June 17, 2007


Good French wines under 12 dollars in Chicago? Part 3: White wines
  . The best of them are quite expensive. But, once again, some regions offer a limited but interesting panel of attractive and original choices that can match the challenges of elaborate cooking and dining. I have to confess that white wines are rarely my first choice when I eat in a restaurant. At home, as you know Stéphane, most of the time I even drink red wine with fish. But when I am invited in a restaurant that is well-known for its ‘’cuisine de la mer’’ (sea food), I do not hesitate to order a good Bourgogne, like a Meursault (my favorite) or a Puligny-Montrachet to accompany a white fish with a cream or butter-based sauce. However, my preferences go to other types of white wines: Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon and Quincy, five Sauvignons from the Eastern Loire area, in the center of France. They are very good with smoked salmon, chicken with morels in a light cream sauce or with a dry goat cheese. Condrieu a very fragrant Viognier-based wine from the Northern Côtes du Rhône that goes very well with ris de veau en vol-au-vent aux champignons (sweetbreads with a mushroom sauce in puff-pastry shells) or filet de sandre (a very delicate fish) in a creamy sauce. Riesling from Alsace, the natural choice with a choucroute alsacienne. Cassis from Provence that is so perfect with Bouillabaisse. Savenières, a very delicate and complex wine from Anjou. Problem is: Except for the Sancerre, you do not find too many of these wines in the average American wine shop, and when you do find them, well, they are more expensive than 12 dollars a bottle. As a matter of fact, to be completely honest, most very good white wines from France, especially from Burgundy, are to pricey for my limited budget. That might partially explain why I do not drink white wines more often and why I think that your chances of finding exciting reds under 12 dollars are better than to find really great whites in the same price range. But when I am in Paris, one of my greatest little pleasures is to meet with members of my family or friends at ‘’Au Sauvignon’’, a wine bistrot rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th arrondissement to drink a few glasses of Reuilly or Sancerre while eating some of their delicious ‘’tartines’’ of pain Poilâne with some Cantal Cheese or rillettes. A a general rule, white wines are the result of fermenting the juice of the grapes, after it has been pressed, without the skin. You will find white wines in almost every region of France, except Brittany, Normandy and the North, but including Lorraine, with the little-known Côtes de Toul and Moselle. It is impossible here to do a very complete ‘’Tour de France des vins blancs’’. I will limit myself to 9 major areas of production.  

The better-known white wines are produced in the following regions: 
Alsace This zone of production, in 110 villages and townships, not too far from the German border, is constituted of hills dominated by the Vosges Mountains that are the French equivalent of the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine River that separates the 2 countries. Except for a minuscule production of Pinot Noir, all the wines produced in that region are whites. And in order to be allowed to carry the Alsace appellation they must be made from one of the official 12 ‘’cépages alsaciens ’’ (alsatian grapes). The 8 most celebrated ones are: Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Tokay-Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Muscat, Sylvaner, Auxerrois blanc, and Chasselas blanc. The Pinot d’Alsace is often a blend of Pinot blanc and Auxerrois blanc. And the Edelzwicker, not often found in the U.S. is a blend of several Alsatian varietals that, to me, does not justify writing long letters home about it. Alsatian wines are not made to age very long. Most of them are drunk young when they are still fresh and fruity. They are generally dry. But some delicious and very expensive ‘’late harvest’’ Gewurtztraminer and Riesling, that are not produced every year, can have a higher sugar content, under very strictly enforced rules of vinification, and can age well for a couple of years. The only decent Alsace that you will find for less than 12 dollars in Chicago is the Pinot Blanc. But very recently I have found at Armanetti’s on Lincoln 4 Alsace wines, including a Riesling and a Gewurtztraminer, produced by Willm, and imported by monsieur Touton for 11.99 dollars.  

Bourgogne (Burgundy) This area goes from Chablis in the North to the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais to the South. In between you find the most famous ‘’stars’’ of the white Burgundies called Meursault, Puligny-Monrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, and in a less grandiose but nevertheless very satisfying style, Saint-Aubin and Saint-Romain, in the Côtes de Beaune area. The Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran are also good wines from the Maconnais. And the Rully in the Côte Chalonnaise is well balanced and very pleasant. It is sometimes possible to find a Saint-Véran under 12 dollars. In Burgundy the Chardonnay is king. But you also find the lesser-known Aligoté grape in the Bourgogne Aligoté, a wine traditionally used in the making of the famous ‘’KIR’’ apéritif, a mix of that wine with crème de cassis. Your best bets under 12 dollars are the Mâcon-Villages, that are always white wines. Personally I do not mind drinking a glass of refreshing Mâcon-Lugny (one of the villages) as an apéritif.  

Loire Valley.
It is comprised of 4 distinctive production areas:

1. The Nantes area. This zone is close to the Atlantic ocean to the West. There you will find Muscadet and Muscadet de Sèvres-et-Maine. These two dry but fruity wines are made from a single grape called Melon de Bourgogne, better known as Muscadet. The other dry wine from that area is the Gros-Plant du pays Nantais, made from a grape called Folle Blanche, or Gros-Plant. Several good Muscadets can be purchased for less than 12 dollars. Prefer those from Sevres et Maine vinified ‘’sur lies’’ (on lees)  
2. Anjou and the Saumurois. In Anjou the two major traditional grapes are the Chenin blanc and the Pineau de la Loire. They are used in the making of wines defined as ‘’moelleux” (soft, mellow and semi-sweet), that provide a very satisfying balance of fruit and acidity. Some of them are able to age very well for several years. Best examples are the luscious Côteaux du Layon, Quarts-de-Chaume, and Savennières (especially the spectacular Roches aux Moines and Coulée-de-Serrant). But, recently, the planting of some Chardonnay and Sauvignon has allowed wine producers of this area to offer dryer very pleasant and more simple whites to be drunk young. In the Saumurois, better known for its reds and sparkling wines, the very refreshing Côteaux de Saumur, made exclusively from Chenin also offers a nice balance of fruit and acidity. But this wine is, to the best of my knowledge, not exported to the U.S.  

3. Touraine. This area is better known for its reds and rosés, like Chinon and Bougueil. But it also produces some very decent white dry Touraine AOC, made essentially from Sauvignon grapes. The Chenin blanc is the base of mellower wines, but sometimes on the dry side, like Vouvray (both still and sparkling), and Montlouis. But the most original wine of this area is the Cour-Cheverny made from a unique grape that you find only in this small zone of production: Romorantin. It generates very aromatic, floral and mineral wines whose special, almost pungent, bouquet is quite unmatched by other French whites . You may find a couple of these wines under 12 dollars.  

4. Berry and the Eastern part of the Loire Valley A few miles Northeast of Bourges, in Center France, you will find three wonderful wine-growing areas: Sancerre, Pouilly- sur-Loire, and Menetou-Salon. There Sauvignon blanc and Sauvignon blanc “fumé” are prevalent. The wines from these three districts, marvelous dry treasures of harmony between acidity, fruit, and spice, are delicious companions for all kind of fish preparations in light sauces, especially trout, pike, crawfish, sandre, and salmon. They go well with several veal and chicken light stews. They are also a natural with the wonderful goat cheeses from the same area, like the ‘’crottin de Chavignol’’. Unfortunately, you will find none of these under 12 dollars. Northwest of Bourges you have two of my favorite French white wines: Reuilly and Quincy, both produced from Sauvignon blanc. Once again they offer a great balance of fruit and dryness.  

Bordelais (Bordeaux area) The two most famous white Bordeaux are Sauternes, and its neighbor Barsac, golden-colored wines that are vinified from grapes left on the vines after the normal harvesting time. These grapes are, under certain climatic conditions, allowed to develop a ‘’noble rot’’, called ‘’pourriture noble’’. This process let them get rid of a large part of the water contained in their juice to obtain a high level of sugar concentration. This implies various harvesting times since you have to inspect each bunch of grapes to make sure it has reached the proper level of hyper-maturity and sugar content. The 3 major grapes used in Sauternes are, like it is also the case in the whole Bordeaux area of production, the Sémillon (70 to 80 %), the Sauvignon Blanc (20 to 30%) and the Muscadelle. These very seductive, practically sweet wines like the famous Château d’Yquem or Rieussec, are perfect companions to foie gras, roquefort cheese, and elaborate desserts. They are also very expensive. Other very good and less expensive white ‘’dessert’’ wines from the same area are the Ste- Croix-du- Mont and Loupiac. Unfortunately they are way more expensive than 12 dollars. But you can find good dry and well-balanced white wines that are much more affordable in the Entre-Deux-Mers area, a district located between the two rivers of Garonne and Dordogne. The Sauvignon Blanc is the main grape there. Many are sold under 12 dollars. The best dry white wines from the Bordeaux area are, for my taste, those from the Graves area. I particularly like the wines carrying the specific appellation of Pessac-Léognan, that are capable of aging a few years to attain their top level of aromatic power. But some of the most renowned wines from this district like the Château Carbonnieux, Château Haut-Brion, Château la Louvière, or Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, are very, very, expensive.  

The Southwest. This large geographic area offers a limited panel of affordable possibilities in the price range that we are considering, since the most interesting wines of that region are, for my taste, the reds. The main grapes used there are the Sémillon, the Muscadelle, the Sauvignon Blanc, the Colombard, the Chenin Blanc, and the Petit Manseng. The most interesting areas of production are: Gaillac Wines made from, among several grapes, some original regional ones like the Mauzac, the Ondenc, and l’en-de-lel (meaning ‘’far from the eye” in the regional patois). It is relatively rare to find white Gaillac in the U.S. Jurançon. 2 types of wines there: The ‘’vin moelleux’’, made from Gros and Petit Manseng, is a very sexy golden-colored wine with very complex spicy and exotic notes that is perfect with foie gras. They can age gracefully for several years. But the main production from that area is a very fine dry white wine, with a particular pale and slightly greenish yellow color, that delivers a very complex and aromatic bouquet. Very good with the tasty sheep-milk cheeses from the nearby Ossau Valley. Good luck but I doubt that you will find anyone under 12 dollars. Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh. This zone is almost part of the Madiran. This area also produces both ‘’moelleux’’ and dry whites, made from several types of grapes: Sauvignon and Sémillon like in Bordeaux and local ‘’cépages’’ like Manseng, and Arrufiac. Once again these wines are at the same time very rich, fat, aromatic, but subtle. But I doubt unfortunately that you will find any of them in your average wine shop. And if you find one or two, they will probably retail for more than 12 dollars. Côtes de Saint-Mont. One of the major producers of this VDQS is Les Producteurs Plaimont. Another very nice dry but slightly aromatic little regional wine that you can sometimes find in Chicago for less than 12 dollars. If you find one do not hesitate to try it. It is very pleasant but not too complex. Bergerac Sec. When drunk young they the wines from Bergerac have some elegant flowery aromas and develop touches of citrus fruit. When vinified and aged in wooden barrels, they can produce interesting exotic fruit aromas. Can be found under 12 dollars. Montbazillac. Another well-known vin moelleux appreciated as a dessert wine. I do not like it. Montravel. Very pleasant, and even sometimes elegant, dry and moelleux wines. A few can be found in the U.S under 12 dollars. 

  Côtes de Gascogne. These vins de pays can be made of Sauvignon, Colombard, Petit Manseng, or Ugni Blanc. Some can be floral and aromatic. Most of them are simple refreshing wines. You usually find them in Chicago for less than 7 or 8 dollars. All levels of dryness. I was not particularly impressed by the few that I tried but they were quite drinkable.

This wide area is better known for its reds and rosés than for its whites. I will therefore limit my selection of whites to 2 areas: Costières de Nimes. The whites, made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, and Roussanne grapes, are not only as seductive as their red and rosés cousins, but also offer a very attractice price-quality ratio. They are very good with Mediterannean fish and shellfish dishes. You can find a few of them under 12 dollars in Chicago. Côteaux du Languedoc. This appellation covers a very wide area from Nimes to Narbonne, The wines, made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, come from 168 villages or townships, the majority of them in the département of Hérault, 5 from Aude, and 19 from the Gard. That means that the terroir characteristics of these wines vary from one area to the other depending on various factors: Proximity of the vineyards to the sea, winds, types of soil, etc. Two specific appellations of whites must be mentioned: The Picpoul de Pinet, in the départment of Hérault, that can be very aromatic with tones of citrus fruit, and La Clape, in the département of Aude, a very pale but aromatic and spicy wine that can prove very elegant at times.You may find some decent Picpoul de Pinet under 12 dollars 

 Provence-Côte d’Azur Côtes de Provence Most of them come from the département du Var. They are usually golden in color and rather soft and floral in taste. The rare bottles that you will locate in the U.S. will be over 12 dollars. Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence Very few of these wines are vinified in white. They are made from Grenache Blanc, Rolle, and Bourboulenc, and are very delicate and perfect complement to the ‘’aixoise’’ version of the bourride. You might, if you are lucky, find a couple of these wines in the U.S but they will retail for more than 12 dollars. Cassis This beautiful AOC, one of my favorite whites from the South of France, is the ideal wine to accompany a bouillabaisse or a bourride. But you will not find it under 12 dollars. Bellet Another beauty from a microscopic vineyard on the hills above Nice, this very aromatic wine is made from Chardonnay and Rolle. It is rather expensive and I never found a bottle in the U.S, or for that matter in Paris.  

Côtes du Rhône It is in the Northern part of this very prolific zone of production between Valence and Vienne that are produced 2 suave and classy white Rhônes: The famous Condrieu made exclusively from the very fragrant Viognier grape, and the dry but aromatic and mellow Hermitage and Crôzes-Hermitage blancs, made from Roussanne and Marsanne. These wines are the natural choice to drink with the delicate dishes prepared with local river fish. They are expensive. In the Southern part (south of Montélimar), the production of whites is limited but some white Côtes du Rône-Villages, again made from Marsanne and Roussanne, can be very good with grilled fish and veal. You can find a few under 12 dollars.The production of white Châteauneuf-Du-Pape (Grenache Blanc, Roussette, Marsanne etc.)is very limited; Therefore these wines are expensive. But their rich and floral bouquets mary very well with fish preparations in elaborate sauces.  

Jura and Savoie In these two mountainous areas some delicious and very special white wines are produced. In the Jura, between Burgundy and Switzerland, the Chardonnay and the very original local Savagnin are the two main grapes. The very aromatic white Arbois, that quite often is very yellow or amber-colored is sometimes called vin jaune, a wine that often has a special sherry-like taste resulting from a sort of pre-oxydation. The vignerons from the Côtes du Jura vinify vin blanc, vin jaune and ‘’vin de paille’’ (straw wine), a sweet wine made from grapes that have been dried on straw mats. But the star of the region is the spectacular and expensive Château-Chalon, a vin jaune that offers the rare peculiarity that it is sold six years and three months after harvest time. Unfortunately, practically all Jura wines sold in the U.S are priced above 12 dollars. In Savoie, between Geneva and the Alps, the two regional appellations are Vin de Savoie (made from Jacquère and Roussanne grapes) and Rousette de Savoie (made from Altesse). But some sub-regions like Crepy (from Chasselas) and Seyssel are also recognized AOC. White Savoie wines must be drunk in their youth and are good with poultry and fish dish and of course with the local cheeses. A specific Savoie wine, the crisp and refreshing Apremont, is sometimes found in Chicago for around 12 dollars. It goes well with ‘’swiss-type’’ cheeses.  

Now, here are a few suggestions of regional French white wines priced under 12 dollars

From Alsace: Pinot Blanc 2006 from Lorentz. Refreshing and simple it can go well with many dishes based on poultry and fish. 9.99 dollars at Treasure Islands and at Sam’s Pinot d’Alsace 2005 from Domaine Bott-Geyl . Hand harvested. light body. Simple but has a nice floral bouquet. Good with chicken dishes and with cold roasted turkey breast. 9.99 dollars at Randolph Wine Cellars  

From Burgundy: Saint Véran, from Mathieu Brulle 2005 Versatile and light . 11.99 dollars at Randolph Wine Cellars Macon-Lugny, ‘’Les Charmes’’ from Caves de Lugny. 2005 100% chardonnay. Good balance of fruit and acidity. Light color but some character and a touch of spice. Very pleasant as an apéritif. Very good with goat cheeses. 9.99 dollars at Binny’s. Macon-Villages from Domaine Chêne 2005 Well-made with some complexity. 10.99 dolars at Cellar Rat  

From the Loire Valley:  
Muscadet de Sévres et Maine de Pierre de la Grange . 2005 Good vinification on the lees from hand-picked grapes. This very good Muscadet is perfect with oysters and clams as well as with fish and chips. But it can also be a very refreshing aperitif on a warm summer day. 9.99 dollars at Binny’s. 11.99 dollars at Cellar Rat Muscadet de Sèvres et Maine sur lies, La Bourdinière 2005 Very refreshing with a trace of citrus fruit. 8.99 dollars at Binny’s Vouvray, Château Moncontour 2004 This 100% chenin blanc is a delicate dry wine with a good blance of fruit and acidity. Perfect with any poultry or fish dish in a delicate sauce. 10.99 dollars at Binny’s Tourraine, Domaine Frissant 2005 A crisp but with very pleasant light fruit sauvignon blanc. Good with tuna-fish or turkey sandwich... or with a mixed salad 9.99 dollars at Binny’s . Also at Cellars Rat for the same price. Tourraine, Clos Les Pillotières 2005 Another very pleasant and simple Sauvignon Blanc from the Val de Loire. 10.99 dollars at Randolph Wine Cellars. Cour-Cheverny by François Cazin 2004 This very unique dry wine is made from 100% romorantin, a hand harvested grape specific to this tiny area. A slightly acidic and mineral wine with some nutty and dried fruit notes it can develop with age some smoky orangy flavors. Good be good with smoked salmon. 11.79 dollars at Wine Discount Center 

  From the Bordeaux area:  
Chateau Bonnet. Entre-deux- Mers 2005 Not as good as its red counterpart is. This well balanced blend of 50% Sauvignon, 40% Sémillon and 10% Muscadelle is a safe bet that can be a good pair for chicken and turkey dishes. But it is in no way spectacular and is a bit ''court en bouche'', ( no finish) 9.99 dollars at Binny’s . Also at Sam’s.  

From the SouthWest: Domaine de Gouyat. Bergerac Sec. 2006 A dry but mellow wine with some good fruit. The red we tried a few months back was good. 9.99 at Cellar Rat Les Vignes Retrouvées. Côtes de Saint Mont. From Plaimont. 2005. A nicely aromatic but dry charmer. Hand harvested. 9.99 dollars at Sam’s Château Calabre. Montravel. 2005. A good blend from 60% Sauvignon blanc and 40% Sémillon, it has a good nose and shows some elegance in a slightly floral bouquet. Could be nice with a mixed salad of avocado and crab. 7.99 dollars at Binny’s Domaine de Mirail. Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. 2005 This very good dry but aromatic wine made from 100% Colombard grapes was awardeed a gold medal at the Paris Competition in 2006. 11.99 dollars at Randolph Wine Cellars Domaine des Cassagnoles. Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. 2006. Made from the Gros Manseng grape Light but pleasant. A perfect wine for a picnic. 7.99 dollars at Binny’s 

  From Languedoc-Roussillon:  
Château de Campuget Tradition . Costières de Nimes. 2005 Always a safe bet. This slightly greenish-yellow colored wine is very well made from a blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Grenache blanc and 20% Marsanne. 9.99 dollars at Sam’s Château Grange de Rouquette . Vin de pays d’Oc. from Vignobles Boudinaud. 2005. A very pleasant dry and aromatic blend of Viognier and Marsanne from the Gard . Imported by Bobby Kacher 8.99 dollars at Binny’s. Picpoul de Pinet . Hughes Beaulieu. 2005 Dry but very floral and fruity with notes of apples and peaches. Good with oysters, shellfish and grilled fish. 7.89 dollars at Wine Discount Center

From Côtes du Rhône : Domaine de la Bécassonne Côtes du Rhône blanc.2005 Delightful and aromatic. Very good price-quality ratio. 9.99 dollars at Binny’s Domaine de la Solitude. Côtes du Rhône Blanc. 2005 Another very good wine for the money. Perfect with Provençal vegetable dishes and with seafood terrines. 10.99 dollars at Binny’s A ta santé, Stéphane. Four weeks from now, we will drink together some delicious Languedoc wines in Pompignan, near my native little town of Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort . See you there.


  1. Anonymous8:56 PM

    This is an excellent overview. I drink mainly reds (esp. SW France and Provence) but always keep an eye out for white Loires. Recently I came across a very nice Menetou-Salon for $12 but the supply ran out quickly, and there was no more to be had.

    I've been watching, too, for Vin Jaune, but I've never found it in the U.S. An affineur recommended it to me, to accompany some aged Salers when I was in Toulouse. I was startled by how well the combination worked. I've dabbled in white Rhônes, but was never too impressed until I recently had a Domaine de la Becassonne. A bit pricey, but like nothing I'd had before. And when I was in Auch, I had a white Tariquet which I found so unusual and satisfying that I now wonder if my impression wasn't really due to my having just bicycled from Toulouse with full panniers. It seemed rich and full-bodied but very dry with a bit of minerals. But perhaps that's a constructed memory. I've never found the wine here.

    Regards from Madison.

  2. To Fenouille
    Thank you for your interesting comments. You seem to have quite an extensive knowledge of French regional wines. I did not mention the Tariquet because you find it in many Chicago wine stores and I prefer to suggest less widely commercialized wines. But is a good value-oriented wine nevertheless.
    Do you have your own blog?

  3. Anonymous3:43 PM

    My knowledge of French wines is scattered, one might say. Or replete with lacunae. But I am rather obsessed with them. Oddly, I came back to them after becoming completely disillusioned with American wines, which are obscenely over-priced for interesting ones.
    Interesting what you said about Tariquet. Now I don't know whether to seek one out when next in Chicago or to simply cherish my one fleeting experience.

    No blog. It's not even common that I read them ... so far.

  4. To Fenouille... ( where the idea of the 2 L come from?)

    Domaine de Tariquet is certainly a pleasant Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, a blend of cool Ugni blanc and aromatic Colombard. But I do not think that your perfectly understandable nostalgia for Eauze, Gers, where Tariquet is produced, should be a sufficient motivation to spend almost 3 hours on the road to come to Chicago in order to buy some... I would rather try to find a good domaine de la Bécassonne (an excellent Côtes du Rhône that is on my list) in Madison. I am ready to bet that it is sold there. In Chicago it retails for less than 10 dollars.
    Good luck.

    My son Stéphane, with whom I exchange the components of my blog, spent 4 years in Madison when he was studying at the U of W.
    I hope that since that time, many years back, the local wine shops have diversified their panel of wines, since around 1989 what you could fine was very limited in scope and quality. As far as I am concerned I studied at the University of Aix En Provence, a city that you seem to have enjoyed yourself.
    Good Luck,


  5. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Orthographie corrigée. Merci.

    As it happens, I just poured a glass of Bécassonne ! Of course, this being Madison, a $10 bottle of wine costs $15. I haven't figured out why. It's as if we were a remote wilderness terminus of the supply line, but that's ridiculous.

    I studied at Aix, as well. Long ago. (Mitterand's first term.) I wasn't terribly fond of the city itself, but the surrounding countryside was beautiful. I was right to have brought my bicycle.

    One of my first meals there was Tomates Provençales, which was a revelation for me regarding the principles of simplicity and very fresh ingredients. We had a zesty Riesling and a Chiroubles. A far cry from the Restau-U.

  6. Fenouille,
    It was not at all an orthographic mistake. I was just curious as to why you had decided to write fenouil (fennel)with two L and one e at the end, like many people in the South of France do. As a matter of fact, a Novotel hotel, near pont d'Arc outside Marseille, is called precisely Novotel-Pont d'Arc Fenouille.
    I thought that perhaps you has chosen this pseudo for nostalgic reasons ...
    Enjoy your 15 dollars Côtes du Rhône anyway..

  7. Anonymous8:19 PM

    bonsoir, alain. envoie-moi ton adresse. merci, richard (dunn)