Why French Wine Will Never Be as Interesting as American Wine
It’s actually been years since I came across someone who honestly wanted to argue the position that the French make better wine than Americans. In fact, the this recent encounter took me by surprise. But, I am happy to say, the discussion, seeming nonsensical at first, clarified something for me:
The French will never have the capacity to produce the kind of interesting wines as Americans can produce.
“American wine is like fruit juice. It’s all varietal. It’s all about sugar and I have not yet had an American wine that is soulful…you know, has the wisdom of time and culture within.”
This was the claim…I swear to God. As I said, I was taken by surprise. It’s one of those statements where you really don’t know where to start. The fruit claim? The thoughtless varietal claim. The sugar thing. And then the “soulful” thing. I sort of felt like I was at a carnival shooting gallery and had been given a shotgun to try to pop balloons.
My interlocutor continued: “Try to compare your Pinots and Chardonnays to the Burgundies. You can’t. Probably because we (yes, he was French) have so much more experience with our land. You need another two hundred years.”
I was still stuck on the “fruit claim” at this point. But then his Burgundy claim struck me and I couldn’t help myself :
“Have you ever tasted a Riesling or a Syrah or a Sauvignon Blanc or a Zinfandel or a Viognier from Burgundy? I don’t think you have. And I don’t think you will in your lifetime. And that’s too bad because it’s quite likely that due to the authoritarian and protectionist regulations the French wine community keeps in place and supports you are missing out on a huge number of wine experiences, many of which would likely delight you. And this is why your country will never have the capacity to produce the kind of interesting wines as Americans can produce.”
My surprise induced stupor hand clearly waned.
“That’s ridiculous. Burgundy is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and it always has been. We know what works.”
“Yes, you know that Pinot Noir works in Burgundy and you know that Pinot Noir works in Burgundy. But you know what I know? I know that Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franch, and Petit Verdot all work in Napa Valley.”
“We are not talking about the same thing, Tom.”
“No, we are not. We are talking about the freedom to experiment and the freedom to create vs. authoritarianism.”
You could argue that the very strict regulations that govern what grapes may be used, what viticultural techniques may be employed and what cellar activities can be deployed before you can put the words “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux” are in fact a guarantee of the sort that provides consumers with confidence in what they are buying. This I wouldn’t deny.
But it’s not a system that encourages dynamic, interesting and provocative winemaking. It’s a system that values and promotes inertia, safety and protection instead. America has its authoritarian and protectionist systems too. No doubt. But where wine is concerned, America’s liberal appellation policies are second to none and provide our winemakers with the kind of freedom not found in most of the Old World winemaking regions.
This is why the French will never have the capacity or opportunity to produce the kind of interesting wines as Americans can produce.
Well and cogently argued Tom. Fortunately here in Italy while some regions are known for producing specific varietals well there is none of the totalitarian approach so evident in France. There is a great deal of experimentation going on throughout Italy with trying both well known “cosmopolitan” varieties of grape and reviving ancient varieties which had disappeared from the scene.
I think there may also be an analogy between French winemaking and cuisine the latter also being thoroughly proscriptive without the Italian delight in experimentation.
Let me deconstruct your blog, by separating your assertions:
“. . . French Wine Will Never Be as Interesting as American Wine” [headline]
“. . . the French will never have the capacity or opportunity to produce the kind of interesting wines as Americans can produce.” [closing sentence]
The descriptive word “interesting” is defined solely by the user. We judge wines through a personal prism of experience that no one else shares. (And this underscores why reviews for the same wine can differ widely. Example: the kerfuffle between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson over the 2003 Pavie red Bordeaux.)
The word “capacity” refers to acreage devoted to specific winemaking grapes. Self-evidently, Burgundy has zero capacity to produce and market Riesling if that grape isn’t grown there.
When one nominates the “noble” winemaking grape varieties, these ascend to the top of the list:
Whites — Sauvignon Blanc, Chadonnay, Riesling
Red – Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon
France grows every “noble” grape — and does so superbly.
I see no basis for “bashing them” as a wine producing nation that limits the cultivation of grapes geographically, based on the concept of “terroir.”
No French laws prevent a Burgundy winemaker from purchasing contract fruit or land in Alsace and experimenting with Riesling. Purchasing contract fruit or land in Bordeaux and experimenting with Cabernet or Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Or purchasing contract fruit or land in the Rhone Valley and experimenting with Grenache or Syrah.
Many California vintners own land across multiple appellations — even across state borders (e.g., Oregon and Washington) — to satisfy their urge to experiment.
The best examples of French Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon eclipse the best examples not just from Napa Valley but from all of North America.
And the validation of that truth is the marketplace, measured by selling prices of top California and French wines in stores and at auction.
I am a Californian who is proud of my state’s winemaking achievements.
But I would be a xenophobic, provincial-minded fool to declare that the best California wines top the best France wines.
Wishing it were so doesn’t make it so . . .