What Does “AOC” Mean and What Does It Say About a Cheese?

Three Roqueforts: Vieux Berger (top left), Gabriel Coulet (bottom left) and Carles (right)

Three Roqueforts: Vieux Berger (top left), Gabriel Coulet (bottom left) and Carles (right)

We carry a number of AOC cheeses here at Formaggio KitchenÉpoisses, Langres, Comté and Fourme d’Ambert, to name a few.  As a result (and not surprisingly), one of the questions that we often field on the cheese counter is what the term AOC actually tells us about a given cheese.

AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (translating to: Controlled Name of Origin) and is a designation of process and provenance that is used in France. There are equivalents of the AOC program in other countries – in Italy it is called DOC (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata) or DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta)*, in Spain it is called DO (Denominacion de Origen) and, in the EU as a whole, the designation is PDO** (Protected Designation of Origin).

Essentially, these programs are designed to ensure that products with a long history and a strong sense of terroir are able to maintain their identity in the marketplace. They are not specifically designed to ensure a level of quality but rather a process or method of production.  It is because of the AOC program that when you buy champagne, you know that it comes from the Champagne region of France and has been made using specific methods passed on from generation to generation. It is also why sparkling wines from any other place in the world are not called champagne. The AOC designation covers many different food groups – wine, oils, spices and cheese to name a few.

Currently, there are forty-six cheeses that have AOC designations in France. The Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin was passed in France on May 6, 1919. However, the history of protecting cheeses in France extends further back than that. For example, in 1411, King Charles VI conferred the exclusive right to ripen Roquefort cheese to the people of Roquefort. The concept of AOC in France evolved from a decree dating back to 1666 (in which Roquefort was specifically mentioned). Today, AOC designations are monitored and enforced by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture.

*In Italy, the DOC program is primarily for wine, whereas the DOP program tends to encompass local produce and food products.

**Note: in other countries, the PDO of the EU acquires a language appropriate acronym.  In France, Italy and Spain, PDO becomes DOP.