French make more wine than anyone else, some so sublime it defines wine at its best, some so mundane French distill it into biofuel.
Navigating those extremes is a challenge, so second part of three-parter, this week featuring two less-well-known regions offering great values.
Rhône. Eastern France, named for Rhône River, divided into Northern and Southern Rhône, but the only thing the two have in common is the river.
Southern Rhône terroir is more Italy than France; Grenache is lead grape. Southern Rhônes with wow! at less than Bordeaux/Burgundy wow! prices: Châteauneuf-du-Pape (“Pope’s new castle”) and Gigondas. Simpler Côtes du Rhône vary from outstanding to not so much; finding values is part of the adventure.
Northern Rhône is suzerainty of Syrah (only red grape allowed), low production (only five percent of Rhône’s output), high quality, high prices—connoisseur country.
Languedoc-Roussillon. Southern France, Mediterranean coast, world’s largest wine region. As late as 2001, Languedoc produced more wine than entire United States—but it’s little known to many Americans. How could that be? Until 1980s, Languedoc mostly made vin de table (France’s lowest wine category), helping create the “European wine lake” that was distilled into biofuel.
Recognizing futility of hyper output of plonk, makers deliberately reduced production and improved quality. Today, look for Languedoc vin de pays (superior to vin de table) for excellent values. Roussillon, located on Spanish border in Pyrennes foothills, has strong Spanish flavor; its wines are hard to find in U.S.
• Luc Pirlet Les Barriques Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark colors, ripe fruit, fresh, excellent Languedoc value. $9
• Ogier Côtes du Rhône Heritages. Cherry-red color, spicy, full-body, value. $12
• Château de Montmirail Cuvée de Beauchamp Gigondas. Deep plum, medium body, sweet attack; Parker 88-90. $27