Even as the prices for great Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone wines continue to spiral out of control, France continues to send us oceans of fresh, fruity wines at eminently fair prices. Many of these are so-called Vin de Pays (country wines) from regions that have not yet achieved the prestigious status of Appellation Controllee (controlled place name). But the makers of Vin de Pays are working hard, reducing yields, improving wine making, and uprooting inferior grape varieties in the hopes of someday making the highest grade and, for better or worse, getting higher prices for their wines.
Meanwhile, they remain among the best values on the wine market, offering an inexpensive introduction to the stylishness of French wines. With the crowds still away at the beach, this is a perfect time to rove the aisles of your favorite retail shop in search of the best new releases, which is what the following list represents. The wines are listed in order of personal preference based on quality and value. Retailers may order through the wholesaler listed in parentheses. Prices are approximate.
Domaine des Cassagnoles 1998 Gros Manseng "Vin de Pays Des Cotes de Gascogne" ($9; France): While the intense fruitiness of this wine is highly appealing, what really makes it stand out is the subtle interplay of brisk acidity with barest hint of sweetness on the finish. Importer Peter Weygandt, whose taste in white wines is truly exquisite, specially selected this lot, one-eighth of which was aged in new oak. The grape variety, Gros Manseng, is a principal grape of Jurancon, an appellation in the Cotes de Gascogne better known for sweet wines. Inexplicably, dry Jurancon ("sec") has never caught on, but that is basically what this is, and it is quite impressive. (Imported by Weygandt-Metzler; 610-486-0800)
Domaine de la Figueirasse 1998 Grenache Blanc ($8; France): For some reason, Paris-based wine exporter Peter Vezan does not put his name on the label of his selections, even though his reputation would be enough to make me try any wine he recommends. This wine is a Vezan selection, and it is as delightful as one would expect. The nose is fresh, with hints of apple and honey. On the palate, the entry is soft and light, with notes of melon and smoke on the middle palate and the finish. A perfect wine for the patio in the waning days of summer. (Dionysos Imports; 703-550-2250)
Wild Goose White 1998 ($6-$8; France): Perhaps because it is an unusual blend of Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Rousanne and Chardonnay, this wine seems to offer a little something for everyone. While the Grenache, Rousanne and Chardonnay lend good weight on the palate, the Sauvignon Blanc completes the picture by adding a touch of lemony sprightliness to the nose and finish. This must be France's lively answer to Pinot Grigio. (Click Imports; September arrival)
Domaine de Moulines "Cabernet 97 Futs Neufs" ($13; France): Merely aging a wine in expensive new oak ("futs neufs") is no guarantee of success. To take new oak, a wine has to have the fruity stuffing to handle it. This wine has gobs of fruit and the result is a sumptuous delight. While the vanilla and cassis notes on the nose suggest classified growth Bordeaux, the ultra-ripe fruit and low acidity reflect the Mediterranean heat of the Herault, an obscure, but promising region near the southern Rhone. Overall, the wine has the plush luxuriousness of a wine costing twice as much. (Dionysos)
Domaine Les Grands Bois 1998 Cotes-du-Rhone Villages "Cuvee Gabrielle" ($12; France): Many producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($20 and up) would be delighted to put out a wine of this quality. Cuvee Gabrielle is the estate's oak-aged cuvee and is made from a blend of two-thirds Grenache and one-third Syrah. Marked by full, almost jammy fruit, this wine is overlaid with notes of wild herbs and smoky vanilla oak. While the wine is delicious now, an open bottle was still going strong after 24 hours, a good sign of significant aging potential. (Weygandt-Metzler)
Cave de Tain-l'Hermitage 1997 Cepage Syrah ($7; Best Buy, France): While the cave cooperatives of Crozes-Hermitage have hardly covered themselves in glory through the years, this delectable Syrah shows how much things are changing in today's demanding market. Although this wine is actually from an area just outside the Northern Rhone communes of Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, called the Collines Rhodaniennes, like them it is made from 100 percent Syrah, the great red grape of the Northern Rhone. The wine has excellent balance; forward, soft fruit; and hints of vanilla and berry on the nose. At $7, it's a steal. (Wines Limited)