Anthony Rose: Vin de pays is a bottomless barrel of wines from all over France, varying in quality from dire to excellent

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The annual top 100 competition for France's vins de pays has shown a way of spotlighting good wines and value in an area that can be tough for consumers to get a handle on. Unlike the big easy-drinking New World brands, French wines tend to rely heavily on the appellations as substitutes for brands. The trouble is that appellations are designations of origin, not quality, and most, like Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône, are just too big and sprawling to be meaningful.

But vin de pays is a bottomless barrel of wines from all over France, varying in quality from dire to excellent. Without the constraints that appellation contrôlée imposes, these country wines are characterised by value, diversity of style and personality. But how to sift the wheat from the chaff? Simple. Put up over 1,000 wines and get a panel of palates to whittle them down to their 100 favourites. "The Top 100 Vins de Pays competition is an excellent initiative which has helped raise the profile of a category bursting with quality and innovation," says Dominique Vrigneau, buying director for the French importers, Thierry's.

Successive competitions have shown that the cream rises to the top, with the same names often doing well time and again. One of those names is La Différence, a brand offering "real French wines made by real French winemakers" developed by Richard Evans and Ed Squires of Dedicated Wines in 2006, which "came from concentrating on what France does best and what we instinctively felt the consumer really wanted". With four wines in the Top 100 this year, the boast is justified.

It has the typically fragrant 2008 La Différence Viognier-Muscat, £5.49, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsburys, a juicy 2008 La Différence Grenache Blanc (not yet in store), an equally gluggy 2008 La Différence Grenache Noir, £5.49, Morrisons, and best of the bunch, the excellent 2008 La Différence Carignan, £5.49, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Co-op, which deservedly won the carignan trophy. Guy Anderson is another Englishman who's done well; his 2008 Les Montgolfiers Sauvignon Blanc Gros Manseng, £6.99, Tesco, taking the trophy for best white blend.

France needs more of this level of value and some of its own producers are waking up to the fact. Jean-Claude Mas of the Domaines Paul Mas is one of them. Based in the Languedoc, his wines are consistently excellent value with several usually in the Top 100 and this year his refined, full-flavoured and extremely well-crafted 2008 La Forge Estate Chardonnay, £7.99, Thresher, took the chardonnay trophy, while his equally flavoursome 2008 Paul Mas Estate Marsanne, £7.99, Majestic, won it for the eponymous Rhône varietal. Equally good on reds, his 2008 Paul Mas Cabernet de Cabernet, £6.99, Majestic and 2008 La Forge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, £7.99, Asda, were top 100 winners.

Plaimont too, the south-western co-operative that single-handedly revived the diminishing fortunes of Gascony, has raised the quality bar, winning trophies for its crisp, gooseberryish 2008 Rive Haute Sauvignon Blanc and strawberryish pink blend, the 2008 Rive Haute Tannat – Cabernet Rosé (both coming soon). There are others, Gérard Bertrand, Mont Tauch and Laurent Miquel to name just three, all showing that despite the French tendency to shoot itself in one foot, it at least has another good one to put forward. For the full top 100, see anthonyrosewine.com.

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