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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
29 Mar 2002
 

The French may be being squeezed out of the mass market but in the most exciting price bracket of all, £6-12 ($8-15) a bottle, they are impossible to beat.

This is partly because at long last winemaking is as fashionable an occupation in France as it has been in the Napa and Hunter Valleys. All sorts of intelligent, motivated young people whose parents would have gone to a Science-Po rather than a Faculté d'Oenologie are turning to wine production, many of them for the first time in their family's history.

This typically means that they have to buy land in one of the less famous wine regions. Each square metre in the Côte d'Or heartland of Burgundy for example, is jealously guarded by the family that has owned it for generations and those few transfers of title that occur for commercial rather than family reasons are at exceptionally high prices.

But just south of the Côte d'Or is another wine region, the Mâconnais, where land prices are a fraction as high, land is available, and where many an ambitious wannabe vigneron can make a start and, with application, an impact.

The result of this is that tasting through the range of white burgundies on offer from any discerning merchant, one is struck by the amount of passion in a bottle available from the Mâconnais, and how it contrasts with the more languid, and much more expensive, wines from such famous villages as Meursault and the Montrachets. Not that great wines are impossible to find here, but they are so much worse value than the best offerings from the best newcomers in the Mâconnais.

Indeed, so inspiring is the potential in the Mâconnais that Dominique Lafon, at the top of the Meursault tree managing his family's Domaine des Comtes Lafon, has bought his own property in the Mâconnais village of Milly and is beginning to produce some extremely fine wines there too (which seem to get better with every minute in bottle).

The obvious red wine counterpoise to this story of regions that are trying harder is the southern Rhône Valley. I was tasting my way through some of the many delicious 2000 reds from this south-eastern corner of France at a tasting organised by London SE1 wine merchant O W Loeb the other day. As is usual, the wines were arranged in ascending order of reputation.

All along the first table was a succession of wonderful wines, warm and welcoming yet crammed with personality - excitingly dense flavours and the potential to age to an even more interesting state. I worked my way through the Côtes du Rhônes and then the Côtes du Rhône Villages and even a couple of impressive Côtes du Ventoux, then wines from specific villages down there that are allowed to put their names on the label - Cairanne, Valréas, Vacqueyras and Gigondas - each a more thrilling distillation of the herbs, garrigue, Grenache and Syrah that are characteristic of this sprawling region, as I have increasingly found in other tastings.

But then I hit a run of rather boring wines, all carrying the same appellation, France's first, almost Pythonesque in its familiarity, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the town at the heart of the southern Rhône region. These wines were not bad - bad Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a relative rarity and these ones had been hand-picked. But their whole tenor was different. They may have been made from roughly the same grapes and terrain as the ones leading up to them, but they actually tasted as though their makers were coasting along, leaning back and taking things easy.

They could afford to. The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape is so well known that any bottle carrying it is guaranteed a price several times that of a humble Côte du Rhône. There are great Châteauneufs, of course, but again, the value is in the best also-rans. (This is also true in Germany where the 1990s saw a great flowering of talent in the Pfalz region, where land was so much cheaper for ambitious young growers than in the more famous Rhine regions.)

The key to tracking these down is to buy only from a fastidious retailer. But I have included some of my favourite producers below.

Appellations to look out for

Mâconnais Southern Rhône
Mâcon (Blanc) Côtes du Rhône
St Véran Côtes du Rhône Villages
Viré-Clessé Chusclan
Pouilly-Vinzelles Cairanne
Pouilly-Fuissé Valréas
  Vinsobres
   Rasteau
  Vacqueyras
  Gigondas

Some producers to look out for

Mâconnais Southern Rhône
Domaine de la Croix Senaillet Domaine des Buisserons
Domaine Guffens-Heynen Domaine Chaume Arnaud
Les Héritiers des Comtes Lafon Domaine Gourt de Mautens
Château de Lavernette Domaine Gramenon
Domaine Olivier Merlin Domaine des Grands Devers
Domaine de Roally (Henri Goyard) Domaine Les Hautes Cances
Domaine Saumaize-Michelin Domaine de la Monardière
Domaine de la Soufrandière Domaine de Piaugier
Domaine Gérald et Philibert Talmard Domaine La Réméjeanne
Domaine Gérard Valette Domaine Marcel Richaud
Verget Domaine Sainte-Anne
  Domaine La Soumade
  Tardieu Laurent
  Domaine du Trapadis
  Domaine de la Vieille Julienne