France is home to some of the most famous wine regions of the world, names we are all familiar with; Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace to name a few. But there are many other areas, especially across the south, whose fame has faded for a number of reasons ranging from trade to changing tastes to the destruction caused by the phylloxera louse.
In Roman days, it was the south eastern part of France that was famous and whose wines were exported to Rome and Germany. Bordeaux is such an important wine region today because of the influence of the English; the Duke of Normandy, Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry of course became King Henry II and Bordeaux became a favored source of wine for London and the rest of England. At this time, the Medoc, which is north of the city of Bordeaux on the west bank of Gironde, was marshland and not much good for anything. Most wines for England came from other regions in the southwest, and what was locally produced in the Graves area (south of Bordeaux on the west side of the Garonne river) was quite light and thin. (The English term for Bordeaux wines, Claret, derives from the latin word clarum, for clear.) Much of the wine that flowed through Bordeaux for export to England came from the region of Gascony, which is further south along the treaties of the Garonne. Today the area is mostly known for Armangac, not for its wines.
Cahors was a famous region, known for its black wine, mostly made from Malbec, which is locally called Auxerrois. Cahors is roughly 150km from Bordeaux and lies along the river Lot. Historically the wines of this area were shipped down the Lot to the Garonne and up to Bordeaux. The wine was often used to add color and flavor to the thin Bordeaux wines and was also popular on its own in England. Later, merchants in Bordeaux would not permit the wine onto the docks until all the bordelais wine had been sold. As a result, the wines became less known, withlining demand it is possible that quality also suffered.
The Dutch were responsible for draining the marshes of the Medoc in the 1600`s allowing these lands to be planed with vines. Some of the great wine chateau were created during this period, but it was when the English returned in the 1700`s that the fame of Bordeaux really began to rise.
This British invasion focused attention on the classic grapes of Bordeaux and caused tastes to move away from grapes that today we are not as familiar with, such as Tannat, Fer Sevasou (Mansoi) Mauzac, or even Grenache and Mouvedre. It is likely that the wines from Cahors are of more interest now because of the success of Malbec from Argentina and Chile.
Another factor in the decline in fame of other regions is the result of decimation caused by the phylloxera louse, which came from North America, on vines all across France and later Europe. Prosperous areas were able to replant vines grafted onto North American root stock which are resistant to the pest. But in areas which wines did not have a wider export market, the replanting was slower and I would guess that the volume of wine produced was pushed up to help pay for the cost of replanting. The combination of unique grape varieties, a different style or taste of wine further exaggerated the drift in popularity of these wines from the Bordeaux's and Burgundies. To create a market, the price of these wines had to be low, creating a vicious cycle where the producers could not afford to experiment or seek out new techniques.
On the southeast side of France, the dry hot climate requires different grapes and approaches to wine making. Wine from the area around Narbonne, which is near the Mediterranean, had been popular in Roman days, but lost their markets until the construction in the mid 1600's of the Canal du Midi and a port at Sète. By then, the major foreign market for wine was London and its tastes were mainly concentrated on Bordeaux. Wines from the Rhône valley, further east did better because of two factors; the settlement of the Roman Catholic court to Avignon in the 1300's created a demand for quality local wines and the Rhône river allowed the transportation of the wines of the valley far north even into Burgundy. From there, a relatively short overland trip would reach the territories of the Seine, allowing these wines to reach Paris.
In the last few decades, a number of changes have occurred. The cost of the famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines has increased dramatically, encouraging consumers to look for alternatives. It is easier to explore new areas of the world than at any time in our past and the explosion of information through the Internet and other media makes it easier to learn about these areas and what people have been experienced. And very importantly, wine makers in these areas are trying new techniques and are working to improve their wines.
If you are looking for something different, I would encourage you to taste wines from these areas. Just do not expect the same flavors, you may have to experiment to find ones you like. And you will find that many of these wines will pair nicely with bold foods such as strong cheeses, spicy olives and sausages.