. So in New Zealand, for example, Pinot Noir from Central Otago is acknowledged to be different to Pinot Noir from the Wairarapa, and both are considered to be generally superior to Pinot Noir produced from grapes grown in other regions.

New Zealand is very much the new kid on the wine-producing block. In France and the other major European wine-producing nations people have had centuries to determine which grape varietals do best in different areas, and how those varietals should be combined to produce the best wines. So Bordeaux is produced from predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, as those are grapes which grow well in the Bordeaux region. Burgundy is produced mostly from Pinot Noir grapes, as those grow particularly well in the Burgundy region. And Champagne is produced using Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Champagne region and processed using a traditional double-fermentation method which gives Champagne its fizz (for more about Champagne, see this post).

Because as if varietal and terroir weren’t enough to consider, the method of production also has a huge impact on how a wine tastes. How long is a red wine left in contact with the grape skins? Is only a single varietal used in production, or a combination? If a combination, then what varietals? In what proportions? Is the wine matured in bottles or barrels? For how long? Under what conditions?

The AOC system sets out strict guidelines on all these aspects of production and many others for all of the 300 or so French wines which bear the AOC label. The system is seen as a guarantee of quality, although in reality it’s more like a guarantee that the producer was able to prove that s/he had jumped through the many hoops of the convoluted bureaucracy of the AOC system, the French being great lovers of bureaucracy.

So, for example, for a wine to be certified as Bordeaux under the AOC system it must first of all be produced in the Bordeaux region. Using grapes grown in the AOC-approved method (which means, among other things, no irrigation). It must contain the grape varietals authorised for Bordeaux wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a bit of Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot (whatever the heck that is, but blame the map). If you want to grow Chardonnay grapes in the Bordeaux region, you can – just don’t try selling the resulting wine as ‘Bordeaux’. It must have a maximum ABV of 14%. It must be aged, at least in part, in the Bordeaux region. And so on.

Bordeaux wine label. So. Many. Words.

Many Bordeaux wines will also have information on exactly where in Bordeaux they were produced on the label. This comes back to the influence of terroir. The Bordeaux region is bisected by the Dordogne river, and whether the wine is from the left-bank (where it’s more likely to be dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon) or the right bank (where it’s more likely to be dominated by Merlot) is only the start of things. It’s about at this point that my eyes started to glaze, so I won’t bore you any further, but hopefully by now I’ve given you a picture of why Old World wines are identified by region and why France considered it important to introduce some kind of labelling system in the faint hope of letting people know what they were getting themselves into.

A number of other countries have similar systems in place. Some of the better-known are the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the Spanish Denominacion di Origen and America’s system of American Viticultural Areas.

All of these systems, and others like them, are really only legally enforceable within the country to which they apply, although they are sometimes covered under trade agreements. For the most part, though, they seem to be respected, so if you see one of the terms they regulate on a bottle it’s probably genuine. And because New Zealand is a different country from France, on the other side of the world, our bubbly wine made from double-fermented Pinot Noir can never officially be known by the same name as the bubbly wine made from double-fermented Pinot Noir in the Champagne region of France.

Right, I’m off to have a glass of wine. But it’ll probably be from New Zealand.

Mmmm, wine.

Always drink responsibly. One standard drink of wine is approximately 100ml (3.3 fl oz). The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women consume no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and that men consume no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week (note that this is slightly lower than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation). The World Health Organisation recommends that women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. In New Zealand the legal drinking age is 18. Do not drink alcohol if you are under the legal age to do so in your country. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol.


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