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.