Vin de Pays
10 Sep 2008 by Jancis Robinson

In a nutshell: Some fine value, under-appreciated by the French.
Main grapes: practically anything but especially the international varieties.

Vin de Pays means 'country wine' to the French, but to outsiders it can mean New World with a French accent. These are the wines which the French authorities unreservedly allow to be labelled with the grape variety from which they were made.

It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this large and growing category of wines for the future of the French wine trade. The French themselves may have tended to see any Vin de Pays as distinctly inferior to any appellation contrôlée wine, whereas many of their customers abroad see the better Vins de Pays as good-value, user-friendly, sometimes high-quality non-conformist emissaries from the world's most revered wine producer.

The Vin de Pays category, a product only of the 1970s but now with almost one hundred members, is designed to allow greater flexibility, and higher yields, than the AC rules. A much wider range of grape varieties (including the 'international' ones Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, etc) is allowed for Vins de Pays, and some producers bottle the produce of vines too young for AC wines as Vins de Pays. The normal maximum permitted yield for a Vin de Pays is 105 hl/ha for reds and rosés and 90-110 for whites, whereas most ACs are limited to about 50 or 60 hl/ha, although the smaller the area designated by the Vin de Pays, the more demanding the rules.

The two systems overlap geographically so that most wine producers have a choice between making an AC wine or a Vin de Pays, but the choice tends to be dictated by economics or by a wish to avoid the AC straitjacket in terms of varieties allowed. Few burgundian producers choose to abandon their valuable appellation wines in favour of making a Vin de Pays de la Côte d'Or. But scores of producers in the Languedoc, for example, find it commercially more rewarding to produce a Vin de Pays d'Oc, which can also be labelled varietally with a magic name such as Chardonnay or Merlot, or a more geographically specific Vin de Pays, than to make an AC Languedoc.

Partly because the appellations of Languedoc and Roussillon don't generally command a particularly high price, and partly because so many vineyards lie outside these appellations (having been planted to produce Vin de Table), the great majority of Vins de Pays come from this vast vineyard area. The Languedoc's regional Vin de Pays, 'd'Oc', is the single most important Vin de Pays produced, and certainly France's principal varietally labelled wine.

Because the area is so large, individual Vins de Pays d'Oc vary considerably but Chardonnay and Merlot seem to have adapted particularly well to the Mediterranean climate here (even though they are relatively recent arrivals). Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are more variable but can shine, while plantings of Viognier continue to multiply as this variety's fame spreads. Vins de Pays are also a good vehicle for such local vine specialities as Terret, Rolle and Marsanne. Oak ageing and rarity (in the case of early Viognier plantings) have pushed the price of some Vins de Pays above that of appellation wines.

One of the most striking examples of high-priced Vin de Pays is the Languedoc's Mas de Daumas Gassac, whose concentrated, long-living red, exotically scented white and curious fizzy pink are sold simply as Vins de Pays de l'Hérault but at classed-growth bordeaux prices.

This illustrates one of the most common sort of Vin de Pays, one named after the local département, or county. The Aude and Gard are the other two Languedoc departements, while the most common Vins de Pays of Roussillon are 'Catalans' and 'des Côtes Catalans'.

The French authorities have always been most keen to avoid any possibility of confusion between Vins de Pays and any of their precious appellations, so the names of Vins de Pays can sometimes be very difficult for those of us with a less-than-complete grasp of French history and geography.

Below is a table of some of the most common Vins de Pays with some geographical guidance as to where they are located (often with reference to the nearest AC) and the likely style of wine.

Vin de pays du/de l'/de la/des

Location

Most common wines

Aude

E Languedoc incl Minervois, Corbières

wide range of international and experimental wines

Bouches du Rhône

around Aix-en-Provence

useful varietals

Catalans

flatter Roussillon

international varieties

Charentais

Cognac country

very light dry white surplus to the distillers' needs

Cité de Carcassonne

beween Cabardes and Côtes de la Malepère

light reds

Collines Rhodaniennes

N Rhône

lightish Syrah, Marsanne, Viognier

Comtés Rhodaniens

anywhere in N Rhône Beaujolais or Savoie

light reds

Comté Tolosan

all South West

Bordeaux-like reds

Coteaux de l'Ardèche

plateau on right bank of the Rhône south of St-Péray

Some interesting Chardonnay and Viognier

Coteaux de Murviel

S of St-Chinian

some very good varietals

Coteaux du Quercy

SW of Cahors

good value country Cahors

Côtes Catalanes

hillier Roussillon

deep-flavoured reds, dry Muscat

Cotes de Gascogne

Armagnac country

fresh, fruity dry whites made from Colombard and other brandy grapes

Côtes de Thongue

NE of Béziers

some fine varietals, esp Syrah and Chardonnay

Gard

Costières de Nîmes

country versions of Cotes du Rhône

Gers

Armagnac country

very similar to Cotes de Gascogne

Hérault

central Languedoc

very wide variety

Île de Beauté

Corsica

light reds, some rosés

Haute-Garonne

around Toulouse

some very serious international varietals

Jardin de la France

Loire Valley

crisp, 'northern' wines of all three colours

Loire-Atlantique

Muscadet country

occasional Chardonnays of interest

Oc

the whole Languedoc

very wide variety of grapes and winemaking skill, some excellent value

Principauté d'Orange

N end of S Rhône

some fine varietals

Sables du Golfe du Lion

sand spit near Sète

light whites and rosés, esp from Listel

For favourite producers, see the descriptions of the relevant regions.