When the topic is wine, the word "French" often means "expensive."
"The former S&L executive allegedly spent much of the stolen money on sports cars, vacation homes and his collection of vintage French wines."
It's understandable that people would equate France with high wine prices. Names such as Lafite-Rothschild, Petrus and Romanee-Conti are known worldwide as synonyms for luxury. A visit to the Bordeaux or Burgundy sections of any good wine store will reveal prices that will shock all but the wealthiest shoppers.
There's another France though -- a more frugal France. Once you get beyond the famous names, the homeland of Dom Perignon turns out an abundance of good wines you don't have to pillage a financial institution to afford. In fact, if you want a truly fine wine for under $10, France is a better bet than Italy or California. With the rising prices of Spanish and Australian wine, France is at least even. And while Chile and Argentina are still cheaper, the quality is often woeful.
There are many sources of inexpensive and moderately priced French wines. Some Bordeaux "petite chateaux" offer excellent quality in good years. Alsace pinot blancs are a great value. The Cotes du Rhone is still a great source of big, beefy reds and a few good whites.
But the finest French wine values are found by venturing into even more obscure regions of that country -- those islands of quality in the vast "wine lake" of the south of France.
The best of them have one thing in common -- a dedicated, talented importer who takes the trouble to scout them out, advise them and sell their wines aggressively.
The best are Robert Kacher, Kermit Lynch and Alain Junguenet. These three individuals pour heart and soul into finding small, meticulously run properties off the beaten track. Christopher Cannan and Robert Haas are almost as reliable. There are some other fine importers with corporate names but there's something reassuring about seeing the full name of a real human being on the bottle.
Here are the best of some two dozen wines tasted over the past month. All were purchased for under $10 in either Maryland or the District of Columbia. The prices are the shelf prices where I bought them and may not reflect what your local store would charge. Where available, the importer's name is also given. Some are readily available, others more difficult to find.
Corbieres: This appellation in the far southern Languedoc-Roussillon region in the shadow of the Pyrenees is capable of producing outstanding reds when dedicated proprietors keep yields low and use high proportions of better grapes such as syrah and mourvedre.
*1988 Domaine de Fontsainte, $8.49, Kermit Lynch. This is an incredible, buy-it-by-the-case value. It has the depth and complexity of a fine Rhone wine. Flavors of blackberry and cherry combine with herbes de Provence and earth for an intriguing mix of sensations. It will last until the mid-1990s -- if you can keep your hands off it.
*1988 Chateau Les Palais, $7.67, Alain Junguenet. Great fruit flavors seasoned with thyme, rosemary and sweet oak follow a fragrant, floral bouquet. Its brisk acidity and medium body make it perfect for a summer barbecue.
Minervois: This high, windy plateau in Languedoc-Roussillon produces lighter wines than Corbieres but with similar, spicy flavors. The best are delightful.
*1988 Chateau de Gourgazaud, $7.99, Robert Haas. This may be the ultimate summer red -- light and lively but packed with herb flavors and bright raspberry fruit. Served outdoors on a warm spring night with grilled Provencal tuna, it was pure heaven.
*1988 Chateau de Paraza, Cuvee Speciale, $6.65, Alain Junguenet. A new vintage of an old friend -- Paraza is one of the most reliable names in the south of France. This estate also makes a more expensive oak-aged "Futs de Chene" bottling but I prefer the exuberant fruit of this spicy, earthy, blackberry-flavored wine with hints of pepper and vanilla. Drink over next two years.
Fitou: A tiny seaside neighbor of Corbieres that tends to make burly, sturdy reds of considerable charm but no great complexity.
*1988 Fitou, Producteurs du Mont Tauch, $6.99, World Shippers. Medium-weight, earthy and leathery, this tasty red resembles an Australian shiraz. It's not complex, but it's a good mouthful of spicy fruit.
*1988 Domaine de Campanges, $6.17, Christopher Cannan. Soft, rounded, fruity and spicy, with good black currant flavor. A good medium-bodied summer red.
*1988 Chateau Jean Charmant, $6.65, Wines of France. A medium-weight to light red with a soft feel and an easy charm, it's an ideal wine to serve with hamburgers on the grill.
Bergerac: This underappreciated region east of Bordeaux produces red wines from the same grapes as its more famous neighbor -- often with very good results.