As recently as five years ago, the French phrase "vin de pays" could be loosely translated as "avoid this wine."
That's no longer the case. Instead, vins de pays -- literally "wines of the country" -- offer some of the best values on the market today.
Vin de pays is the third and lowest of the classifications of French vineyard areas. The vast majority of exported wines fall into the highest group -- appellation controlle, or controlled name. (Apologies to French-speakers. You'll have to imagine the accent marks.)
The second, dwindling classification is vins delimite de qualite superieure, or V.D.Q.S. -- initials that used to be familiar before most of the good V.D.Q.S. regions were promoted to appellation controlle.
Only then do you come to vins de pays.
These were the wines from the regions that filled up the great European "wine lake." Traditionally, these regions were home to less distinguished grape varieties, raised by farmers who had little notion of quality.
Instead, they strove to produce as much fruit as the poor vine could bear, diluting any flavor they might have eked out of the grapes. Then the farmers would haul their crops down to the local cooperative winery to be turned into rotgut, which could be sold to workingmen or peasants by the gallon.
But habits began to change in France. The generation that drank cheap wine day and night began to pass from the scene, replaced by a more urbane generation that drank less wine, or none at all. Top-quality wine was more popular than ever, but vin ordinaire became increasingly difficult to sell.
For wine producers in the vin de pays regions, the choice was clear: Get better or go broke. Fortunately for budget-minded wine consumers, many did get better.
In some cases, wine producers have found hidden potential in land once planted with mediocre varietals such as carignan, aramon and terret gris. Replanted with cabernet sauvignon, syrah or chardonnay, once-trashy vineyards began to produce honest, drinkable wines.
In some cases, the results have been startling. Dedicated producers such as Aime Guibert at Mas de Daumas Gassac and Prosper et Louis-Marie Teisserenc of l'Arjolle have carved out oases in the "desert" of wine quality. Their wines, bottled as vins de pays, are easily superior to 80 percent of appellation controlle wines. They also fetch prices equivalent to fine appellation wines.
These are exceptions, however. For the most part the vins de pays that reach these shores don't offer a profound aesthetic experience but do deliver an enjoyable wine at an attractive price. Most sell for less than $8 for a standard-sized bottle. Many carry recognizable grape variety names -- making them easy for many American consumers to understand.
The regions that are most frequently seen today include Vin de Pays d'Oc (a contraction of Languedoc-Roussillon), Vin de Pays de l'Aude, Vin de Pays de 'Herault and Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardeche -- all from the south of France. Another one that is gaining respect for its crisp, charming white wines is Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne from the same Southwestern region that produces Armagnac.
In fairness to readers, it should be noted that the vin de pays (VDP) category still offers a sizable proportion of clunkers, but a recent round of tastings found more hits than misses. Here, in descending order in each grouping, are some of the better ones:
* 1992 Mas de Daumas Gassac, VDP de l'Herault ($18). The king of VDP wines comes through in a tough year for the south of France with a ripe, full wine filled with the flavors
of blackberry, coffee, chocolate and herbs. It could use three to five years' aging but is delicious now.
* 1990 Cabernet de l'Arjolle, VDP des Cotes de Thongue ($12). This exceptionally, supple, complex cabernet with fine black cherry and blackcurrant flavors could easily be mistaken for a very good Bordeaux from Margaux or Moulis.
* 1991 Guy Chevalier Cabernet-Syrah, VDP de l'Aude ($8). A rustic but ripe and hearty wine with excellent structure and staying power. Chevalier's "Le Texas" Syrah was less successful.
* Domaine des Terres Dorres "Plantations," VDP de France ($7). This nonvintage wine is reminiscent of a good Cotes du Rhone.
* 1992 Mas de Bressandes Cabernet-Syrah, VDP du Gard ($12). A very elegant wine that could be excellent as the overwhelming taste of new oak wears off. Needs some patience.
* 1992 Cave de Saint Desirat Syrah, VDP des Collines Rhodaniennes ($7). Soft, medium-bodied, fruity.
* 1991 Domaine de Matibat Merlot, VDP d'Oc ($6).
* 1992 Les Jamelles Mourvedre and 1992 Les Jamelles Syrah, VDP d'Oc (both $8).
* 1992 Reserve St. Martin Marsanne, VDP d'Oc ($8). This full-bodied, intense dry wine offers wonderful flavors of honey, minerals, peach and allspice. Marsanne, a Rhone varietal, is one of the world's lesser-known great white wine grapes.
* 1993 Domaine de Pouy, Cepage Ugni Blanc, VDP des Cotes de Gascogne ($6). This invigorating, fresh, lively, fruity wine is the perfect wine for a 95-degree day. Retailers: It should be discounted after Labor Day and all sold by Halloween. These wines are wonderful but perishable.
* 1992 Auffray Chardonnay, VDP de Lyonne ($8). Easily comparable to a good Macon from Burgundy.
* 1992 Reserve Maison Nicolas Chardonnay, VDP d'Oc ($7).
* 1992 Fortant de France Chardonnay, VDP d'Oc ($7.49).
* 1992 Domaine des Fontanelles Sauvignon Blanc, VDP d'Oc ($6).
* 1993 Les Jamelles Cinsault, VDP d'Oc ($8). Bone dry and crisp, this is comparable to some of the world's best pink wines. Drink this summer or early fall.
WINE OF THE WEEK
1990 Torres Coronas ($7.49)
Ever go on vacation and find yourself in a dinky country liquor store or grocery, trying to find a decent wine among the mass-produced brands? Coronas, a medium-bodied red with some pleasant notes of black cherry, may be your salvation. It's one of the most reliable wines in mass distribution. It's easy to pronounce, easy to remember and is good year in and year out.