Compare French And California Wines, And See What You Learn
By Bill St. John, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Back a few months ago, at the suggestion of a friend, I conducted a four-session seminar and tasting that set the red wines of Bordeaux alongside similarly constituted reds of Napa Valley, and also compared chardonnays and pinot noirs of Burgundy with those of Sonoma County.
It was a great ride.
These sessions were not merely a compare-contrast of differing terroirs and climates, but also a look at various ways of making wine, especially the differences in style, in general, between France and California.
That was a great lesson.
One justification for pairing up the two countries’ wines from these duos of regions is that winemakers in the New World purport to mirror, or at least to emulate, in their wines the counterpart wines made in the Old World. For example, most everyone making pinot noir around the globe asserts that Burgundy’s pinot noir is the ideal, the ne plus ultra.
The major spoiler, as it were, in any side-by-side of France and California, given these sets of wines, is soil. Limestone is ubiquitous in Burgundy; Kimmeridgian chalk is the underpinning of that region’s Chablis; neither makes a peep in Sonoma County. The low acidity, high pH and calcium of both Burgundian soil types is crucial to how pinot noir and chardonnay grow as grapes and make themselves into Burgundy’s wines.
Sonoma gets its calcium from worn volcanic rock or from the addition of lime or gypsum into the vineyard’s soil. Contrariwise, the ancient marine floor that is Sonoma County — rich in sandstone, volcanic lava, fine grain quartz and a combination of small hard rocks and soft, friable soil — is nothing like Burgundy’s overall geology.
Sonoma County is like Rocky Road ice cream with its mix of soft, hard and gravelly soils. Burgundy is like a layer cake, with limestone, chalk or granite as the cake, and clay, loam and limestone bits the frosting up top.
For its part, Napa Valley boasts one-third of the 100-plus known global soil types, while Bordeaux is mostly — and only — gravel (Left Bank) and clay and limestone (Right Bank). The unique mix of stones, rocks, pebbles, quartz, gravel and various minerals gives Bordeaux’s Pessac-Leognan area its distinctiveness and allows it to be the only place in the world famed for the trio of red, white and sweet wines.
So, something about differing wines from these regions: Few chardonnays that we tasted from Sonoma County — even the “Burgundian” styled 2012 Hanzell Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley ($70) — sported the focus, linearity and precision of, say, the 2013 Thomas Pico Chablis Pattes Loup ($36) or the 2013 Cedric et Patrice Martin Saint-Veran Champ Rond, Maconnais ($24). Truly the most Burgundian of the Sonoma chardonnays that we tasted was the 2012 Matthiasson Wines Chardonnay, Michael Mara Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($45-$50), like drinking a wire or a beam of light.
Oak was subtler, too, in the Burgundian chardonnays when compared with those from Sonoma; and alcohol levels, lower from France. These two characteristics point out stylistic differences rooted in when grapes are picked in a cool climate versus a forgiving one, as well as how oak may be used judiciously (Burgundy, in general) or boastfully (Sonoma, in general).
Despite much attention having been paid to pinot noir grown along the West Coast, the differences between Burgundian pinots and those from Sonoma are stark, due mostly, I believe, to the hugely different soil types, but also to vineyard practices (picking times, for example) and winemaking practices (oak treatments, again).
Putting the 2010 Henri Gouges Nuits-St.-George 1er Cru Les Pruliers, Cote de Nuits ($80-$90) next to its neighboring vineyard Les Chenes Carteaux — same maker, same year, same everything but the plot — illustrates the very idea of Burgundy, that an individual vineyard has a “voice” distinct from any other vineyard, even one tangential to it.
You can get something of the sort from a comparison of the 2012 Flowers Pinot Noir Sea View Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($70-$90) — light, ethereal, lean — with the 2012 Flowers Pinot Noir Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($70-$90) — floral, spicy, more giving — even though the vineyards are quite separate.
By and large, however, Sonoma pinots emphasize fruit, whereas Burgundian pinots carry earthy, hummus-y and sometimes animalistic notes.
When we compared, in the Bordeaux-Napa sessions, wines from both regions made singularly of or dominated by merlot — and then, on the second go-around, of cabernet sauvignon — we noted the typical bifurcation of France and California when it comes to winemaking: extract, alcohol levels and texture.
Napa merlots are rather large-scaled; those from Bordeaux — such as the 2011 Chateau La Rose Montviel Pomerol (35-$40) or the 2004 Chateau Simard St. Emilion ($25-$30) — often disappointingly washed out or certainly less forward of flavor for the price.
It’s with cabernet sauvignon that the differences between Bordeaux and Napa Valley are most apparent, even though many wine tasters assert that, since the 1980s, Bordeaux more closely approximates the weight and style of California cabernet.
I suppose it matters which wines you pick to make your point. A 2011 Chateau Moulin de Tricot Margaux ($45-$50) or a 1998 Chateau Lynch-Bages Pauillac ($115-$170) truly shows the elegance, austerity and purity of cabernet sauvignon when in the neighborhood of heavyweights — pretty, dancing heavyweights, like nimble linebackers — such as the 2010 Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($130) or the 2011 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena ($110-$140).
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Photo: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr