The sommelier stood over me, a grin on his face as he placed a glass of wine on the table. "Guess what it is," he commanded. A blind tasting. Blind tastings always make me anxious. I never liked taking tests. I was certain that if I didn't guess the wine correctly my entire professional life would be called into question. And maybe I was paranoid, but the sommelier's smile didn't seem so innocent.
The wine was a deep purple-ruby with a nose of violets, ripe black fruits, smoke and herbs. It had weight and intensity on the palate, great balance, length, even finesse. I decided that it was a Syrah from the northern Rhône, a wine with breeding, perhaps a Côte Rôtie or an Hermitage. I determined that it was an Hermitage from a very good vintage. "A 1997 Hermitage," I declared. Wrong, though very close. It was a 1997 Crozes-Hermitage from a leading Rhône producer, Alain Graillot. The wines of Crozes-Hermitage don't have the loftiest reputation, but this one was stunning, particularly at the bargain price of $18 a bottle.
Actually, it's easier than ever to find affordable alternatives to fine French wines by looking to some of the country's lesser-known appellations. This is thanks in part to better technology and equipment but, more importantly, to a new generation of winemakers who are committed to making the best wines that they possibly can.
Reasonably Priced Rhônes
The Rhône appellations of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, where the Syrah grape reigns supreme, are among the noblest in France. Wine insiders, however, often look for the more affordable bottles from nearby Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph. While these wines may not possess as much depth, intensity and ageability, the most notable examples are full-bodied and hedonistic.
One of the best producers in Crozes-Hermitage is Graillot, who, though relatively new to the region, is among those chiefly responsible for its resurgence. His 1997 Crozes-Hermitage, the wine that duped me so effectively in that blind tasting, is a forward, sumptuous wine that's wonderful for drinking right now.Two more Crozes-Hermitages worth looking for: the 1997 Raymond Roure ($34) from Paul Jaboulet, remarkable for its deep aromas of minerals, earth and game, its depth of flavor and long finish, and the 1997 Varonnières ($79) from Chapoutier, which is still a bit tannic but should evolve beautifully.
Because of St-Joseph's size and wide variety of soil types and microclimates, it is difficult to generalize about its wines, although overall they tend to be lighter than those of Crozes-Hermitage. Two top bets from the appellation are the 1996 Raymond Trollat ($29) and the 1997 Offerus ($29) from Jean-Louis Chave, a wine of great finesse and charm. Chave is a small estate, and its wines can be hard to find but well worth a search.
Bargains from Burgundy
Burgundy is home to some of the most expensive Chardonnays in the world. Famous wines like Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault from the best producers can easily cost $50 to $150 a bottle. There are, however, affordable alternatives, even within the region itself.
The wines of St-Aubin and St-Romain are close in character to the mineral style of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault. A favorite St-Aubin of mine is made by one of Burgundy's best white-wine winemakers, Franck Grux of Domaine Olivier Leflaive. His 1997 St-Aubin En Remilly ($29) has a toasty mineral nose with notes of ripe pears, flint and smoke, and it's rich and round on the palate. Another superb discovery from St-Aubin is the smooth, forward 1997 Les Murgers des Dents de Chien ($28) from Françoise and Denis Clair. Two St-Romain producers whose wines also offer great value are Germain Père et Fils and Alain Gras, who believes in making vins de plaisir, or "pleasurable wines." His 1996 ($22) is lush, round and immensely drinkable.
Although the Mâcconais produces more white wine than any other region of Burgundy, much of it can be thin and uninteresting, a bad value at any price. However, thanks to a new generation of growers, this is starting to change. Recently, as part of a blind tasting, I had what I thought was a grand cru white Burgundy, only to discover it was the 1964 Mâcon Clessé from Jean Thévenet. While his 1997 Clessé may not possess the pizzazz of the 1964, it's a knockout nonetheless, rich and intense with ripe aromas of pears, peaches and figs. And it's a mere $18.
The Chalonnais is another often undervalued white-wine region just south of the Côte de Beaune. Its two best villages, Rully and Montagny, produce wines that are a bit lighter in body and less complex than those of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault, yet they can possess much of the same striking mineral character. The 1997 Château de Rully from Antonin Rodet is one stunning example with the body, creamy texture and class associated with Meursault. And with its $19 price tag, I say, "Give me more!" Another favorite Rully comes from Dureuil-Janthial, a young producer whose 1997 La Bergerie ($27) is more focused and vibrant than the Rodet but has a long finish. In Montagny, the ever-reliable estate Château de la Saule offers wines of great balance and finesse; its 1998 bottling, at $18, is a particularly good value.
Best Bets from Bordeaux
Although Bordeaux produces some of the most prestigious wines in France, the prices they command are often stratospheric. Still, exceptions can be found, notably from up-and-coming appellations like Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, located on the right bank of the Dordogne near the renowned châteaus of Pomerol and St-Emilion.
An important force in the rise of the reputations of Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac is Jean-Pierre Moueix of Château Pétrus fame. Moueix's wines are made mostly from Merlot, though some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon may be included in the blend, giving them a fair amount of tannin and structure. Moueix's 1996 Château Canon de Brem ($20), a Canon-Fronsac wine, has a spicy, black cherry and chocolate nose with ample sweet, ripe fruit on the palate, a soft texture and ripe tannins. Also from Canon-Fronsac is the 1995 Château Mazeris ($25), which is made from slightly more Merlot and is consequently more forward and softer than the Canon de Brem.
In Fronsac,another wine made by Moueix is the 1996 Château La Dauphine ($22). Rich and full-bodied with a smooth texture and good tannins, it is a very classy wine. One more Fronsac wine worth considering comes from superstar consultant Michel Rolland, who lends his expertise to many famous Bordeaux châteaus, such as Léoville-Las Cases, Angélus and Ausone; he also owns Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. His 1996 Château Fontenil ($18) from Fronsac, made largely from Merlot, is a well-structured wine with a dose of new oak and a wonderful, fleshy, black plum character.
Daniel Johnnes is the wine director of New York City's Montrachet restaurant and the founder of Jeroboam Wines.