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French wine, American accent

Why do some of the best wines under $10 now come not from South America or the south Pacific but from the south of France itself?

You'll get the simplest, sunniest explanation at the wine bar of smiling Jacques Melac here not too far from the Place de La Bastille.

Squeeze among the crowd in business suits and work clothes around the bar, and Melac will provide the one-two in French and comic body language as broad as his considerable moustaches.

"They are good, no?"' he asks, his eyes and dimples widening.

"And not expensive?" He shrugs, concluding with a universal pantomime for "duh" and a twist of his nose and a Bronx cheer for simpletons who can't figure this one out.

"In France, we call it la nouvelle californie francaise," Melac says of the dynamic renaissance in Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France. The southern wine area that once got no respect now is proudly emblazoned on wines exported to the United States by a host of local co-ops and international shippers. They include small proprietors, giant brands like Fortant de France, Val d'Orbieu/Reserve St. Martin and Lorval, and the biggest names in U.S. and French wine, from Mondavi to Duboeuf. They are found in groceries and wine stores around Tampa Bay and increasingly on restaurant lists.

Although Melac stocks a wide variety of France's best, the house pour here is a bright red Fitou he makes at a vineyard in the south named for his three daughters.

To prove he's not just touting his own product, Melac pulls out five modest bottles from various parts of France. The best is not a smooth Julienas from Beaujolais but a '93 from the Coteaux du Languedoc, a dark red smelling of cherries and smooth and round to the taste.

Another five, and again top honors go to another Coteaux du Languedoc, a '94 that is deep purple, smells of violets and has a richer taste, like a cabernet.

Such pride is a big change for Languedoc-Roussillon, which stretches along the Mediterranean from the Spanish border to Provence. It is an area so distinct from the rest of France it is named for its medieval language, the langue d'oc, in which the word for "yes" was oc, not oui.

Vineyards there are massive and ancient, but never achieved or deserved the regard accorded France's great wine-growing regions. Instead Languedoc was a huge wine lake, much like the central valley of California, which put the bulk in bulk wines. Its vineyards grew whatever was wanted for the lowest grade vin de table, supermarket jug wines and cheap brandy across Europe.

Yet the region had the capacity to grow and make far better wines, since it stretched from the southern Rhone to the southwest of France, not that far from Bordeaux. As the market and profit from cheap jug wine evaporated, enterprising growers and shippers gradually moved their sights and raised them to the growing international demand for better everyday wines in the $5 to $10 bracket.

The market, known in the United States 10 years ago as the fighting $5 varietal, had become the province of entrepreneurial Italians, Chileans and Australians. The French followed their lead _ and the example of some Australian wine makers and other imported talent _ improving vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking, aging (even using wood barrels) and marketing.

The biggest change was in the grapes, for the vineyards were heavily planted in carignan and grenache and other workhorse reds of low esteem. Plantings of other Mediterranean grapes popular in the Rhone, such as syrah, mourvedre, marsanne and viognier were expanded. And the great varieties of Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc and even the chardonnay of Burgundy were introduced.

"It was slow going at first," remembers Martin Sinkoff, a young importer from Texas who began developing the Val D'Orbieu line 10 years ago and now has a portfolio of Languedoc blends, varietals and prestige cuvees.

"Could it have made the quality of wine 15 years ago? No," admits Antoine Songy, the Tampa-based representative of Fortant. The company was started by Robert Skalli, who told Languedoc growers: "We have to stop making lousy wine from weird grapes." Then he contracted with 120 of them to plant varieties of grapes he wanted (cab and other fashionable varietals), and grow them the way he wanted (in more careful, lower production) for a guaranteed price. Songy brought in the first bottle nine years ago; today Fortant sells 300,000 cases a year.

Switching over to new grapes while keeping the best of the old provided the raw material for a variety of wine, all French, and this time, proudly from the south of France. Most are red, but there are quaffable whites, and some of the world's best buys in dry, crisp roses (from both syrah and grenache).

Buyers will find them in varying categories. The most distinctive flavors are in earthy, slightly peppery reds from areas that use blends of traditional grapes and have earned their own appellations under French law, like Fitou, Corbieres, Minervois and Coteaux du Languedoc. Increasingly they are blended with syrah and other Rhone reds for smoothness.

Under the broader designation of vin de pays d'oc are the most accessible wines made for the international market as pure varietals, from cabernet, merlot and chardonnay to the distinctively spicier Rhones. They are made from grapes picked throughout the region, freed from the rules of specific appellations, vinified for the American palate, fresh and soft with a smooth finish.

Plus they are both affordable and still French.

That may sound like a sure-fire combination of selling points and it has sold boatloads of wine, but Sinkoff says the French origin does not clinch the sale with American customers. "California rules. More buyers would prefer a Californian."

That's the old California, but the nouvelle one is giving it a run for your money.