YOU'RE never far from a wine region in France, and when in one you'll probably be offered nothing but the local produce except in grander restaurants. There is excellence in every region, but you need a guidebook to point you to the best. For more exciting wine, avoid negociants (merchants) and try individual growers. Co-operative wines can be good.
Experiment with some little local appellations, and with the myriad vins de pays, which can be excellent value. Basic vin de table is almost sure to disappoint. Avoid non-vintage wines and wines with a bottler's number rather than a producer's name.
Brittany is bereft of vines; drink instead the lovely local cider from traditional earthenware bowls. The nearest the Bretons get to local wines is Muscadet, tart and unexciting white Gros Plant and light, red Vin de Pays des Marches de Bretagne from the Nantes area. Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine is usually better than Muscadet. Drink the most recent vintage. Of the big producers, Sauvion and Chereau-Carre are good.
No vineyards in Normandy, either - again the local cider can be delicious, with Calvados (cider brandy) as a final aid to the digestion. Right up in the north, the locals' favourite tipple is Bordeaux. Supermarkets and restaurants - including the pre-ferry ones of Calais - are full of it, and there are some bargains at all price levels. If you're buying for a picnic or to take home, head for the local PG supermarket, whose wines are much better than those in the big national chains.
The Vendee coast, south from Nantes and Brittany, has its local vins de pays, but they are never exciting. Muscadet and Loire wines are often the best bet. Further down the west coast, try some Pineau des Charentes (sweet grape juice mixed with Cognac) as an unusual chilled aperitif. You're coming into Bordeaux country, and a wealth of choice. For young, easy-
drinking reds, go for 1988, 1989 or 1990. South of Bordeaux, down the coast and inland into Gascony, the best everyday white tipple is Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne.
The south-west is a treasure trove of interesting, little-known appellations and rare and characterful grape varieties. Experiment, and consult a guidebook. Choose wines from small-scale growers, rather than merchants. Some favourites are Cahors in the Lot, rich, characterful reds that last for ages (try Domaine de Gaudou, Chateau du Cayrou, Chateau de Haute-Serre, Clos Triguedina, Clos La Coutale), and good-value Fronton reds (Chateau Flotis and Chateau Bellevue-la-Foret).
There have been vast improvements in the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon, inland from the coast between the Spanish border and Montpellier. There is good quaffing wine to be had here, especially red and rose. Look out for the better grape varieties - Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot - and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in the youngest vintage of whites. Good wines from the firm of Skalli pop up everywhere.
Provence, further over to the east, will rip you off. The local wines are over-priced, though better than they used to be. The dry roses can be good if young (beware a pink-brown colour, and the kick - they can be quite alcoholic). For everyday drinking, wines from the Listel company offer good value. The smaller appellations in the resorts are extortionate. If splashing out, avoid dull Cassis, but try the reds or roses of Bandol, especially from Domaine Tempier; or the delicious reds or roses of the Coteaux des Baux-en-Provence, especially from Domaine de Trevallon or the Mas de Gourgonnier.
For travellers inland, the reds are again the exciting wines of the southern Rhone. Among the best are Cotes-du-Rhone- Villages Domaine Sainte-Anne, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Beaucastel and Chateau Rayas, but experiment with grower wlnes - there's lots of good stuff. And finish the meal with a glass of grapey Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
The northern Rhone is also famous for reds, but splash out on a bottle of Condrieu, a fragrant, elegant white. If the famous raspberry-rich reds of Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, Crozes- Hermitage and St-Joseph are too expensive, try an affordable mini-version in the Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes.
In the Beaujolais region, go for Beaujolais-Villages rather than straight Beaujolais, or trade right up to the crus (Fleurie, Moulin-a-Vent and the other eight villages that make richer wines). Choose the most recent vintage. The merchant Georges Duboeuf is reliably excellent; otherwise you need a guidebook. In Burgundy and Chablis you need a guide to good growers more than elsewhere. There's good white Burgundy at pounds 10 a bottle, and bad white Burgundy at pounds 20; the only advice I could give is a bookful of growers' names. The Chablis co-operative (La Chablisienne) makes good wine, modestly priced.
Travelling down the Loire, small-scale growers rule. It's usually best to stick to the wines of the local section of the river. There's a good chance that Muscadets will be well chosen on wine lists in the Nantes area, and you'll still find a good selection on wine lists in Anjou (Angers to Saumur to Tours). Rose d'Anjou is boring, but Rose Cabernet d'Anjou can be really delicious: fresh, tangy and flavourful - lovely as an aperitif. Anjou Rouge can also be good, but pick your grower (Richou, Clos de Coulaine); try light, red Saumur-Champigny (Filiatreau), and the up-market red appellations of the Tours region: Chinon (Couly-Duteuil, Joguet, Raffault), Bourguiel (Druet) and St-Nicolas de Bourgueil (Jamet). Sauvignon de Touraine and Sauvignon du Haut Poitou are good, inexpensive substitutes for over-priced Sancerre - go for the latest vintage.
GRAPE-growing and winemaking are still very backward, with a few exceptions. Look out for Boutari, Carras, Tsantali and Kourtakis wines. Private estate wineries began to spring up during the Eighties and have become a cult in the last few years among Greek gastronomes. There are around 100, but you have to go to a good restaurant to find one, and pay a high price. Ktima (estate) is useful vocabulary. In a taverna, you'll be limited to big-company brands, or retsina from the barrel, sold as 'jug wine' or 'barrel wine'. If you enjoy the flavour of resin, fine, but retsina has one main problem: it doesn't keep. Made in September, it needs to be very carefully stored in cool conditions if it is to taste really attractive by the holiday season of the following year. Kourtakis is my favourite. There are some good reds under the appellations Nemea and Naoussa. For afters, the Muscat wines of Samos can be delicious Beaumes-de-Venise taste-alikes. The Kourtakis version is specially good.
IT IS hard enough to find palatable wines in Greece, but the winescape in Cyprus is much bleaker. There is hope for the future, however; wineries are being built closer to the mountain vineyards, so grapes should arrive in good condition, not overripe and decaying as they do at present. I'd stick to beer, ouzo, or Keo Fino - rather like a fat, dry Spanish fino, and much better than any Cyprus sherry sold in Britain.-Reuse content