What's pulling the mess into question now is the French wine crisis. In short, the wine industry's numbers are heading in all the wrong directions. The world's winemakers' export numbers are quickly catching up to the once-undisputed king, leaving Gallic heads spinning. Consumption on the French home front is down, leaving many viticulturists sitting on growing stocks of wine. Though winemakers can babble on for hours about the problems they face, ask them what they think will fix the problem and you can hear a pin drop.
The message of distress has made it to the top. French agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau has vowed change. "The time for reflection is over," he said at June's VinExpo conference in Bordeaux. "We must act to improve the standing of French wine on markets at home and abroad."
To act, he said he sees the wine industry working in two directions. One stressing quality and tradition, the other, in so many words, chases more of the mass market.
"We must not forget that France can only protect its market position with quality," he said. "Quality" is the French wine mantra and seemingly every wine producer across the country repeats versions of his statement.
Through all the problems, French scientist Philippe Marchenay believes in the AOC system. He and his partner, Laurence Bérard, literally wrote the book on one of the system's main tenets: protection of products with terroir, a rather vague French term that combines words like "heritage" and "regionality."
It is easy to hear, when Marchenay reels off a list of his favorite AOC products from around the country, that he recalls the tastes and regions with each item he mentions.
"An AOC gives you a guarantee that what you're tasting is making use of the savoir faire of a particular region," he says, explaining that people are willing to pay a higher price for this guarantee of quality. "If the consumer isn't interested, he buys the least interesting stuff and that's it."
In France and abroad, what the AOC is coming up against, however, is a potential information overload.
Wine is at the heart of the struggle; one of the key components is sheer numbers. With less than 50 AOC cheeses, for instance, there is a reasonable chance that a self-respecting Frenchman can work his way through remembering what's what. With 407 wines, however, it gets a bit out of control, even for those who are do their best to keep consumption numbers high.
Champagne, a shining AOC success, rode the wave to the hilt but does it really do much good to classify lesser-known wines? AOC La Clape, anyone? In France, no one knows what these wines might taste like; abroad, no one has ever heard of them.
In Paris, a representative at the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), the government body that governs how AOCs are run, is surprisingly frank.
"The AOC is for a certain number of producers but, maybe, there are limits to that," says chief spokeswoman Sylvie Serra. "Eventually, you hit a ceiling. Twenty years ago, this wasn't the case." Now, the system seems to be reaching its saturation point, and a handful of AOCs without a market at home or abroad are in danger of dying out.
"When it's done well, it works," says Serra, who can cite a large number of AOCs that enjoy up to an estimated 30 percent price increase thanks to the three letters on their labels. "There's a diversity of flavor where everyone can find their own favorite taste. Even someone who is not rich can find something pleasant," she says.
Is the diversity, which some feel to be bordering on the extreme, compatible with the international market? "Certainly not," says Serra, "At the very beginning, the AOC system wasn't necessarily made with the international markets in mind. Now, we're asking ourselves how it fits in."