Southwest France around the ancient city of Cahors offers exceptional scenery, good fois gras, a relative scarcity of tourists and some of the best regional wine in the country. (A regional wine is one named for a district rather than a village or a ch.ateau. Usually it's a blend and is relatively cheap.) Here the broad Lot River cuts through wooded banks and some of the oldest vineyards in France, spread on rolling hills beneath a powerful sun that shines mostly without interruption from June to September.

Cahors reds have traditionally been known as big, inky blends of malbec, merlot, tannat and sometimes jurancon grapes that required decades to mature into muscular alternatives to the heartier bordeauxs. In fact, this vin noir was only one style of Cahors, but the one that gained the most popularity. "Black wine" was mixed, in less rigorous times, with wines of neighboring regions in off-vintages to provide backbone and color. That is one reason the reds of Cahors were long over- shadowed by the more popular and diverse wines of Bordeaux, to the west.

Another is that the French government did not grant Cahors its "appellation control,ee" -- official recognition of the excellence and individuality of the wine -- until 1971. Cahors is still an oddity in wine shops in the United States and England, although more popular in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland. Vin noir is still produced in Cahors, but so are the lighter styles, improved by modern vinification techniques. The wine is flavorful and robust, with a powerful nose and a lingering, lively finish that can delight as well as surprise. You may not find that Cahors suits lighter meat dishes such as veal or fowl, although the natives drink it with indiscriminate passion.

This summer I visited Cahors and was able to sample different styles produced by several different growers and co-ops. The most consistently pleasing Cahors was that of Ch.ateau de Haut-Serre, just south of the city, located on a stony hill that retains some of the sun's heat at night and produces exceptional fruit. It is owned by Georges Vigouroux, whose wines cannot be described as cheap, but are good value, carefully produced in a big modern winery.

I tasted the '76, '78, '79, '80, '81 and '82 vintages, and can recommend three without reservation. The '78 had a full nose and good body, a soft, ready wine with a long finish despite its fading acid. The '81 nose was less developed, but the wine had plenty of depth and some tannin. The '82 had a spicy, remarkably developed nose, a lot of body and a long, complicated, tannic finish. These last two wines would last a decade in your cellar, but they could also be drunk much sooner.

The '76 Haut-Serre, by comparison, was thin and tired ('77, a disastrous vintage, wasn't represented); the '79 had an exotic, atypical taste of licorice, an interesting but not well- rounded wine. The '80 was soft and tannic, but lacked the strong finish of a good Cahors.

Any wine lover interested in bargains and in sampling characterful reds should try Cahors. An inkier version available here is the '82 Ch.ateau de Chambert, intensely concentrated and fruity but years from drinkability. More approachable is the '82 Ch.ateau St. Didier-Parnac. Both are locally available for about $5.