Exploring Some of France’s Lesser-Known Wonderful Wines

It is French Week at The Kitchn. It would have been so easy to talk about the famous, classic French wines that we all know and love. Instead I thought I’d focus on a few less well-known varieties such as Aligoté, Manseng, Mondeuse, Picpoul, and Romorantin. These are the varieties that make some of the most delicious, underrated, ultra-food-friendly and great value wines in France.

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Aligoté

Alphabetically first up has to be aligoté — also known as Burgundy’s ‘other white grape’! — and very much the underdog to Chardonnay in the region. High in acidity and not very aromatic, it is the traditional base wine for Kir - France’s iconic apéritif cocktail. Not considered good enough for sophisticated export markets, it was mainly sold locally and in Parisian cafés as the inexpensive house white.

How things can change, when dedicated ‘vignerons’ push for greater quality, reducing yields and improving cultivation methods to allow the grape to truly show its best. Aubert de Villaine (co-owner and winemaker at Domaine de la Romanée Conti), and Michel Lafarge of his eponymous Domaine Lafarge are but two of the many advocates that helped bring Aligoté out from behind the screen. While grown throughout Burgundy, one area has its own dedicated appellation – the village of Bouzeron, with its AOC Bourgogne Aligoté de Bouzeron,

Aligoté wines are typically crisp, with aromas and flavors of fresh orchard fruits. Medium-bodied, they are rarely heavily oaked or have much new oak influence. The best have medium weight and a creamy texture.

Manseng

The two varieties Petit Menseng and Gros Manseng are probably not top of mind when it comes to favorite grape varieties. But have you ever tasted a Jurançon white wine? If so you have tasted Manseng. From South West France, Jurançon is in the foothills of the Pyrennes.

There are two Jurançon appellations – Jurançon Sec for dry white wines, which are typically made from the larger-berried Gros Manseng. Dry, these wines are very minerally with crisp acidity and subtle citrus and orchard fruit. Sweet Jurançon wines are simply labeled ‘Jurançon’, and made from partially dried smaller-berries Petit Menseng.

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Mondeuse

Mondeuse is one of the oldest red grape varieties from the Savoie area in eastern France. Fairly deep in color, the wines have a good firm structure, with juicy black fruit and lots of peppery, savory, earthy nuances. It was originally believed that Mondeuse was related to either Syrah or Italy’s Refosco grape. However, DNA profiling has refuted these claims. Mondeuse is also cultivated next door in the Jura region’s AOC Vin de Bugey, where its makes delicious, if somewhat lighter-bodied juicy red wines.

Picpoul

Picpoul is a very old variety from the Languedoc region of France. It is probably best known for the wines of Picpoul de Pinet. Picpoul translates as ‘lip-stinger’ probably referring to the grapes high natural acidity. Picpoul de Pinet wines are great summer, early fall wines – crisp, easy drinking with lots of citrus and mineral notes. And they are typically excellent value – many retailing for about $10.

Romorantin

I fell in love with this grape about ten years ago. It hails from the Loire and is the grape that makes the wines in the tiny AOC Cour Cheverny appellation. (as opposed to its larger neighboring AOC Cheverny, which is made from Sauvignon Blanc). Medium-bodied, the wines are crisp, with lots of minerality and ripe, quince, yellow plum, hints of honey and savory earthy notes.

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Wines To Try

2008 Demoor A-ligato-o ‘Tirage de Printemps’ Aligoté, $18 - Vineyards farmed organically by Alice and Olivier Demoor. Very naturally made. Delicious minerality hits you first. Crisp acidity and though light-bodied has great depth of flavor – lots of orchard fruit and citrus.

2008 Domaine Derain ‘Allez Goutons’ Vin de Table Francais 2008, $22 – Based in St. Aubain (Burgundy) Catherine & Dominique Derain work the vineyards biodynamically. Another fantastic Aligoté example. Great name ‘Allez Goutons’ meaning "let’s taste," is also a quirky take on ‘aligoté’. Intense mineral nose. Crisp, fairly light-bodied but has a lot of flavor concentration and intensity of vibrant citrus and quince flavors. And it is only 10.7% alcohol. A treasure.

2008 Domaine A & P de Villaine, Aligoté de Bouzeron, $22 – From Aubert de Villaine (of Romanée Conti fame) – deliciously vibrant, crisp, juicy with lots of orchard fruit and very strong minerality. Lots of finesse.

2008 Chateau Jolys, Jurançon Sec, $13 – A great value house wine and so versatile at the table. Lightish bodied, dry and savory with ripe yellow fruits, some herbal notes and strong earthy minerality.

2009 Goujal de St. Bon, Picpoul de Pinet, $10 – A definite favorite go-to in our house. Lots of citrus fruit, with a strong earthy backbone and hints of dried herbs. Refreshing and easy drinking.

2008 François Cazin, Cour Cheverny, $18 – Another firm favorite – oozes personality – lots of stony minerality mingling with ripe quince, pear, ruby grapefruit and hints of honey.

2007 Famille Peillot Bugey ‘07 Mondeuse, AC Vin de Bugey, $18 – The lone ‘red’ in our line up today. Earthy, spicy, hints of leather, ripe blackberry and cherry compote, nuance of freshly cracked black pepper. Not as full-bodied as some other Mondeuse, but elegant with ripe supple tannins and very long savory finish.

Love to hear from you on what exciting less well known French wines you have tried and enjoyed.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Kir and Kir Royale: Two Iconic French Wine Cocktails

(Images: Mary Gorman)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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