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When a 'country wine' outperforms the big guns

Domaine Miguel’s vin de pays is a classic southern French syrah

Vin de pays, or country wine, may sound like pretty unremarkable stuff, but stay tuned. The designation is used for wines that fall outside the strict French wine classification system, which governs everything from what grapes can be grown where and used in specific wines to alcohol content to what a wine can be called.

A wine from Sancerre in the Loire Valley, for example, has to be called just that. You would have to know that white Sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc and that the reds are from pinot noir.

Vin de pays is different. For one thing (and welcome for those who find French wine labels confusing), the wines can be called by their variety, just like the excellent 2004 Syrah from Domaine Miguel, a Vin de Pays d’Oc from the St. Chinian district in the Languedoc region of southern France. In fact, some growers “declassify” their wines from the appellation in which they are grown just so they can put the name of the grape on the bottle.

Domaine Miguel wanted to offer a 100 percent syrah bottling (as opposed to a blend with other grapes such as mourvèdre, which is required for a wine to be called a St. Chinian). Did I say all of this was complicated? With a suggested price of $11, Domaine Miguel’s wine is on a par with many comparably priced reds from the better known Rhône Valley, where syrah is one of the leading grapes. It reminded me of a Saint-Joseph from the northern Rhône village of the same name, but without the price.

And that’s the point. These days, vins de pays can sometimes be as good as more prestigious wines and are often excellent values, without the built-in premium for a well-known name.  I happened to come across the perfect description of all of this the other night thumbing through a copy of “Adventures on the Wine Route,” Kermit Lynch’s 1988 informative and entertaining narrative on French wine.

He writes of a vin de pays he likes from the Rhône: “While it is a characterful, delicious wine, which can outluster a good many of its titled neighbors, nothing in your wine dictionary or encyclopedia or atlas will guide you to it. And most American merchants do not want to fiddle with it, because their customers demand Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the big guns, as if everything grand had already been discovered and categorized, as if price and label always deliver what they promise.”

Domaine Miguel, with its rather generic label, delivers classic syrah aromas of herbs and spice.  In the mouth there are notes of dark cherry, spice and herbs, including mint, and a hint of chocolate. Well balanced with a bright core, it has good tannic structure and a lengthy finish.  It tasted just fine for a couple of days after I opened it.

The wine will make a great house red — I’m sure it serves that purpose in any number of restaurants — and is a natural companion to steak and lamb, roast duck and game. And the price? For this kind of quality it doesn’t get much better

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch