Ever since California’s stunning upset victory at the historic Paris Blind Tasting of 1976, comparisons between Californian and French wines are seemingly unavoidable, particularly domestic Cabernet Sauvignon versus French Bordeaux. The purpose of this article isn’t to explain why I think Californian cabernets are superior (I do) but to explore some of the key differences in terms of winemaking.
Consistent with the French emphasis on the concept of terroir, Bordeaux reds are virtually always estate wines, meaning that they are made entirely from fruit grown at the same location, the winery’s estate. While some California wine labels have adopted the same Old World approach, it is far more common for in the New World for winemakers to blend grapes grown in different locations in a single wine. In such cases, the wine is no longer a direct reflection of a particular plot of land, but the winemaker has greater flexibility to achieve a blend of the desired complexity and balance.
Red Bordeaux blends are usually heavily weighted towards Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot, but they can also include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The same five varietals are generally the components of California Cabernet Sauvignons, but Cabernet Sauvignon must make up at least 85% of the wine for it to be labeled as such. As a result, Californian versions typically have a smaller quantity of Merlot than their French counterparts. If you want something that is less Cab Sauv-heavy, look out for Californian reds that are labeled as meritage or claret rather than Cabernet Suavignon.
You’re probably more interested in how these wines drink than in how they’re made. In general, Bordeaux reds are more subtle and refined (often earthy), while California Cabernets are bigger and bolder, often approaching “fruit bomb” territory. In some cases, this reflects the higher proportion of Cab Sauv in Californian versions, but it generally has more to do with climate and the timing of harvest – California winemakers, especially in Napa Valley, tend to use riper grapes with higher sugar levels. These ripe grapes result in big, bold wines with lower acidity and higher alcohol levels, but winemaker sometimes go too far and produce “flabby” wines that are not build to pair with food or age well. If you prefer the French style, especially if are trying to pair with a gourmet meal, there are some Napa winemakers who have eschewed the “fruit bomb” style to produce more balanced Cabernets (e.g., Dominus and JuneRay), and there are also some excellent Bordeaux-style reds produced in the cooler climate of Washington state, particularly in Columbia Valley. Washington reds can often be considered more reasonably priced alternatives to Bordeaux, and they are represented in my cellar by excellent producers such as Gorman and Andrew Will.