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No. of Recommendations: 9

Wine critics often write books devoted to the wine of a particular country. But with France, they write books about the wine of a particular region. The product of nearly each region of France is as storied as any other entire country's product. For example, Robert Parker's Wines of the Rhône Valley runs 685 pages. And in Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson's World Atlas of Wine, there are more pages devoted to France than there are to Italy, Spain, Germany, and California combined.

To pretend that one distributor or even domaine can offer even a fraction of the depth and breadth of French wine would be deceit. I would suggest starting with four great regions: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Côte du Rhône, and Champagne.

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Bordeaux near the Atlantic Coast in the southwest of France is the hardest of these to find good wines that are cheap. This is not, BTW, because Bordeaux does not make cheap wines. This is because importers must always buy the cheaper wines in large enough quantities to justify shipping them. Think about it--if it's costing you a pretty penny to ship wines from Europe to America, it pays to ship the most expensive wine you can be assured of selling, for the mark up is better, and a cheap wine costs just as much to ship as a great but spendy bottle. Also, owing to historic tastes, much of the cheaper wines of Bordeaux in particular goes to England (somewhat affectionately called "plonk" or "claret"), which is not a costly ship route--certainly less than the one involving the Panama Canal that we in Los Angeles pay for when we pay for a bottle of cheaper Bordeaux.

From Bordeaux, look for stuff from "Entre-Deux-Mers" and "Graves", the former which is very spotty but also very accessible when good, and usually cheap, and the latter which is dependable for both red and white. Chateau Bonnet you can have for $10 a bottle, and it is a crisp blend of sauvignon blanc and semillion that goes well with seafood.

Here is a Long Island merchant who, like me, loves Chateau de Chantegrive and is selling it for $13 a bottle:

Etc. I think Graves is giving the best cheap wine for the value out of the Bordeaux region, and Entre-Deux-Mers is spotty but also good when you find it.

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Burgundy? These can be scary because they are up and down. They are also scary to American merchants. There is no good route to get a bottle of wine from the east/center of France to the US. The master negociant Louis Jadot ships the most, I think. I think most of these, sad to say, are best avoidable--they are dependable, but with Burgundy, you want something more than dependable, you want excellence.

I have a recommendation for Burgundy. Because it is a fractured region, pick a single Appellation Controllee. In fact, if I may suggest one, pick Nuits-St-Georges. This is an AC which is great but not grand cru, so the price will be slightly relaxed. You are going to have a tough time finding one of these for under $20 but one that I have seen for even $15 that is pretty good (if usually a little "lighter" than most) is Alain Michelot. There are many different styles even for Michelot in a year and you are just going to have to experiment. But this, the heart of Burgundy if not the center, will give you a great idea of what Burgundy is and can be like.

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Côte du Rhône has been covered, and that too is my favorite. Here you really get to have fun, because you can easily find them for under $10. And now you are in the Costco range with regards to import volume. E. Guigal you will find all over hell, and Domaine Perrin for under $10 all the time. But don't be surprised or discouraged if you also find some E. Guigal for over $100--that's rare, but they import all kinds.

Know also that cheap Rhône is an attitude as well as a wine. Hugh Johnson describes cheap Rhônes as "relatively simple but solid alcoholic fruit juice." Note that he doesn't say there's anything wrong with that. You can drink this by the carafe and write a novel and have fun. Rhône I think is precisely the kind of wine you should drink when you are drinking wine while doing something else, and by "doing something" I would count reading a newspaper at a cafe. You don't want to be bothered with the complexities of the wine in such instances, you want a pleasant alcohol delivery system. Rhône is dependably dependable for this type of moment.

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Champagne. This is the one, oddly enough, in which I would encourage you not to skimp on and bargain hunt. First off, with champagne you are looking for tiny bubbles, and for tiny bubbles you generally must pay $30. But so many people have bad feelings or even reactions to champagne, and I would submit that it is because they haven't been bold enough to buy one at the right price.

Still, if you would like to try some champagne at under $20, here is what I would recommend you do. Go to a restaurant in your area that serves glasses of champagne and try one for, say, $9. Wow, nine dollars for a flute of champagne? I promise you that, compared to a $12 bottle, it will sell you on buying a bottle of good stuff. Champagne is, when all is said and done, the most accessible wine of all French wines. You just have to pay for it. And don't be afraid to try a name you've never heard of. I hate Veuve Clicquot, for instance, and that you can probably find in Antarctica even. But there are thousands of producers.

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You asked also about Spain. Two regions for you: Rioja and Ribero del Duero. There is a great gulf between these two and everything else in my opinion, and also in the opinion of many Spaniards. Here is one, agreeing with my appraisal of a tasting:

OK, excuse me, I have to go back to my board and try to figure out why everyone there hates France.

All the best.

joseph aka jeanpaulsartre

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