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French Wines Under the Radar
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 30, 2015
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France is the most renowned country for fine wines in the world--with many famous wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy (including Chablis and Beaujolais), the Rhône Valley, and Champagne.  France, along with Italy, for some time has been the world’s largest producer of wine--although production figures are not as huge as they were just two decades ago, in either country.

You would think that wine lovers would have discovered all of the great wines of France by now, but this is not so.  Many fine French wines have remained relatively unknown.  The advantage for the wine lover is that you can still buy these wines at reasonable prices. 

As much as I love glorious red and white Burgundies from its greatest district, the Côte d’Or, I have not bought a single bottle (of the better ones) in years; the same is true for First-Growth Bordeaux wines. They just cost too much nowadays.  Instead, I have turned to less expensive French alternatives.

For red Burgundy, it is more difficult to find decent bargains than for wines from Bordeaux, mainly because Burgundy makes only 25 per cent as much wine as Bordeaux (not counting Beaujolais, which is technically part of Burgundy).  But there are values to be found--even in the notoriously expensive Burgundy region--starting with the simplest appellation, Bourgogne Rouge.  Admittedly, there is a wide range of quality in Bourgogne Rouge wines (many priced between $12 to $15), but often for a few dollars more ($16 to $20), you can find very good wines.

I mentioned that I have not purchased a top-tier Côte d’Or Burgundy in years.  Nevertheless, I have indeed bought Burgundies from lesser-known Côte d’Or appellations, such as Ladoix, Pernand-Vetgelesses, Chorey-lès-Beaune (a particular favorite), Savigny-lès-Beaune, Auxey-Duresses, Monthélie, St.-Romain, St.-Aubin, and Maranges.  These less known Burgundies, which retail in the $25 to $40 range, have been a source, on occasion, of some surprisingly fine wines.  Great Burgundies they are not.  But they are definitely priced right.

Just south of the Côte d’Or lies the little-known Côte Chalonnaise.  Talk about districts that get no respect!  Red and white wines from this district are indeed Burgundies.  Okay, they are a bit earthier and less refined than the great Côte d’Or red Burgundies, but most them sell in the $21 to $40 range, darn good values!  The most well-known village for Burgundies in the Chalonnaise, especially for red wines, is Mercurey, and the price reflects this; Mercurey wines are in the $28 to $40 range, and generally exhibit more class than wines from the rest of the Chalonnaise (look for producers Aubert de Villaine, J. Faiveley, and Antonin Rodet).  Rully (producer, Antonin Rodet) and Givry (producer Domaine Joblot) are two other villages here that are a source of good Burgundy values.

There are many other wines scattered through out France that remain under the radar. In southern France, I have discovered two wines from Provence, one from Languedoc-Roussillon, and one from Southwest France, as well as three white wines from the Loire Valley.

A wine from Provence was my inspiration for this column: Château Simone from the tiny appellation of Palette in the also tiny Les-Baux de Provence AOC zone. Although Provence is renowned for its rosé wines, a few zones in the region feature reds.  Bandol, with its foremost producer, Domaine Tempier, is Provence’s best-known red wine.  But I became intrigued with Château Simone, the only winery of any significance in Les-Baux de Provence.  And ironically, as good as Château Simone’s red and rosé wines are in this mainly red-wine zone, it is their white wine which really turns me on.  Made from over 50-year-old vines, the 2010 Château Simone Blanc is medium gold in color, and made from local varieties, mainly Clairette.  It is rich, unctuous, and intensely flavored; one taster called it “exotic,” a very apt description.  It is a wine to drink when it is fairly young; the 2010 is perfect now; the 2008 was showing some age.  All Château Simone wines red, white, and rosé, retail at the same price, $58 to $65.  A bit pricey for Provence wines, but in this case, worth it.  Château Simone Blanc is a wine you will not forget.

Another Provence wine area that I really like is Cassis (no relation to the liqueur of the same name); its wines also come in red, rosé, and white, and again I believe that Cassis’s white wines are its best.  If you are ever visiting the Côte d’ Azur in Provence, visit the charming village of Cassis, just east of Bandol.  A leading producer of Cassis is Domaine du Bagnol; its Cassis Blanc, made mainly from Clairette and Marsanne, is rather full-bodied, with herbal aromas and a viscous mouth-feel, although not quite so viscous as Château Simone Blanc. Domaine du Bagnol‘s 2012 Cassis Blanc sells for $22, a good value for this fine wine.

Languedoc-Roussillon, France’s largest AOC zone, produces an enormous amount of red wine in southern France.  But the wine that caught my eye is Picpoul de Pinet, an exceptional white wine with its own appellation, and made from the Piquepoul variety.  It can be made as a red wine or rosé, but the white Picpoul is definitely the easiest to find. It has a lovely floral aroma, is medium-bodied, and goes well with seafood and shellfish.  You are not going to believe its retail price: $7 to $10!  Picpoul de Pinet has to be the best under $10 white wine I have tasted.

Southwest France is an area known for its tannic reds.  Tannat, in fact, is its main red variety.  It’s also the home of white dessert wines.  Just before you cross the French border over the Pyrenees into Spain is the town of Irouléguy, known for its spicy, tannic red wines.  This is Basque country, and the main language is, in fact, Basque, not French.  Red wines dominate in Irouléguy; fine rosés and whites are available, but more difficult to find.  Two main producers are Domaine Brana ($25 to $27) and Herri Mina ($28 to $30).  The reds, made from Tannat, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, have their own unique characteristics: very minerally, rustic, but not overly tannic.  The vineyards grow on very high slopes.  These extraordinary wines are not like any others you will find in France.

To the north, in the Loire Valley, the home of many fine white wines, I found three whites that have been under the radar for quite a while.  Most enthusiasts know Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the two wines made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc.  Many critics consider these Loire Valley wines as the best expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety in the world.  But did you know that three other towns, all near Sancerre, also produce excellent Sauvignon Blanc-based wines, and usually at lower prices than the popular Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines?

These three AOC wines are Quincy (pronounced “can see”), Reuilly, and Ménétou-Salon.  All three produce dry, crisp whites made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc and are stylistically similar to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  And yet few consumers have heard of them.  The town of Quincy (which produces only white wine) and Reuilly (which makes red and rosés as well) make wines that tend to be lighter bodied and more fragrant than Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.  I particularly like Quincy, which sells for $15 to $20, on average $5 less than Sancerre.  A fine Quincy, Domaine du Tremblay, is in the $20 range.

Reuilly, even less-known than Quincy, is the lowest priced of the three ($13 to $15), but more difficult to find.  Reuilly is very similar to Quincy, but slightly more acidic.  Ménétou-Salon, which makes whites, reds, and rosés, is the best-known of the three villages, and best-distributed in the U.S. Ménétou-Salon’s white wine is more similar to Sancerre, but averages at least $5 less in price than Sancerre, just like Quincy. Ménétou-Salon’s reds and rosés, made from Pinot Noir, are also less-expensive than Sancerre’s red and rosé wines, and in fact, are better wines.

I have not even touched on two other emerging French regions, the distinctive white wines of the Jura region on the slopes of the Alps in eastern France, and across the country, the mainly red wines on the island of Corsica in western France.  Clearly, France has many reasonably priced wines available, waiting to be discovered.