How do California wines compare with those of Europe, specifically France and Germany? The issue is one of the most controversial among wine lovers, but I find it both pointless and tedious. Sure, it’s interesting, in a frivolous way, to have California Char-donnays challenge the white Burgundies of France or to throw Cabernet Sauvignons in the ring with famous red Bordeaux. But is anything really proved? Take the case of Chateau Montelena, a small California winery of impeccable standards, which gained lasting notoriety from a 1976 Bicentennial taste-off in Paris. Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay beat out some well-known white Burgundies in a blind appraisal by an international panel, upon which reporters announced to the world that America was now producing wine superior to the French. California jingoes have been gloating ever since.
“I wish it had never happened,” says Jerry Luper, Montelena’s winemaker since 1977. “I’ve had to live with that tasting since I’ve been at Chateau Montelena, and it’s really been annoying. It interferes with what I’m trying to do, which is make the best wine I can with what I have.” When asked the California-France question, he gives a stock answer: “I don’t make French wines. I don’t try to copy anybody. I’ve been to the French regions and I respect their wines and techniques. But in California, things are different and so are the wines.”
Although wine has been produced in California since the 19th century, large-scale attempts at fine wine-making didn’t start until the 1960’s. Before this time, just a handful of wineries – notably Beaulieu, Beringer, Buena Vista, Ingle-nook, Louis Martini, and Simi – were making memorable wines, and only for a small cult of enthusiasts. The general public became aware of California’s efforts in the late Sixties, and most of the present-day specialists, labeled “boutique” wineries, were born then. Some brazen trivialists even single out one wine – Robert Mondavi’s 1969 Cabernet Sau-vignon – as the catalyst for domestic fine-wine mania.
Because of the relative newness of the industry, the dominant trend among California vintners has been one of experimentation. Whereas French and German growers have settled on specific plots of land in which only one major grape variety is planted, California acreage typically has several varieties of red and white grapes growing side by side. Fortunately, this practice is being rejected, as progressive vintners seek microclimates and single vineyard sites best suited to particular grapes. Silver Oak Vineyards, which grows only Cabernet Sauvignon, is an excellent example of this trend.
The search for specific plots of land won’t be easy. Andre Tchelistcheff, long-time wine-maker at Beaulieu Vineyards, observed that it took the French hundreds of years to pinpoint Romanée-Conti (a four-acre site in Burgundy) as a spot of unique distinction for growing Pinot Noir. So we must be patient while domestic growers hunt for their parcels. The problem is that only a few are actually looking. Most wineries still follow the typically American philosophy of producing a kaleidoscope of wines, with grapes collected from vineyards many miles apart.
The contest between European and California wines seems even less valid when one takes soil and climatic conditions into account. Great wine is the result of superior fruit grown in unique soil under lucky weather conditions. Europe did not become the standard of excellence by acci- dent; in France and Germany ; there exist certain soil ; characteristics not duplicated : elsewhere. The Mosel River Valley in Germany has its slate, the Riesling grape’s favorite home. In Champagne, chalky soil contributes to the world’s finest sparkling wine. Burgundy has its marl and limestone. The gravelly soil of Bordeaux provides the perfect drainage for Cabernet Sauvignon. In all cases, the soil is agriculturally poor – the best environment for classic grapes; too rich a soil gives a dull, flabby wine.
European vineyards are on approximately the same latitude as southern Canada, whereas California winegrowing regions are on the same line as northern Africa. The cold, variable climate of Europe forces the vine to struggle, thus bringing out character and complexity in the wine (or so the lore goes); the warmer, more even climate of California allows the grape to grow more easily. Fortunately, California is blessed with certain microclimates-particularly the Napa and Sonoma Valleys-whose cool weather is ideal for production of fine wines.
With the possible exception of Germany, California possesses the finest winemakers in the world. It can be argued that they experiment too much, though, and one wishes that they might spend less time in the laboratory and more in the field. Many California wineries buy their grapes from farmers and rarely, if ever, see the fruit until it comes in for vinification; the European vintners live with their grapes. Among other differences in growing practices are the use of irrigation (California, yes; Europe, no) and sugaring of wines (California, no; Europe, yes).
The common denominator between these friendly competitors is the grape varieties they grow. When the California wine industry began last century, its pioneers realized that the native American grapes found on the East Coast made horrible wine. Wisely, they imported European vines. The better California wines are identified by grape name, as opposed to the European practice of naming a wine after its point of origin. The following is a list of major grape varieties and their performance in Europe and California.
Cabernet Sauvignon. The standard grape of red Bordeaux and undeniably the greatest red wine accomplishment of California. It’s often difficult to distinguish a well-made California Cabernet from a chateau-bottled Bordeaux, though fruitiness tends to be more pronounced in California’s. Red Bordeaux are always blended with other varieties, mostly Merlot (which is being grown with increasing success in California and bottled on its own); California Cabernets, on the-other hand, are almost always unblended. The aging potential of the California wines is still being debated, but it’s doubtful they are as long-lived as Bordeaux. As Robert Mondavi admitted after tasting a succession of 19th-century Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, “We have a lot to learn.” Actually, he was being modest: His Reserve Cabernet Sauvig-non, along with Beaulieu’s George de Latour, Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, Heitz’ Martha’s Vineyard, Clos du Val, and Stag’s Leap, are classic wines.
Pinot Noir. A continuing disappointment in California. More than any premium red wine grape, the Pinot Noir requires a precise combination of soil and climate to achieve greatness; apparently, this harmony exists only in Burgundy. The cooler regions of Napa, particularly the Carneros area, and Sonoma and Men-docino, with their cold microclimates, come closest. Still, the magic just isn’t there. Compared with the velvety texture of red Burgundy, California Pinot Noir comes out too fruity and lacks complexity. It would take a brave Pinot Noir to challenge a Richebourg or Corton, but should such a mismatch occur, the examples from Carneros Creek, ZD, Joseph Swan, and Robert Mondavi would be likely entries.
Cbardonnay. They may lack the crisp austerity of a noble white Burgundy, but the better California Chardonnays surely rank among the great dry white wines of the world. The flavor of this grape variety is subject to a lot of manipulation, especially through the use of wood-aging, but the Chardonnays of Chalone, Stony Hill, Chateau Montelena, Spring Mountain, Martin Ray, and Mayacamas are legendary – and expensive.
Johannisberg Riesling. Like the Pinot Noir, California’s version of Germany’s premier grape has never reached the quality achieved on its home ground. The Riesling requires a harsh climate and slate soil; the California growing season is simply too short and hot. One exception, though: Many California wineries are producing late-harvest wines which taste astonishingly like the Beerenauslese wines of Germany. Freemark Abbey’s Edel-wein, and the late-harvest dessert wines of Burgess Cellars, Joseph Phelps, Chateau St. Jean, and Roudon-Smith fall in this category. Incidentally, Washington and Oregon, with their cooler climates, have been very successful with the Riesling, and deserve more notice.
Petite Sirah. I mention this variety mostly to clarify a misconception. It is not the same grape grown in the Rhone River Valley of France, which is responsible for the famous Hermitage and C6te-R6tie; that is the Syrah, something altogether different. California Petite Sirah is probably a variation of the Duriff, a common grape of France which produces nothing distinctive. In California, however, it does quite well, if you like inky, robust wines that stain the teeth. Burgess Cellars, Callaway, and Carneros Creek are its major proponents. Joseph Phelps is the sole California producer of true Syrah.
Worth mentioning are the sparklingwines of California, which, though theynever surpass the great wines of Champagne, are making admirable progress.While Champagne is either a blend ofPinot Noir and Chardonnay or made ofChardonnay alone, California sparklingwines rely on Chenin Blanc, Riesling, orPinot Blanc.