Compare French And California Wines, And See What You Learn

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).

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Uncorked: Great Wines For Less Than $15

Uncorked: Great Wines For Less Than $15

By Bill St. John, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

For a St. John, I love Passover each year. I go back to my hometown of Denver and attend a couple of Seder meals at homes of Jewish friends.

But the kicker is that they ask me to conduct a tasting of kosher wines during the Haggada, the hours-long text that sets forth the order of the Seder — and during which each participant is obliged to sip from at least four cups of wine. We just use the good stuff, not Manischewitz.

So, I went on the lookout for some well-made kosher wines again this year and ran across some surprisingly delicious bottlings from the Spanish producer Terrenal, available at Trader Joe’s for a scant $5 a bottle. Come now, you’re saying to yourself, $5 for a decent bottle? Much less, of kosher wine?

Well, Terrenal’s cabernet sauvignon and its tempranillo, both of which I bought, were terrific wines for the money, kosher or not.

Which leads me to note some other well-priced wines that I’ve come across recently and wish to recommend.

They’re ordered by price. All are available nationally for $15 or less a bottle. You may find a couple above that price in certain markets, but the national average is $15 or below.


2013 Cousino-Macul Sauvignon Gris Isidora, Maipo, Chile: The grape is a cousin to sauvignon blanc and very much resembles it with its grapefruit-y cast; dry, slightly spritzy, and extremely refreshing. $13

2012 Dr. Loosen Dry Riesling Red Slate, Mosel, Germany: Dry riesling can be a bit hard, austere, and in need of food, but this has a lot of fruit to it (apple, pear, lemon) and a full, rich texture. $14

2013 Inama Soave Classico, Veneto, Italy: Creamy, peachy, very soft on the tongue (almost as if it had been polished), but with just enough acidity to spark-plug the next sip. $15

2011 Koenig Vineyards Viognier, Williamson Vineyard, Snake River Valley, Idaho: Yep, Idaho, and from one of the state’s better producers; full-on viognier, with all the peach and apricot you’d expect, and that chamois-like texture that makes the grape so seductive. $15

2013 Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc, Canterbury, New Zealand: In a sea of recipe-driven Kiwi sauvignon, this stands out for its subtleness, richer-than-usual body, and very long finish. $15

2013 Weingut Fred Loimer Gruner Veltliner Lois, Kamptal, Austria: Great gruner, with all the citrus, white pepper, lentil, celery, and herbal notes you could ask for, as well as a more generous texture than in previous years. $15


2012 Cellaro Nero d’Avola Luma, Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy: Simple, straightforward, deeply-pigmented red, all dark cherries and earth and herbal accents. $10

2013 Mark West Pinot Noir, California: I served this blind, in opaque glassware, next to a $90 Russian River pinot from a famous producer and half the group preferred it; nothing spectacular, but you don’t find spot-on pinot at this price every day. $10

2012 Bogle Merlot, California: How these Bogle folk turn out their terrific $10-$12 bottles of white and red, I do not know, but this is all-merlot: dark red fruit, plush texture, soft tannins, delicious. $10-$12

2012 Elena Walch Schiava, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy: The most popular wine variety in its home region because it is so adaptable for the range of foods of the area; light-bodied, highly perfumed, great acidity, low tannin. $13

2012 Tormaresca Primitivo, Puglia, Italy: Earthy, even tarry, with nice spice notes; a true Italian zinfandel (no surprise, same grape, different name); pizza wine par excellence. $15

2012 Chateau Ste Michelle Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington: Beautiful scents of red cherry and spice in a plush, richly rendered version; equal to Rhone syrah costing nearly twice as much. $15

2012 Seven Falls Merlot, Wahluke Slope, Washington: Proof again that Washington State is the anti-“Sideways,” the rescuer of America’s merlot; dark fruits, plump feel, long finish; pin-point merlot. $15

2008 Bodegas Franco-Espanolas Rioja Bordon, Rioja, Spain: A favorite Rioja for the price; nothing fancy or deeply layered, just juicy cherrylike fruit, accents of wood and time, and nice cleansing acidity to make dinnertime tastier. $15

2011 Kaiken Terroir Series Red Blend, Corte Mendoza, Argentina: This is a midnight-black blend of malbec, bonarda, and petit verdot from primo vineyards near Mendoza; fat with flavor, texture, perfume of dark fruits and earth; your go-to for beef. $15

2013 Tinto Negro Malbec, Uco Valley, Argentina: This stands out in a crowd of so-so chocolate-and-cherry malbec for its crisper-than-usual acidity and slight tannic grip, making it better at table than alone by the glass. $15

2013 Mas Carlot Costieres de Nimes Cuvee Tradition Rouge, Rhone, France: Everything about this is dark, brooding and, hence, very seductive: the black fruit aromas and flavors; the accents of licorice nib, espresso and baker’s chocolate; the scents of dried wild herbs; an extraordinary value in complexity, depth and flavor richness for the money. $15

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Photo: Robert Neff via Flickr