When you think of French wine, you probably picture bubbly Champagne, savory Rhone, or rare Bordeaux and Burgundy blends. However, writer Sophia Schweitzer points out that France has so much more going on for it, all hidden in the countrysides of lesser-known regions. In the past, collectors only considered French AOC wines to be worth buying, but now, more are gulping down bottles of Vins de Pays vintages, which are unregulated “country wines.” Today, more than 140 winemakers in France sell Vins de Pays wine, taking advantage of the fact that sommeliers and collectors are more open-minded about new wines than ever before.
As one of the top wine countries in the world, France teaches us a great deal about growing market trends, and so far, it looks like investing in lesser-known regions is a great option for those who want to try quality bottles. Next time you’re shopping for wine, it might be worth skipping the Napa Valley or Bordeaux sections in favor of one of these three lesser-known regions instead.
California’s Paso Robles
First up in our tour of lesser-known wine regions from the top wine countries is Paso Robles in California, which is showing enormous market gains in recent years. Although this region is the largest and most diverse in California, it used to have a poor reputation among wine lovers. Sommelier Chris Meeske says that in the early 2000s, Paso Robles winemakers would walk into his restaurant, Patina, with the latest vintages, and he found them practically undrinkable. “I wouldn’t even take them seriously,” he says. Now, Paso Robles’ Rhone-style blends are experiencing a renaissance, and it’s won over even the toughest critics like Meeske. He now praises Paso Robles wine, saying, “Man, you’re talking about really great, rich, flavorful wines coming out of there.”
There are five times the number of vineyards in Paso Robles now as there were ten years ago, which experts attribute to its superb “Rhone Zone.” Calcareous soil keeps Syrah, Viognier, and Roussanne vines bone dry throughout the season, promoting the growth of succulent, intense Rhone-style grapes. The region also has some of the most volatile temperature swings of any area in California, with the temperature going from brutal summer heat to downright frigid nights as winds from the Pacific make their way into the vineyards.
While Napa Valley is capable of producing quality Rhone as well, its soil and climate are better suited to Chardonnay or Bordeaux-style blends, making Paso Robles the better choice for producers looking to make Rhone-style wines. Arguably the most collectible winery in Paso Robles is Saxum, which produces as little as 2,200 to 2,800 cases of high-quality wine per year. Because this wine is rare and has received multiple perfect scores from critics, it’s worth buying up as many bottles as you can for your cellar.
If you’re tired of seeing the same Burgundy and Bordeaux producers in your cellar, it’s worth taking a peek into France’s Provence for a change. Provence rosé has long been a summer staple among wine drinkers, but did you know that some of its vintages are becoming valuable year-round? Fine rosé from regions like Provence saw a 52 percent increase in sales in September 2015. Let’s say you’re not looking to invest heavily in rosé; Provence is still a great region to consider for red wine blends, especially those made with Mourvedre and Grenache. Other regions in France might be in the limelight, yet Provence’s success with these two grape varietals proves that it deserves more attention than it gets.
Provence’s Bandol is the best spot to find Mourvedre, Grenache, and Cinsault blends. That’s because the grapes receive at least 3,000 hours of healthy sunlight every year in a climate that shares more qualities with the Mediterranean and Italy than with northern Rhone. Writer Stephen George says, “There’s no doubt that Bandol possesses a complexity and nuance of flavor shared by too few wines.” What sets Bandol apart from its peers in Provence is that these red wines are great for collectors looking for age worthy wines. That’s because they usually aren’t worth sipping on until they’ve aged at least 15 or 25 years; drinking red Provence early is a major faux pas. Knowing this, you might choose Provence over Rhone next time you’re in the market for long-lasting, complex Mourvedre and Grenache blends.
It seems like every modern sommelier is raving about Italy’s Super Tuscans, many of which are made using the same techniques as the finest Bordeaux. Yet Tuscany isn’t the only region of Italy that’s having success in a primarily French-dominated wine market. Like Tuscany, Franciacorta calls one of the top wine countries in the world its home, producing sparkling wine that rivals France. Located in northern Italy, Franciacorta has a near-identical climate as Champagne, and as a result, its sparkling wine is fast becoming one of the best alternatives to Champagne among collectors. What makes this Italian region stand out from Champagne is its comparable rarity; Champagne boasts a vineyard area 20 times larger than Franciacorta, and has 19,000 producers compared to Franciacorta’s 100.
With only 11 percent of all wine produced in Franciacorta available on the international wine market, these aren’t easy bottles to find. Are they worth seeking out? Based on quality alone, the answer is yes. These wines are made using the same secondary fermentation technique as Champagne, and they are even more rare than some of the rarest vintages in France. Ca’del Bosco winemaker Maurizio Zanella says, “In just 50 years, we have reached a standard of quality that no one else in the world has been able to achieve. Our acreage is not huge, so the task at hand is to maximize what we have.” Before you invest in another bottle of Champagne, consider the fact that Franciacorta is making wine in the classic method in quantities so small that winemakers have to care for every precious grape individually. Franciacorta is the definition of quality over quantity.
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