Wednesday, April 25, 2012

5 Reasons Why French Wine is Better Than American

Okay, granted this is an overview and a generalization. This is not to say that there aren't good American wines, but there is truth here in that France has the edge in some big ways. Let's look.

 1. Non-fruit complexity. The majority of American wines, especially those from California, are about fruit. It's the norm to find wines with big, ripe, jammy fruit that's indicative of the warm climate and long growing season on the west coast. Paired with some toasty, buttery, oaky notes it's become a "style" so that even winemakers in other states emulate this fashion in their wines as well. I expect wines to be made with ripe fruit and I also really enjoy wines that have some earth, spice, floral, and herbaceous qualities in the background. It's much more common to find this type of complexity in French wines at all price points. It's definitely about winemakers with an Old World sensibility and I also think it comes from climates giving a more balanced fruit/acid relationship.


2. Quality, variety, and diversity. Think about all the wine from Alsace, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Rhône, the Loire, and the Languedoc, not even to mention all the country wines. Wine is an inherent part of the culture in France, not just a luxury item, and there's quality across the board from simple everyday wines to the really famous ones. All this and France is slightly smaller than Texas, think about it!


3. The right grapes in the right places. The French have a big advantage here, since Roman times they've had the opportunity to see which grape varieties would express character and identity in different climates. You don't see pinot noir and syrah growing in the same vineyard, like in California, and the French are happy to specialize. If an area is mostly suitable for white wine, like Alsace, you don't find a lot of red wine and they're not trying to market cabernet.


4. Oak is not a flavoring agent. Wine has traditionally been aged in oak barrels of various ages and sizes. This does impart a certain character, the slow oxygenation in barrel helps to soften tannins in red wines and can give a nice silky texture to the wine. Barrels can also give some flavor to the wine depending on several factors, typically it comes across as toasty or vanilla/buttery. Well made wines find a balance where the oak is nondescript or compliments the wine rather than overwhelming it. Unfortunately, many American wines use oak as a flavoring agent, frequently using too many new barrels or, especially in the case of inexpensive wines, putting oak chips or staves in the tank to flavor the wine. I think some wineries do this to cover for the lack of balance or structure in over-ripe fruit. If the ripeness in the grapes is balanced there's no need to do this, we even find delicious French reds that see no oak at all.

5. Better value. We see honestly produced estate bottled wines from France with character, balance, and good flavor in the shop consistently for under $15, some of them are even $9.99. Very few of my personal choices for domestic wines sell for under $15. Try something from the Rhône or Languedoc (like Les Hérétiques) against a domestic wine at $10 or $11.99 and you'll see what I mean.


6. Better food partners (okay, 6 reasons). The crisper acidity and the more moderate alcohol levels pair better with all types of food. With a wine at 12.5% alcohol it's much easier to find combinations where you can taste the wine and  the food without either one taking away from the other.

Cheers,
Michael

4 comments:

  1. Obviously you must come to France and note hwo the shopkeepers (especially in the south) keep a secret supply of California Reds in a back room so as to accommodate their more discriminating customers. I don't mean to be disagreeable, but this entire thing reads backwards to a French guy. The California reds and also the reds from the Columbia Valley of the Pacific Northwest always outscore the French and it's a major source of humiliation. So what do we do? We keep changing the judges and assume that each previous judge must be crazy -- and still teh trend continues. In more provincial restaurants, the reds are always California, if the guests opt to pay for that, and still they are put in unlabeled carafes. It's actually a comedy. I appreciate that your tastes help to boost the French economy, but the day of teh French wine is passed. Frankly, the Italian and Portuguese wines are better still. The secretive nature of the penchant for California wines in and around Nice and Antibes, has burst into the community of the well-to-do young people. The proprietorship iintially gasped, but now they see the money and they play along. I would suggest that you might be more in love with the idea of the French wine than the actual taste of one. It's a lot like the world of art -- a let of stuff is terrible but you are looked down upon were you to say that you didn't like it. That's the same thing with the French wines now.

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  2. Hi DaveyM. Thanks for your comment.

    I haven't been to the south of France for a few years so I can't speak to the scene there, but I was in the Loire and Paris a few weeks ago. Almost all the wines on the lists in restaurants in the Loire were local, the exceptions usually being Burgundy, so I didn't see any wines from the US, truly. In Paris I spoke to several proprietors of shops and wine bars, selections were overwhelmingly French and they mostly told me that the French are drinking less wine overall. A different point but I heard that over and over. Frankly, the typical cafe in Paris doesn't care too much about the quality of the wines, mostly listed generically by appellation, but there is a real interest toward quality small production, naturally made wines in the better wine bars and restaurants.

    As for this blog post, mostly I was making a point about price and diversity. If we lined up and tasted a dozen California reds that sell for around $15 we wouldn't see much difference in the styles of the wines, and if we threw in a few Washington State reds they'd probably be a little less gushy and extracted but still generally similar. There are always exceptions, something like Heitz Grignolino comes to mind, and that sells for a few more dollars, which goes directly to my point. Considering the size of the country, there's more diversity and better value finding French wines in the NYC market.

    Tastes are subjective, so if you like California wines please keep buying them. I like some of them as well but as I said I know the prices to be higher for those wines which have genuine complexity and personality. I would disagree with your statement that "the day of the French wine is passed". Please don't think that I like all French wines or all the wines from any region, there are too many wines and factors involved. I can assure you that for wines I do like, I like them for the flavor more than for the love of the idea of them.

    Thanks,
    Michael

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  3. Hi Michael, Thanks for the good blog. I know it was a year ago, but I whole-heartedly agree with it. There are wines in France that are not good, and American wines that are fabulous. However, overall, at any price point I have tried, I have always tended to favor french wines. This might be my personal taste, but as the Davey pointed out, it is surely the case that there are french people who might better appreciate American wines! That is their prerogative, and I certainly don't begrudge others having a different opinion than me. American wine has opened up a new experience for the wine consumer, and that is indeed very important to remember.

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