French Wine Bargains for Summer

Viva la value, non? Oui! If drinking well for less isn’t what comes to mind when you think about French wine, don’t feel bad. We’ve been guilty of tossing the lovely, rightfully praised vineyard lands of ma mère on the special occasion shelf, too. While pricey Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne have set the bar for so much of today’s wine industry, France’s sheer muscle in the wine world has scared off some casual wine drinkers who think shopping for everyday French wine is like looking for walking shoes on Rodeo Drive. But there’s more to France than fancy, expensive labels. Much more. So this summer, don’t be afraid to look toward France for your wallet-friendly picnic and barbecue wines. Here are four regions that are particularly good bets for great wines with price tags that are très magnifique.

This Mediterranean-rimming region offers more organic viticulture (be it certified or simply the way things are done) than any other vine-growing portion of France. In terms of sheer volume, Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine region in the world—which means it’s a bonanza of wine bargains. For many years, both the Languedoc and Roussillon were known mostly for bulk wine, but a couple of decades ago that began to change when a “why not?” attitude among winemakers started to put the region on the map for quality as well as quantity.

Minervois in particular is home to some gorgeously layered red blends that allow each producer to show its unique style with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Both La Clape, where strictly controlled laws enforce a minimum age of five years on the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre vines, and Corbières, where Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut reign supreme, produce powerful reds. And then there’s the lovely Limoux of Languedoc, birthplace of the traditional method of sparkling wine production, and the  Picpoul de Penet, where its eponymous Picpoul grape makes seafood-loving, refreshing whites.

Good Bets
2009 Antech Grande Reserve Brut Blanquette de Limoux, $15
According to local lore, Limoux is the place where that monk of all monks, Dom Pérignon, came up with, and first made, the sparkling wine for which he would become internationally famous. Made in the traditional method, this mostly Mauzac bubbly has aromas of apple, pear and biscuits, which is the first thing you detect on your palate, too. Then … splash! It gets citrusy, continuing into a dry, almost ashy finish.

2008 Château du Donjon Grand Tradition Minervois, $14
This no-oak Minervois is a pure expression of earthy, spicy Syrah, fruity Grenache and muscly Carignan. The nose is all violets, sweet herbs and black juicy cherries that turn from plush to mildly tart mid-palate. Burgers with a big-personality cheese would be a perfect match.

2010 Domaine Cazes Canon du Marechal Merlot/Syrah Vin du Pays des Côtes Catalanes, $10
Certified biodynamic and organic, this bold and juicy blend of Merlot and Syrah has enough grip to hang with grilled lamb chops or steak, but its unoaked fresh fruit also complements roast chicken.

The languid, rambling Loire Valley might be one of the most underrated and, due to rampant lumping of lands under that term, poorly understood wine regions in the world. Distance is part of it: From the Atlantic-hugging sub-region of Muscadet where the tingly, refreshing, seafood-centric whites made from Melon de Bourgogne flow, to about 200 or so miles east toward the stony soils of Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre, with the twisty, rolling, castle-dotted Loire River marking the path from here to there and all spots in between, there’s a lot going on in what is sometimes referred to as the Garden of France. There are the rich, spicy expressions of Chenin Blanc in Savennières and Vouvray (and that grape’s lean and lovely sparkling versions in Crémant de Loire around Saumur); the light, herby Cabernet Franc of Chinon and Bourgueil; or brighter, fruitier expressions of the same grape from Saumur-Champigny. With such amazing variety and value, you could pretty much plan a year’s worth of menus around the vin from the third largest wine-producing region of France.

Good Bets
2010 Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet “Amphibolite” Nature, Loire Valley, $13
Joe Landron took his family’s once industrially farmed vineyards and went wild, bringing the lands into full-on biodynamic farming, believing it would make the most of the minerally soil beneath his boots—and he was right. “The worms do more work than me!” he likes to joke, but when you taste his Muscadet, you get Landron’s passion there, too. The 2010 Amphibolite is all pears and spring flowers on the nose with and a demure earthy quality and with a sharp, bracing, fresh wash of acidity and minerality and a little bit of saltiness on the finish. Bring on the oysters.

2010 Bernard Baudry “Les Granges” Chinon, $16
Grown in the sandy soils of the Les Granges vineyards where the father and son team of Bernard and Mattieu Baudry craft some of the lovliest Cabernet Franc in all the land, this lean but gentle red is rife with wild backyard blackberries and blueberries, and the prettiest bit of forest-floor and lean twigginess on the finish. It makes for a great dinner date with grilled pork loin and peaches.

NV Bouvet-Ladubay Rosé Excellence Brut, $11
Why isn’t everyone drinking high-quality, ridiculously affordable, traditional method Loire-centric sparklers? Beats us. But that just means there’s more strawberry- and cherry-noted Cabernet Franc rosé bubbly for the rest of us! This one’s delicious with a summery starter like salmon with a smear of crème fraîche on a piece of baguette or on a slice of chilled, boiled red potato.

2011 Domaine du Grand Moulin Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, $12
You can’t talk Loire without at least mentioning Sauvignon Blanc, but Sancerre’s price tags can be off-putting for your average weeknight summer sup. This one comes from Touraine, just west of the big S, and offers a great nose of just-mowed grass, with a crisp, light-bodied mouthfeel and great juicy, grapefruit. Pair it with citrus-dressed, pan-seared scallops and a fennel, orange and arugula salad drizzled with olive oil.

The southwestern portion of France, with the Atlantic to its west and Spain to its south, offers two great value AC spots that you’ll want to program into your wine radar—Gascony and Cahors. Gascony is mostly on the map for its fictional swashbuckling D’Artagnan from Three Musketeers fame, and the Grand Poobah of after-dinner brandy sipping, Armagnac. But it’s home to fantastically sippable whites with miles of bang-for-the-buck personality made from the grapes better known as a brandy base (Ugni Blanc and Colombard), as well as refreshing, steel-fermented Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay—much of which lingers around the $10 range. On the red side of things, look for the inky, Tannat-based wines of Gascony’s Madiran, which are lively, rich and rustic. Also watch for reds from nearby Cahors, where the grape Malbec reigns supreme. And while you might associate this varietal with the plush, fruit-forward, sometimes big-boned wines of Argentina, check out the Malbs from here for slightly more restrained and lean versions of this popular red.

Good Bets
2010 Domaine du Tariquet Classic Ugni Blanc/Colombard Cotes de Gascogne, $10
This blend of Ugni Blanc and Colombard is heady with smells of lime and grapefruit zest, Granny Smith apples and Lily of the Valley, but flavor-wise it’s bright and almost spritzy, with great acidity, lots of mineral and grapefruit notes, and a slightly saline finish that makes the mouth water. It’s perfect with oysters.

2010 Domaine des Cassagnoles Reserve Selection Cuvée Gros Manseng, Côtes de Gascogne, $11
This is the ultimate summer white. Made from the underdog Gros Manseng grape, it’s bright, sunny, herbaceous and fresh, but with a little bit of spice and clover honey to round it out. Fry up some soft-shell crabs, slather some citrusy mayo on grilled brioche, and have at it.

2010 G. Vigouroux ‘Gouleyant’ Cahors, $13
Where Argentine Malbec can be all fruit, this 80% Malbec, 20% Merlot blend from Cahors takes a more linear approach to the style. Here, it’s more about the restrained blackberry, black plum, currant and fresh herb aromas and flavors, with a firm body and tannic structure that makes a great dinner date for grilled skirt steak.

2009 Clos Siguier, Cahors, $12
Because nobody puts Malbec in a corner, this one takes a very different approach from the example above. Here, you’ve got the black plums and black currants, but with a wash of baking spices and bramble and great concentration of fruit. We love this organic, wild child of a red for its rustic personality—and even more so when we pour it alongside lamb kebabs with fresh mint and garlic.

Le sigh. With Provence, it’s almost impossible not to conjure up images of fun-in-the-sun Côte d’Azur style. But the pretty P isn’t just about Cannes and silky-sandy beaches and boats bobbing in the harbor. Most well-noted, certainly, are the rosés. In fact, 87% of this AC’s wine production is devoted to the pink stuff, accounting for 152 million bottles last year according to the Provence Wine Council. There’s more than rosé, though. Be sure to keep an eye out for reds grown in the warm, hilly inland vineyards of northwestern Provence, such as those from Les Baux-de-Provence, where all the wines must be made biodynamically. The main grapes in these blends are Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah along with some Carignan, Cinsaut, Counoise and Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix.

Good Bets
2009 Mas de Gourgonnier, Les Baux de Provence, $17
Made from a blend of mostly Carignan and Grenache, with some bits of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the mix, this wine’s got some star power and intensity that we love, with pretty, concentrated red plum and raspberry fruit sprinkled with notes of lavender and rosemary. Perfect with duck on the grill—with herbes de Provence, of course!

2011 Château Routas Côteaux Varois en Provence Rosé “Rouviere”, $12
This is the perfect picnic wine. A blend of Cinsaut, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s light, crisp and refreshing with lots of lemony goodness and hints of fresh strawberry. Pack it with a fruit salad, baguette and brie, and you’ll be set for the day.