Which red grape is the dominant variety in Bordeaux? Give yourself half a pat on the back if your answer was cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet is the backbone of the Médoc and such blue-chip châteaux as Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild. But it's merlot that's most widely planted, especially opposite the Médoc on the right bank of the Gironde. St Emilion and Pomerol apart, this area is less well-known, but the medieval citadels of Blaye and Bourg and the wooded hills and undulating vineyards nearby offer far more local colour than the monotonous monoculture of the Médoc. Merlot comes into its own here because it ripens earlier in the colder clay and limestone soils of the lesser-known hillside regions of Bourg, Blaye, Premières Côtes, Castillon and Francs. Collectively known as the Côtes de Bordeaux, these not so famous five are making a bid for greater recognition by showing that you don't have to pay à travers le nez for good everyday claret or dry white Bordeaux.

At Château Carignan in the Premières Côtes, Philippe Pieraerts, a jolly Obélix of an ex-commodities trader, claims that progress in winemaking here is more dynamic than on the left bank. The quality of his modern merlot-based claret (Adnams, 01502 727222; Corney & Barrow, 020-7265 2400) is a far cry from the old-fashioned claret of yesteryear. "The trouble is you tell an old bloke his wine isn't up to scratch, but he says he's been drinking it for 40 years and he's still alive." English newcomers Philip and Sarah Iles bought Château Lezongars in 1998. "I'd always bought a lot of wine from Bordeaux, so I thought, wouldn't it be lovely to go and buy a château," says Philip. Converting from bulk to quality wine, the Iles produce, among other wines, the stylish and succulent 2001 L'Enclos du Château Lezongars, £10.85-£14.95, Jeroboams (020-7288 8872), Corks Out, Warrington (01925 267 700), Chester (01244 310 455), £105/ case, Prestige Wines, Aberdeen (0870 7741117).

The first person to shake the area out of its torpor was François Mitjavile, a southern Frenchman whose Roc de Cambes in the Côtes de Bourg cocks a snook at the grandees of Margaux across the river. As the fragrant, silky, black cherryish 2004 Roc de Cambes, £35, Corney & Barrow, demonstrates, Mitjavile's intensive vineyard work has made a nonsense of Bourg's humble status with a series of remarkable wines. Among them, the dashing Stephan von Neipperg, a German investor at Château Canon-La Gaffelière in St Emilion, has bought Château Aiguilhe in the Côtes de Castillon, whose superbly intense cassis and cherryish 2005 is excellent value at £145-£156 per case (in bond), Albany Vintners (0845 330 8858), Fine & Rare Wines (020-8962 9233), while his second label, the 2004 Seigneurs d'Aiguilhe, £7.99, Waitrose, offers an affordable glimpse of the Castillon style.

"The problem facing the Côtes is that their image is zero," says Denis Dubourdieu, the energetic professor of winemaking at Bordeaux University, whose own grapefruit-zesty 2006 Château Reynon Bordeaux Sauvignon, £9.49, Halifax Wine Company (01422 256333), Wimbledon Wine Cellar (020-8540 9979), is one of the most deliciously refreshing, right-bank dry whites. As Philippe Pieraerts puts it in his down-to-earth way, "Bordeaux is used to sitting and waiting for buyers to come to it; but today, you really have to shift your arse." To support the labour-intensive efforts now being made to go out and find a market for their value for money clarets and whites, the five sub-regions of the Côtes have banded together. If progress continues at the current rate, they should be giving the left bank a run for its money.