France's vins de pays have emerged with new-found confidence and character

Having toiled in the shadows of their ostensibly more prestigious appellation contrôlée cousins, France's vins de pays have emerged with new confidence and character. Ironically, this new-found freedom of expression comes in large part from the fact that vins de pays have benefited from a somewhat un-Gallic flexibility next to their more sophisticated appellation contrôlée counterparts. As the annual vins de pays Top 100 competition now demonstrates, open-mindedness, greater freedom to plant and labelling by grape variety have all made their contribution to raising the profile of the French classics' country cousins.

Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc dominate the summery whites category, as you might expect. The 2006 Les Fumées Blanches, around £6.99, Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton (01273 698724), Wadebridge Wines, Cornwall (01208 812692), Five Reasons Wines, Tunbridge Wells (01892 521222), Quaff wine merchants, Hove (01273 820320), is a refreshingly aromatic and gooseberry-rich, tropical sauvignon blanc from the Lurton brothers. From Gascony, the 2006 Atlantique, £4.99, Co-op, offers attractive grapefruity flavours from a blend of sauvignon with gros manseng. Chardonnay is harder work at this level, with a handful of exceptions proving the rule. Trophies were awarded to the 2006 Marquis de Goulaine Chardonnay, £4.99, Revelstoke wines (020-8875 0077), an appley, almost chablis-like dry Loire white of delicate purity and, in contrasting style, the intense, oatmealy 2006 La Bouscade Chardonnay, made by David Cowderoy in the Languedoc, around £7.99, Sussex Wine Co (01323 431143), Creative Wines, Stirling (01786 471365).

Beyond the usual suspects of chardonnay and sauvignon, vins de pays offer an array of fascinating white varietals and blends. Sauvignon gris, for instance, an obscure distant cousin of sauvignon blanc, triumphed as best white of show in the shape of the remarkable 2006 Fié Gris, Sauvignon Gris, Domaine de l'Aujardière, £9.95, Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522), an immensely characterful, Alsace-like dry white from Eric Chevalier near Nantes with white pepper aromas and intense flavour. Bourboulenc is an ancient Roman grape variety that hardly rolls off the tongue, but the 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Pérignan Bourboulenc, Les Terres Salées Blanc, £15, Waitrose, does just that – a baked apple and honey-rich dry minerally white from Christophe Barbier near Narbonne, made in an idiosyncratic style that calls for red mullet or, if you can rustle one up, bouillabaisse.

After such exotic curios, it seems almost mundane to return to the likes of roussanne, marsanne, viognier and muscat, but these grapes, too, on their own or in blends, show the diversity of which France is capable. Like the 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue Barrel Selection Roussanne Reserve Domaine Sainte Rose, £8.99, Waitrose, a complex, honeyed, concentrated white with a dash of toasty oak and balancing citrusy freshness, or the intriguing, spicy-rich, honeydew melon 2005 La Forge Marsanne, Domaines Paul Mas, around £6.99, Needhams, Sevenoaks (01732 740422), James Fearon Anglesey, bottle/case (01407 765200), and the opulent, peachy-fresh 2006 Dames de Ricardelle, Viognier, £5.70, Portal, Dingwall & Norris, Portsmouth (01243 377883). I've already mentioned the 2006 La Différence Viognier Muscat this year, but since this pretty Roussillon blend won the viognier blend trophy, it has become available at both Tesco and Sainsbury's, £4.99, and its scented, melon and grapey fruitiness is made for the hazy, lazy days of summer.