People often pit Bordeaux and Burgundy against each other. One is the most exported French wine after champagne, known for its grand châteaux, ageable wines, and the high price tags often associated with them. The other is the embodiment of the French concept of terroir, the idea that wine is grown in the vineyard as opposed to made in the winery, named for a region beloved for its elegant reds made from the finickiest of grapes — Pinot Noir. Bordeaux and Burgundy are worlds apart. But they have several things in common: name recognition, a diehard fanbase, and a reputation for being the wines of the 1 percent. At the very least, they are wines for special occasions.
But are they? As the most famous wine regions in France, Bordeaux and Burgundy are not exactly the first wines that come to mind when you think of casual summer sipping. But play your cards right and you could be drinking wines from these regions at picnics and barbecues all summer long. The key is to look for appellations and subregions that fly under the radar.
In Burgundy, for example, you might be familiar with the famous grand crus of Montrachet and Corton. But with 100 appellations, there are dozens of small villages making lovely wine that is not cru classified. Many of these underappreciated wines are perfect for patio sipping. Take, for example, Marsannay, the only village-level appellation in Burgundy that can bottle rosé. From Bordeaux, people tend to know St. Émilion and the Médoc. But what of the dark horse whites so few of us associate with the region? Or the Côtes de Bordeaux appellations, more fruit-forward than classic Bordeaux and great as grilled meat pairings? Only you can save them from anonymity.
Specifically, from Bordeaux, seek out easy-drinking whites from Entre-Deux-Mers. For more interesting whites, look for bottles from Graves and Pessac-Léognan. These tend to be blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon that show great minerality thanks to the region’s gravelly soils. (Clos Floridene 2010, from Graves, is rich and silky yet bright; Château Olivier 2010, from Pessac-Léognan, is zesty and spiced.)
Of course, Bordeaux is best known for its reds. But you needn’t spend a fortune and then wait a lifetime to drink your investment. The affordable wines from the Côtes de Bordeaux benefit from optimal sun exposure on the pretty hillsides overlooking the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Look for one of four subregions — Blaye, Cadillac, Castillon and Francs — that have joined forces under the Côtes de Bordeaux banner. They are dominated by small family estates, like Château Robin, from Côtes de Castillon (the 2010 is lively with fresh acidity), and Château Puygueraud, from Côtes de Francs (the 2011 shows vibrant fruit with savory nuances). Wines like these like a brief chill in the fridge. Throw a couple steaks on the grill and live like kings.
In Burgundy, a short world-history lesson might help you find lesser-known wine gems. During the Second World War, northern Burgundy was in the occupied zone, while the southern part of the region remained under French control. The Nazis were given the green light to requisition wines from all but premier cru vineyards. So winemakers in the Côte d’Or swiftly assigned premier cru status to a number of vineyards they hoped to protect. Meanwhile, there was no rush to classify vineyards in the Mâconnais.
Today, the Mâconnais still has no cru-classified wines, but that may soon change. In the region, Pouilly-Fuissé is among the appellations earmarked for cru classification, as are Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Vinzelles and Saint-Véran. In the Côtes de Beaune, Saint-Romain may soon get its first premier cru. In the Côtes de Nuits, Marsannay — which already has rosé going for it — is also seeking premier cru status. Classification can take years and may cause a bump in prices. In the meantime, these appellations offer great value. (Check out Louis Jadot’s lush and nutty Pouilly-Fuissé 2014, Domaine Henri & Gilles Buisson brambly and peppery St-Romain Rouge Sous la Roche 2011 and Domaine Collotte’s perky and tart Marsannay Rosé 2014.)
Other lesser-known appellations for great summer sipping include Santenay, Rully and Bouzeron, the only village with an AOC wine made from the aligoté grape. If you haven’t yet discovered Burgundy’s “other white grape,” now is your chance. Citrusy and crisp, it’s usually well priced (like Stéphane Magnien’s gulpable 2013, which you can snag for about $15 a bottle). So go ahead and bring a bottle of Burgundy to a picnic or Bordeaux to a barbecue. It’s the summer of the 99 percent.