When I first began learning about wine, the French classics were mandatory: Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne to start. After years of tasting, spitting, swallowing, rejecting, yawning, crying and then finally buying, I’m still touched by a solid classic. However, if you know a thing or two about me, you’ve heard me champion the lesser-known gems of a region. The wines that are frequently overlooked by those who only seek trophy wines or point wines. These are the wines made either of lesser-known grapes or by an under-the-radar producer from a region.
Having just returned from Bordeaux, I feel particularly inspired to speak about some small producers. Everyone tends to “ooh” and “ahh” over the Classified Growths, and there is plenty to be excited about in this category, but there are a number of other wines from small appellations that deserve acknowledgment.
Starting with the wines of Jean-Luc Peybonhomme of Ch. Grolet from the Côtes du Bourg in Bordeaux, an area located just across the Gironde river opposite the famed Margaux commune. The estate has been around since 1889. The vines are planted on clay and gravel-based soils and, while not a terribly exciting fact, this contributes significantly to the structure of the final wine. The wine is made mostly of Merlot with old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon and a dash of Malbec. The deal of the century for everyday Bordeaux? Absolutely.
Burgundy is an obvious love of mine; however, I hate credit cards and am squirreling away cash for kids’ college, so the reality is that I don’t drink much fancy Burgundy. The good thing is that there’s still plenty to be excited about, and I’m not just talking about the wonders of Beaujolais. If you look for the more “peripheral” villages like St. Aubin, Marsannay, Mercurey or Givry, you’re in for some solid wine. An obvious producer that I’ve been loyal to for years now is Henri Prudhon. These wines offer variety (red and white), quality, character, charm and affordability. After drinking these wines you’ll see that there is more to life than Grand and Premier Cru.
The Champagne business is endlessly entertaining – for better or worse. I flew out to Champagne last summer and met with the lovely Cyril Jeaunaux-Robin on a sunny June day. My objective was to find Pinot Meunier and I knew he had it. His property is a mere 5 hectares large, in a village that only boasts 37. Ironically, his vines are located in the Côte des Blancs, where Chardonnay vines dominate, yet he specializes in Pinot Meunier – the “other” red grape of the region. This was my best visit without a doubt. Everything came together: the wine, the winemaker, the weather, the spirit and the price. His “Sélection” cuvée is sensational with mossy and cracker aromas. His Rosé de Saignée is made entirely from Pinot Meunier and is texturally very silken. It was also made entirely from the brilliant 2008 vintage, in spite of being labeled “NV” (by habit!).