CALIFORNIA VERSUS FRENCH WINES:
How do they compare?

A Touch of Paris

Winter 1978-79
A Touch of Paris no. 16

After the "Great Tasteoff" between California and French wines in May '76 (see A Touch of Paris, N° 7, Summer 1976) Americans crowed and the French sulked. Averting their eyes, the French media sidestepped this distasteful matter as deftly as any Parisian circumventing the ubiquitous sidewalk reminders of the city's dog population.

Both Americans and French missed the point but for opposite reasons. One tasting does not make California wines superior to French wines whatever the results. But putting your head in the sand so you can't see the competition isn't going to make it go away, either.

The real point is that California and French wines – at least certain types – are comparable in quality and possibly competitive in some ways. For this reason it is worth comparing them. Do they actually resemble each other or do they differ in significant ways? How are they made? What is their future? These and a lot of other questions have to be answered before you can come to any sort of conclusion.

Perhaps the greatest single difference is that the French winegrowing tradition goes back historically to the founding of Marseille in 600 B.C. by Greek colonizers from Phocaea in Asia Minor, who are credited with introducing the culture of the vine and the making of wine. It is even likely that here and there happy groups of Gallic Cro-Magnons had discovered the gratifying tendency of wild grapes to ferment themselves into alcohol at the slightest opportunity.

In California, Spanish missionaries first began making a rough sort of wine from what is now called the "Mission grape" just before the end of the 17th century. The introduction of noble French grape varieties and serious winemaking began only a century ago and was abruptly cut off 50 years later by the absurdity of Prohibition.

What with the depression, the war and its aftermath, it was not until about 1960 that the kind of winemaking that might give the French a run for their money began in earnest. But since then it took a mere 15 years to attain a level the French reached after two and a half millennia.

Of course, California benefited from all those centuries of French experience and deliberately copied French wines in grape varieties and winemaking methods. Not to mention the frequent hiring of French winemakers to come over and show them how to make wine. But then isn't copying supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery?

Which brings us to the likes of California "burgundy". If there is any one basis for French wines, their names and the laws of appellation d'origine contrôlée that govern them, it is the soil, that is, the place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made. Burgundy, or more properly la Bourgogne, is a province of France and only wine from that area may carry the name.

What is meant by the term, but unfortunately is not labeled as such in California, is "burgundy-type" wine. Although it in no way resembles French Bourgogne, it could pass for a Côtes-du-Rhône. Furthermore, such rip-off names – the worst example is "pink chablis," for French Chablis is a top-quality wine and exclusively white – are applied to low-grade wines in California.

The best wines of California are known by their grape variety. This gives them a French name since most varieties come from France but this is fair enough, and it allows the Californians to have their cake and eat it too.

What is becoming almost equally important is the name of the winery that produces a given varietal wine, and this is slowly bringing us back to the French notion of place of origin as the determining factor in quality.

Stressing the importance of the winery implies an equal emphasis on the quality of the vinification, or winemaking. With rare exceptions, this means the small producers who are in a position to give their output the demanding care that alone makes for great wine.

The best French wines also come from small producers. In fact, they come from single estates where generally only one type of wine is produced. All the wine produced at first-ranked Château Mouton in the Médoc is red, and all the grapes it comes from are grown in the vineyard of the same name owned by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. And so they must by French law, or the wine could not be called Mouton-Rothschild.

Château Montelena in California's Napa Valley makes a similar red wine called by the name of its variety, Cabernet-Sauvignon. But it makes no less than three Cabernets from three different parts of California, as well as various Chardonnays, Rieslings and Zinfandels that come only partially from grapes grown in Montelena's own vineyards. The rest are bought from other growers, which is perfectly legal in the United States.

Other wineries, especially the giants, may make as many as two or three dozen types of wines from port to vermouth out of nearly as many grape varieties of French, German, Italian and God only knows what other origin. Fortunately, the tendency to specialize is the wave of the future.

Calera winery near Hollister in the Central Coast region has planted Burgundian Pinot Noir grapes on one of the few outcroppings of limestone in California that resemble Burgundy's soil in France. It also makes the popular Zinfandel wine from other growers' grapes, essentially only to pay for its more limited production of the noble Pinot Noir.

American law is quite broad-minded about what varieties may be grown where for making whatever type of wine strikes the producer's fancy. He is basically limited only by what the consumer, who is becoming more discerning, will accept.

French law, on the other hand, is notoriously strict where quality wine is concerned. It determines where a given wine may be grown, right down to the precise type of soil within the region itself; the grape variety (or varieties authorized; the maximum permitted yield per acre; the training and pruning of the vines; frequently the method of making the wine; the minimal natural alcoholic content that must be attained; and it demands a chemical analysis and usually a tasting by a panel of experts before the wine may finally call itself by one of the 200-odd appellations d'origine contrôlées.

United States law ignores most of these aspects. It requires that any varietal wine must contain at least 51 percent of the grape name on the label (100 percent in France for varietals). "Estate-bottled" wines must be produced 75 percent from grapes grown on the estate in question (100 percent in France). A wine with the vintage year on its label must come 95 percent from grapes harvested that year (100 percent in France).

Irrigation is permitted in California (although the better wineries avoid it) but forbidden in France. The only operation permitted in France that is forbidden by American law is the addition of sugar to fermenting wine to raise its alcoholic content, and this only by a maximum of two percent.

One of the delights – and despairs – of French wines are the vintage years. Wines from a year with exceptionally fine weather like 1961 will be marvelous and usually rather expensive. Wine from a rotten year like 1968 – well, the less said, the better.

It is a common misconception that years don't count in California. A vintage marked on a label is said merely to show how old the wine is. While this may be true for the invariably hot southern part of the state where irrigation is a regular practice, it certainly does not apply to the Napa Valley and other areas north of the San Francisco bay.

Just try a 1973 Cabernet-Sauvignon against a 1974 from the same Napa winery and you can't miss the difference. The 1973 is a good wine but a bit light and will not have a long life. The 1974 is massive, black and hard as a rock. It needs years to develop into a smooth mature wine and should last at least to the end of the century.

Great vintages of French wine – at least Bordeaux – may last a century or more. I have been lucky enough to taste a 1869 Château Lafite-Rothschild, a 1869 Château La Tour-Blanche (a first growth of sweet white Sauternes) and 1878 Château Mouton-Rothschild twice, as well as several other wines from before 1900. All were perfectly preserved and marvelously drinkable. Will California wines ever last that long? The answer is going to be a long time in coming.

The future looks bright for both France and California. Methods of winemaking improve constantly as science discovers more and more about wine. France still relies heavily on proven traditional methods, handed down from father to son on estates worked by the same family for centuries.

One Mellot or another has been making Sancerre from the same vineyard in the Loire Valley since 1513 when Louis XII was king of France and Henry XIII ruled England.

California has adopted many techniques from France, even going as far as to import barrels made from French oak for the aging of both reds and whites. But it is modern methods, many developed at the outstanding oenological school of the University of California at Davis, that have allowed California to make so much progress in such a short period of time.

If red Napa Valley Cabernets are beginning to stand up to the great classified châteaux of the Médoc, and white California Chardonnays to rival the grands crus of Burgundy, it is a very good thing. Nothing spurs quality like competition – provided the French don't close their eyes to it and rest on their laurels.

At least one French firm has accepted the challenge and elected to fight it out on California's home ground, in the Napa Valley no less. Plenty of "champagne" is made by California firms, but five years ago the biggest French Champagne company, Moët et Chandon, began setting up a winery. Located in Yountville, it is already a going concern and its produce is now selling throughout the United States.

It is made exclusively from California grapes and it is by far the best copy of Champagne ever produced anywhere. It ought to be. Moët sends their own cellar master from Epernay to make the blend. The methods of Champagne are followed to the letter, even to the extent of using Moët's own specially selected and developed yeasts to obtain an identical fermentation.

Indeed, Moët's venture is the despair of Californians. As one Napa Valley wineman said, "What bugs us is that after generations of our making champagne, Moët comes in and in two years they're making better stuff than any of us." Except that Moët doesn't call it "champagne" but simply Chandon, from the second half of the firms' French name. Real Champagne comes only from the province of the same name in France, but you could fool more than one taster with Chandon's version.

So if the French themselves are making rivals to their own produce in California, what's all the fuss about? It's getting pretty hard to tell just who is copying whom.