Beyond the appellation

Vins de pays can rival those wines that enjoy official recognition

Forty years ago, travelling through France as a student, I came quickly to understand the defects of vin ordinaire: a mass-produced, standardised potion, whose price was determined by its alcohol content, and which was more or less undrinkable at less than 11 per cent. The white was undrinkable in all its versions - thin, sour and dyspeptic, like the smile of John Major.

In rural areas, however, the bars and restaurants would serve the vin de pays, and the change in the colour of my intoxication as I tramped from village to village is not the least of the delights that I associate with this evocative phrase. A vin de pays is not an industrial product, but a carefully nurtured attempt to express local soil and local character. There are producers of vins de pays who rival those of the official appellations grown to either side of them, and for whom the lack of official recognition is a spur to competitive zeal. Such are the vignerons of the Côtes de Thongue around Pézenas in the Languedoc, makers of red, white and rosé wines who have been egging each other on to adapt new varietals to their ancient soil, and to rival the famous wines grown to the east, west and north of them.

The Sauvignon Blanc from the Côtes de Thongue, on offer this month from Corney & Barrow, is a creditable rival to the whites of the Loire, with the crisp clarity of a Sancerre, backed up by an earthy allure typical of the Languedoc. We could find nothing to eat with it save an old packet of dubious smoked salmon, but the wine punctured the oily slivers of decaying flesh with thrusts of gleaming acidity, and we went on drinking long after the salmon had gone.

The Domaine de Saissac red, also from the Languedoc, is an honest Cabernet Sauvignon, uncomplicated and slightly heady, and with an aftertaste of chocolate that is or is not agreeable, according to taste. You cannot fault it at the price, though the Faugères is worth the extra couple of quid. This wine is produced in a beautiful and sparsely populated enclave in the Languedoc that for many years bravely defended its terroir against the pressure towards mass production, and was finally rewarded with its own appellation in 1982. Fruity southern varietals combine with mineral-rich soil to produce a sophisticated wine that proved a perfect match for lamb chops and garlic potatoes.

The real find in this month's offer, however, is the Bergerac. We tend to serve the red from La Combe de Grinou to our younger guests. But we have regarded the white with suspicion, recalling those cheap Sauvignon-Sémillon mixes from Bordeaux served at too many office parties. In fact, it proved every bit a match for the red, full in the mouth with a long finish and a delightful apricot aroma - and the older guests lapped it up as eagerly as the young.