(Image via steve_lacy941's flickr)
Today we're not really looking at a word, but an acronym. AOC is part of the wine classification system of France (and many other countries have adopted similar systems of regulations). It stands for Appellation d'Origine Controlee (with appropriate accent markings which I admit a cannot figure out how to do in Blogger) and translates to "Controlled Name of Origin." It refers to a specific place with delimited boundaries and the set of regulations regarding the grape growing and winemaking standards the wine producer must follow in order to use AOC or refer to the appellation on their labels. Regulations include permitted grape varieties, minimum sugar levels at harvest, aging, and other winemaking techniques. AOC's can refer to a region, a district, a Commune, or even a single vineyard. And yes it's complicated and does require some knowledge to be able to understand a French wine label.
I could go through some of the details here, but frankly, that could get a bit boring. My personal philosophy on studying a French wine label is you better have some French wine to taste alongside the "lecture." What is interesting is the history behind why these laws exist. It all started with the new found ability to more easily cross the Atlantic Ocean via steamship in the 1800's. French and American wine makers started to "trade" grapevine cuttings and roots and along with those cuttings came a tiny louse called phylloxera. American grapevines and rootstock had immunity to this little pest but the French vines were devastated by it. By the mid to late 1800's the majority of the French vineyards were destroyed with little solution in sight. With huge pent up demand and little supply to satisfy it, fraud became rampant. North African wine, for example, was being passed of as prestigious Burgundy. In order to protect the consumer, the French government created a system of regulations that both protected the growers and assured consumers of the wine's authenticity. The system has been in place since the 1930's and is updated every now and again.
Now, I don't expect you to go out and learn about French wine laws, but do know that when you see AOC on a French label, you are being assured of some level of quality. Whether you'll like the wine is a different story.