The prospect of sifting out the best 100 from 600 French vins de pays initially had all the appeal of root canal treatment with no anaesthetic. As it turned out, the two-day tasting exercise showed just how vivid and varied French country wines can be. What a shame that the big retailers shun them in favour of the reliability of New World brands. Amid what's been aptly dubbed the "coca-colonisation" of wine, character too often comes in a poor second to bland consistency.
When France's myriad co-operatives were peddling oceans of plonk in the early 1970s, the concept of vin de pays was a way of highlighting quality. Creating regional definition and limiting production gave deserving producers from the wrong side of the appellation contrôlée tracks something to aspire to. Unlike the appellations, the 150 vins de pays are able to put the name of the grape on the label. And greater flexibility allows them to try out international varieties in regions where the appellation rules frown on them. It led to the development of a New World-style Trojan horse within France's wine-industry establishment.
In France a vin de pays may still be thought of as a workhorse, but putting chardonnay, sauvignon, merlot or syrah on the label pays dividends overseas. Vins de pays account for more than half of French wine exports, although only a third of all French wine production (that's 1.8 billion bottles). Vins de pays are easy to comprehend, often innovative and can offer good value, though they are not necessarily cheap and cheerful. Given a choice between appellation and vin de pays, a producer might plump for the latter to make a super-cuvée outside the appellation rules, as in the case of Domaine de Trévallon or Grange des Pères in the South of France.
Back in the top 100, the selection of white wines tended to be dominated by sauvignon and chardonnay, but there were encouraging signs of a broadening of style into the likes of viognier and experimental blends. From the go-ahead cooperative Les Vignerons des Trois Terroirs, the ripe and peachy 2002 L'Esprit du Midi Viognier, Vin de Pays d'Oc, £5.95, Great Western Wines, stood out from a crowd of increasingly interesting dry whites made from the viognier grape. From Meffre, the juicily crisp 2003 La Châsse du Pape Chardonnay Viognier, Vin de Pays d'Oc, £4.99, Waitrose, demonstrated the increasingly creative use of blends.
For sheer good value, the 2003 Marc Ducourneau Sélection Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, £4.49 (two or more cost £3.99 each), at Majestic, confirmed the quality of this mouthwateringly crisp Gascon dry white from the Plaimont Cooperative. And, arriving this month, don't miss the 2003 Vermentino, Domaine St Hilaire, Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Bessilles, around £5.60, Christopher Piper Wines, Devon (01404 814139), a zingy, lemon-citrusy Mediterranean grape variety that performs so well in France's warm south.
It wasn't just the trophy winners that belied their relatively humble status. The entire top 100, to be unveiled later this month at the London International Wine & Spirits Fair, are a credit to France's burgeoning country wine movement. In particular they serve as a reminder that in a world increasingly dominated by bland, albeit reliable brands, it is refreshing to know that wine lovers can still find plenty of gems dotted around the vinous landscape as long as they're willing to make the effort.