While no one really refutes the idea that France has produced some of the world’s best, most individual wines for as long as wine has been made, many have a problem with making them their first choice when choosing a bottle. Price, pronunciation and confusion all play a role in this avoidance behavior. I’d like to help with at least the first obstacle. Here are a dozen French wines for less than $20 retail that are sure to please, and may even be the first foot through the doorway to some of the most food-friendly, interesting and satisfying wines available.
Trimbach Pinot Blanc 2007, $15.50
This medium-bodied, dry, crisp white wine starts out citrusy and clean, and ends with a very pleasant finish of toasted hazelnuts and sealing wax. It’s a great aperitif, but also brings out the best in simple shellfish dishes as well as charcuterie with good mustard and crusty bread. If you’ve never tried Alsatian wines, this is a great place to start.
Chateau Bonnet 2010, $9.00
This is a fine and affordable example of Sauvignon Blanc blended with other traditional grapes from Entre-Deux-Mers, an area of Bordeaux known for wines just like this: crisp, simple, refreshing whites with generous amounts of unripe green apples, citrus, herbs and minerals. It’s a perfect lunch wine.
Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon 2010, $12.50
Chablis is a part of Burgundy known for crisp, no oak, flinty Chardonnays of exceptional character. In searching for one that would fit into the price range of this article and be worth drinking, I found this anomaly: a Sauvignon Blanc made by a well known Chablis producer, from an area in Burgundy just west of Chablis. It’s reminiscent of a Sancerre, but more rustic. Its high acidity and fun grapefruit flavors made it a big hit with stir-fried shrimp in black bean sauce.
Verget Macon Villages 2006, $15.00
This is a nicely balanced Chardonnay from that grape’s hometown, Burgundy. In this well integrated wine you’ll find pleasantly prickly oak, baked apples and pears, warm spices and minerals, all kept in check with a bracing acidity. If you’re a fan of California Chardonnays, give this wine a try to experience a less fruit- and more terroir-driven version of what you’re used to.
Chateau Moncontour Cremant de Loire Brut Rosé, $16.00
Not all French sparkling wine is Champagne, and neither are they all (well) over $20 a bottle. This delightful sparkler from the Loire Valley is made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. It has a beautiful pink-salmon color, fine bubbles, a very pleasant nose of beeswax, honey and strawberries, and a bracing, palate-cleansing acidity. If you have even the tiniest event to celebrate, use it as an excuse to open a bottle of this bubbly.
Brotte “Les Eglantiers” Tavel 2009, $15.00
This rosé from the Southern Rhône is as serious as pink wine gets, which turns out to be pretty serious. It is a rich but translucent cherry red-orange color, bone dry, high acid, high alcohol wine with lots of concentrated fruit, pleasant minerality and a long, complex finish. It’s a great match with seafood, game, charcuterie and pretty much anything else. It’s also one of the most refreshing wines you can drink.
Georges Duboeuf Moulin-A-Vent 2010, $17.50
Everyone knows that Beaujolais produces fun, simple, fruity red wines from the Gamay grape. Besides these normal Beaujolais, there are ten Cru Beaujolais, each of which has its own distinctive, more complex character. Moulin-à-Vent is one of these Crus, whose wines are known for being big, dense, smooth and plumy, with age-worthy but friendly tannins. This wine by Georges Duboeuf is true to form and a real pleasure. It’s even better when chilled for about half an hour in the refrigerator.
Domaine Notre Dame des Pallières Rasteau 2009, $16.00
This is a very pleasant expression of Grenache from the Southern Rhône. Soft, smooth and focused, it is full of ripe, red plum flavors with a touch of black pepper. This wine can be considered to be the little brother of the well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the standard bearer of this neck of the woods. You get some of the characteristics of the more expensive wine, at a fraction of the cost.
Faiveley Bourgogne 2009, $19.00
This is a lovely, simple example of Pinot Noir; fresh, bright raspberry fruit wrapped in a soft, earthy blanket of Old World terroir. For those who enjoy a great New World Pinot Noir from California or Oregon, this wine is a good introduction to the place this grape originated from and, in some minds, was perfected.
Chateau d’Arcins Haut-Médoc 2008, $17.00
This is a great value for a wine that covers all the basses of what a nice Bordeaux should be. The nose has minerals, green bell pepper, black currants and subtle oak. On the palate, there are black plums, leather, minerals, soft tannins, acid and alcohol, all well balanced and integrated to a degree unusual at this price point. It would be hard to find a food that wouldn’t go well with this wine, shy of mackerel or a banana split.
Saint Cosme Saint-Joseph 2004, $20.00
Saint-Joseph is typically a real value in wines of the Northern Rhône, a region that produce some of the greatest Syrahs in the world. The Saint-Joseph appellation is just across the Rhône River from Hermitage, from which some of the very best, and most expensive, examples are found. This wine from the maker Saint Cosme exhibits intense, ripe, dark red fruit, crisp acidity, and a full, velvety body. Try it as an alternative to a favorite California Merlot or Australian Shiraz (same grape, different name.)
Couly-Dutheil “La Baronnie Madeleine” Chinon 2008, $20
Although the Loire Valley is known mostly for quintessential high acid white wines, here’s a great, high acid Loire Valley red made from Cabernet Franc. It is a big wine, redolent of concentrated, ripe strawberries and black plums with a nice minerally finish. It was perfect with a seared rib eye with Roquefort.