A trio of French wines demonstrate the great value that can be found in the wine world if you know where to look and what to choose. As I’ve said here before, dollar for dollar you’re going to get more value — by which I mean interesting, complex wines for the money, not just cheap wines — if you look to Europe, whether it’s France, Italy or Spain.
Daniel Johnnes, who made his name as a top New York restaurant wine director, importer and expert on Burgundy, also has a flair for finding and marketing good, inexpensive French wines. A few years ago he brought in an excellent chardonnay — a Mâcon from southern Burgundy — and packaged it in a cylindrical box with a spout that turned the serving experience into the wine equivalent of beer on tap.
The other day I reacquainted myself with another Johnnes effort called Petit Chapeau, a worthy $10 Côtes du Rhône whose name is a takeoff on petit château, which refers to an inexpensive wine from a smaller property in the Bordeaux region. The result is a wine that is branded (petit chapeau means “little hat”), easy to remember and very good, the last quality being the most important since there are countless wines out there that grab you with a catchy name only to underdeliver when you taste them.
The 2007 Petit Chapeau is a blend of 70 percent grenache and 30 percent syrah and has classic, southern Rhône notes of earth, generous pepper and spice that accent a core of blackberry and cherry, all of it framed by a good tannic structure. The wine outperforms for $10 (it may be a dollar or two more, depending on where you buy it) and is a smart choice for quick meals during the week, from steak or burgers to grilled chicken. There’s also a white version, a chardonnay from the Mâcon-Villages appellation. Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.
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I suspect that most American wine lovers are still relatively unfamiliar with France’s Alsace region, which borders Germany. This cool-climate area is best known for its aromatic white wines, including gewürztraminer, riesling, pinot blanc and pinot gris.
One of the nice things about Alsatian wine labels, as you’ll see, is that they are among the very few in France that tell you the grape variety, as opposed to the appellation or place where the wine is from, making it easier to know just what’s in the bottle.
A good introduction to Alsace is a pair of $15 wines from Helfrich. The 2007 Riesling is light straw in color with a green tint and is just slightly off dry. It has signature riesling aromas of wet pebbles, a touch of petrol (don’t worry, it’s actually attractive), as well as Indian spices. In the mouth, white peach and a hint of banana lead to a dry, mineral finish. Try it with chicken and pork and Asian foods, including sushi.
Helfrich’s 2007 Gewürztraminer is a gorgeous example of the variety, with bold floral aromas and a hint of gunflint. The tastes include honey and pineapple, with a note of sage on the finish. This is a full-bodied, slightly sweet but refreshing wine to pair with bold foods, including spicy Asian and Indian cuisines, smoked fish and vegetable tarts. Imported by Underdog Wine Merchants, Livermore, Calif.
All three wines show just how well you can drink in the $10 to $15 range — if you’re smart about what you buy and are willing to try something that’s perhaps a little different.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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