What does appellation contrôlée on French wine labels mean?

How to Drink Better: The AC system gives a good indication of the style of wine you can expect

Appellation contrôlée, or sometimes appellation d’origine contrôlée is a term that appears on many bottles of French wine. An appellation can be translated as a name or title, and contrôlée means controlled. In wine and food terms it means the product comes from a specific legally defined geographical area and is made by traditional local methods.

So, for example, when you buy a bottle of white Sancerre, you can be sure that it is made entirely from sauvignon blanc grapes grown in and around the village of Sancerre in the Loire valley. It will have been tasted by a local panel to ensure that it meets their standards. White Sancerre is generally aromatic and dry. There are over three hundred and fifty wine and spirit appellations in France. It is not just the French who use this system. It is part of an EU legal framework covering quality wine from virtually every wine region of Europe. Spain has Denominación de Origen, and Italy Denominazione di Origine Controllata.

The AOC system was first used back in 1935, when well-known regions wanted to protect their reputation from cheap imitations. For instance, at one stage you could buy a Chablis or white Burgundy from California, both places in France. Producers would argue that the AC is a guarantee of quality. This is not true. In some regions mediocre producers can benefit from the reputation of their far better neighbours. There are for instance some really good wines from Sancerre, but there are also some average wines too. The AC system does give a good indication of the style of wine you can expect. A wine labelled Chablis will be crisp and dry.

Some other French wines use the term I.G.P. (Indication Géographique Protégée) instead. This generally covers a broader region and will have fewer regulations. They are usually less expensive, but some can be good.