California wines and traditionally made French wines are often easy to distinguish when sampled side by side. A Canadian francophone (and –phile) friend of mine once remarked, after helping to polish off a Napa cabernet over dinner, that California wines 'all taste the same'. His beef with our wines, he said, is that they are overpowering with both alcohol and blatant, fruit-forward characteristics. Although he was mostly joking, his sour grapes about American wine-making speaks to, among other issues, a basic difference in approach between the Old and New World.
Here are a few obvious differences: California wines are by and large consumed immediately after purchase, not cellared and allowed to age. In California the brand is key. In France, it’s the place the wine was made (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Cru, Grand Cru). Ultimately, my opinionated friend argued, this difference in approach makes American wines less interesting because they are so completely accessible: they don’t challenge you to explore the nuances, they just deliver the big flavor under a big, brassy label. Pow!
French wine, by contrast, is in general more subtle and cerebral in its play of flavors and expression of the concept of gout de terroir—literally meaning ‘taste of soil’, the idea that the dirt of a particular vineyard expresses itself through the grapes grown in it. The enjoyment of the wine, therefore, is as much of an intellectual experience as a sensual one. Far from being an ascetic who doesn’t know how to enjoy big flavors, my friend instead would say that this complexity increases the pleasure of the experience of enjoying wine—it literally goes to your head as well as your palette.
My friend’s broad generalizations are just that…of course California wines can be just as nuanced as any French wine. And nuance doesn’t necessarily equal quality. But the notion that California and French makers (at least traditionally) produce consistently different styles of product continues to be true, even in the face of globalization and the high-price, homogenizing consultants it brings. Some of the differences may be properly ascribed to a difference in aesthetic preferences, soil, and conditions, some of it also has to do with wine-making techniques.
Stay tuned for that discussion...