How do you choose a wine these days when there are literally tens of thousands of different bottles on offer, and where even a modest corner-store supermarket might offer a choice of a hundred? What is likely to be nicer, a Corbières or a Madiran? Which will be drier, a California Chardonnay or a New Zealand Sauvignon? Some people experiment until they find a red and a white they like and buy it remorselessly, like Hilaire Belloc’s Jim, keeping ahold of, say, Gewurtz, for fear of finding something worse. A lot of wine is bought for entertaining; people want to seem generous, and often wind up buying inferior wines because they have familiar names: Chablis, Sancerre, Bordeaux, for example. While these can and do produce great wines, you are unlikely to find anything drinkable for less than a tenner a bottle.
One helpful alternative — well, I would say this, wouldn’t I? — is to buy from the Spectator wine club, for which I have tested the wines so that you don’t have to. Here are six French bottles which most of us would recognise neither on a wine list nor the shelves of a shop, yet all are wonderful value, either for daily glugging or, at the higher end, for lavish entertaining at reasonable prices. I have included one white Burgundy, simply because it seems to me that in that region the step up from ‘all right, I suppose’ to ‘excellent and exciting’ comes at a much lower price level than in Bordeaux.
By the way, if you are worried about serving a red wine that doesn’t have a household name on the bottle, decant it first, bring it reverently to the table, and murmur, ‘I would really value your opinion on this.’ That will alert your guests to the treat in store.
First, our whites. (All the wines are discounted on list price, and delivery is free.) The Beau Chêne Viognier 20041 from the Pays d’Oc is, at a fiver a bottle, sensational value. It’s crisp and zingy and lively, with the faintest taste of honey, yet perfectly dry. Marvellous.
Two Chardonnays now, both rather different. The Vins de Pays de L’Ardèche 20042, Louis Latour’s fine wine from just near the Rhône Valley, is fermented in stainless steel vats yet full of flavour, and at £5.50 a bottle it is again remarkable value. Perfect with food, I would say, yet also just right for the first garden party of May.
The Bourgogne Blanc Les Herbeux 20023 from Domaine Caillot is a step up, as it should be for £10.75 a bottle. It may be a generic, but I have tasted inferior wine from named villages and estates at much higher prices. All the lovely buttery, biscuity, vanilla warmth of a fine Burgundy at a fraction of the price.
Now the reds. There is some near-miraculous stuff coming out of southern France these days, and a very good example is this Syrah made by Pierre Henri 20054. Syrah is, of course, the same as the Anglo ‘Shiraz’, and this is aimed straight at the market colonised by the Australians. But it’s quite a lot lighter and fresher, and just right for anyone who fancies a change from the thicker, darker brews from Down Under. A mere £4 a bottle.
The Côtes du Ventoux is an up and coming appellation, and when you try this Domaine Terres de Solence 20035 you will see why. This is a gorgeous, velvety, mouth-filling wine full of damsons, prunes, smoke and tobacco. Well, not actually made with those things, but you get the idea. And only £7.75, the price of most workaday clarets!
Finally the superb Chateau Donos 1er Grand Cru 20046 from Corbières, the most important appellation in the Languedoc. Careful selection of the grapes, a year in oak, combined with the latest viticultural techniques have allowed winemakers in this area to produce sumptuous wines — rounded, herbal, and with hidden depths of fullness and flavour. At £11 it is slightly pricier than the rest, but try it and you’ll want more.
If you buy the mixed case there is a further discount available, bringing the cost down to only £7.25 a bottle delivered. For orders of five cases or more Simon Wrightson has agreed to discount the total by a further 5 per cent.