|The hottest trend in wines? Lesser known appellations of France! When you venture outside its world-famous regions, you'll discover some of the coolest wines available, for prices hard to beat. Not burdened by the rigid regulations of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone -- where winemaking techniques have been honed to world-class finesse ever since the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago -- nor limited by the colder climates of the Loire, Champagne and Alsace regions -- where terroir and tradition dictate specific products like bubbly or riesling -- the lesser known appellations of France have started to offer wines of superb quality. So it's no wonder that more and more are appearing on retail shelves.
To fully appreciate the wines of the six lesser-known regions we're about to discuss, let's first talk about the way the French differentiate between their AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controllee) wines and wines labeled Vins de Pays, which is a relatively new and highly successful category of "country wines." Tied to detailed traditions and techniques, AOC wines are under strict government control and come from specific zones. They always demand the highest prices. Ideally they're of the highest quality. Up until 1982, however, winegrowers outside an AOC designated area had no identity. They resigned themselves to anonymous bulk-and-blend production, especially in the warm Mediterranean. Loosely defined by grape varieties and locale, the Vins de Pays category meant to change this image by giving winemakers an incentive to create wines proud of an origin.
The plan is working. Vins de Pays winemakers have seized the opportunity with a passion. There are now more than 140 names using the Vins de Pays label, with the great majority coming from the Midi. The wines are almost always worth trying and offer the best value for money.
Let's look at some of the lesser-known wine regions of France and consider both AOC wines and Vins de Pays.
On a long strip of green hills, heavy in clay and limestone, the forests and meadows of the Jura find their reflection in singular wines and unusual grapes. Anchored around the river Saone, between Beaune and Geneva, lie 4,000 acres of small vineyards, healthy and prolific despite summer deluge and winter hail. The Jura, with four AOC appellations, is best known for its sparkling wine, rose, and "vin jaune," an aperitif aged for six years, reminiscent of a dry Spanish sherry. You can also find a sweet white wine called "vin de paille," made with grapes raisined on straw mats. Jura wines use three regional grapes: poulsard, a "rose" grape with pale-red flesh; trousseau, a blending varietal; and savagnin (or nature) in the traminer family. Nowadays growers also use pinot noir and chardonnay.
In an archipelago of isolated micro-climates, five separate appellations lie scattered at the foot of the furious Swiss Alps, edging the northern side of the Rhone. White defines them: snow, milk and wine (at least 3/4 of Savoie wines are white). This is a tourist area to the max, and chances are you'll never find a Savoie wine outside the region. Savoie wines are famous for their invigorating freshness and fizz. The French call this petillant: not full-fledged sparkling, but with a pleasant, natural spritz. The finest white Savoie grapes are: chasselas, roussette (or altesse) and jacquere. For reds, look out for the lively mondeuse.
Bouillabaisse, salade nicoise, hearty stews. The sensuality of thyme and lavender fields. The irresistible seduction of strong, aromatic wines. From the Rhone delta to Nice, the rugged mountains and rocky coast lines of Provence open up to blue-water bays on France's southeast coast. Famous for great movie stars and greater food, the area, tempered by the mistral winds, also has prime wine terroir. Superb classic varietals and Rhone-style wines are emerging. These days the ten districts of Provence make vibrant roses, serious reds and elegant whites brimming with art. Provence grapes are the Mediterranean carignan, grenache, cinsault, mourvedre, and the unique tibouren for roses. You'll also find more and more syrah and cabernet sauvignon emerging.
Here's one, huge, ancient vineyard! Talk about paradise: Mediterranean cuisine and wine! But not long ago no one had ever heard of wines of the Midi, the crescent-shaped region sweeping eastward along the Mediterranean coast from the Spanish border to the mouth of the Rhone River. Now, enthused growers are making superb wines with the new regulations of Vins de Pays. The predominant regional grapes are carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah and mourvedre, with some cabernet and merlot, pretty much like Provence. For its vins doux naturel -- sweet, fortified wines -- the Midi grows muscat. Vins de Pays d'Oc, by the way, is the catch-all name for country wines produced anywhere in the Midi. Land is cheap here, few rules count. It could be the most exciting new wine region of the world! With an increasing number of AOC regions, the Midi divides into four distinct areas: Roussillon at the foot of the Pyrenees; Corbieres and Minervois with their red wines; and the creative vineyards of the Languedoc where anything goes and grows.
An extra word about Languedoc: On its limestone plains freedom reigns. Its 700,000 vineyard acres -- twice the size of California's wine area -- have ideal growing conditions. A dreamlike environment and modern techniques are resulting in some of the world's best wines for the price. Watch for Languedoc wines, for it's here that winemakers are playing with unequaled potential. And a note of warning: labels, right now, reflect the exuberant exploration with every possible style in print. Hang in there for a while.
This sun-drenched, mountainous island just off France's south coast, has for centuries used the basic grapes of the Midi, as well as some strictly regional varietals. As a whole Corsica is an AOC area, and holds three smaller AOC zones. But they might just have been a government effort to boost the local's morale. There are some promising Vins de Pays wines coming from the area.
Sandwiched between the Bordelais fields and the Pyrenees mountains, the private and quiet Southwest produces unique wines, with fiery Basque influences and often with no resemblance to the famous Bordeaux blend. Land of truffles and pate, the Southwest consists of about 20 separate districts and numerous AOC's. Common red grapes of the Southwest are cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and ferservadou. For whites you'll find semillon, sauvignon blanc, muscadelle and chenin blanc. But in both red and white, numerous regional varietals create unique country wines, with strong and individual characteristics. Note Cahors, on the river Lot, which produces a robust, tannic wine with a blend of the tannat varietal. Gaillac, the most productive region, uses a variety of idiosyncratic, indigenous grapes of which duras is the best known. It also makes mauzac blanc -- an aromatic white wine. In Bergerac, also known as the Perigord, cradled along the beautiful Dordogne River, sweet, white monbazillac is making room for Bordeaux quality reds. The areas known as the Bordeaux satellites also produce more affordable but often just-as-good Bordeaux-style wines. As for the area along the Pyrenees, again: country-style wines, unusual grapes, strong character.
If You Want...
Sparkling/slightly sparkling - Jura, Savoie
Light whites - Southwest (Gaillac ), Midi (Languedoc, Roussillon)
Stylish whites - Jura, Roussillon
Rose - Jura, Provence
Sweet whites - Jura, Bergerac
Light reds - Savoie, Provence, Corbieres, Minervois
Robust reds - Provence, Languedoc, Cahors
Fortified wines - Jura, Midi
So that's it. Some of the lesser-known appellations of France. Cool wines, free from the pompous ratings and reviews, and tasting so unbelievably good.