With French wine regions, 'lesser' is often more

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2014 - 2:12 PM

Go beyond the predictable regions and you’ll find some pleasant surprises.

Burgundy and Bordeaux produce some of the world’s foremost wines, Champagne the planet’s best sparkling wines. The regions around the Rhône and Loire rivers are right there with them. Alsace’s white wines boast astonishing purity and focus, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region no longer is known just for bulk wine.

But what makes France so amazing is that that’s just the beginning. Lesser-known regions such as Savoy, Bandol, the Jura and something called Southwest France are producing fabulous wines at wallet-friendly prices.

And while some use more familiar grapes such as chardonnay (the ones from the Jura are stunning) and malbec (a staple of the southwest’s Cahors subregion long before it spread across Argentina), the stars are often as obscure as their homeland. Jacquère, anyone? Négrette?

“In the United States we’re besotted with the ‘big’ varietals,” said Chris Osgood, whose Vins de Campagne (“Country Wines”) imports wines from southwest France, “and now everybody knows malbec. But they haven’t made it to tannat or petit manseng, and when they do, it blows their mind. I love when we conduct tastings, the way people’s eyebrows shoot up and the big smiles.”

Making these wines even more distinctive is that the farmers and vintners have had a century or three to figure out which grapes do best in their area.

So in a region like Gascony, wineries such as Domaine D’Arton, Domaine de Pouy and Domaine du Tariquet make gorgeous, expressive (and inexpensive) white blends using gros manseng, petit manseng, colombard and ugni blanc. The Alpine region of Savoy is also a font of memorable whites (see “Wine of the Week”).

Over in Cahors, Chateau Eugenie, Domaine du Peyrie and Chateau de Hauterive produce malbecs that will shake your bones and stain your teeth. Nearby Madiran’s tannats are often equally profound; Famille Laplace’s Ode d’Aydie is a fab intro. Down in Bandol, in the southern reaches of Provence, Domaine Tempier makes world-class mourvedre. Jean Bourdy’s wines from the Jura are singular sensations.

All of these wines have something in common: stellar quality-to-price ratios. Being “lesser lights” than their ballyhooed neighboring regions keeps the prices down, almost always under $30 and usually under $20, and it’s not hard to “drink up” when sampling these wines. And you don’t have to be a cork dork to appreciate them, especially with so many knowledgeable local retailers carrying these wines.

“Why pay $20 for a mediocre Bordeaux,” said Osgood, who owns a cottage in Cahors, “when you can spend less than $20 for a beautiful bottle made by a top-ranked producer from the Jura or Cahors or Madiran?”

That, my friends, is what’s called a rhetorical question.

Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4

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