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French vs. California Wines: Key Differences & Similarities

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In the world of fine wines, France and California have emerged as powerhouses in the wine industry. At the Judgement of Paris wine tasting competition of 1976, two Californian wines beat the French wines. So, what makes French and Californian wines different? I went to a few tasting rooms to find out. 

Californian wine is made from riper, sweeter grapes giving the wine higher alcohol and bolder colors and aromas than French wines. French wines use older oak barrels for maturing their wine, giving a more subtle oak aroma. 

Let’s take a closer look at the factors that make French and Californian wines different and how those differences affect the aromas and flavors of the wines. By the end of this article, you will be able to tell the difference between French and Californian wine the next time someone pours you a glass.

French vs. California Wines
French vs. California Wines

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French Wines vs. California Wines: What’s The Difference

When we compare French wines to Californian wines and look at all the differences, we should first look at what they have in common and expand from there. French and Californian wines come from the same vine stock in a very literal way.

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There are two broad categories of vines that you need to know when comparing French wine to Californian wine. First, you have the European Vitis Vinifera, which is superb for making wine.

The Native American Vitis Riparia produces bad-tasting grapes and cannot be used for wine, but it is a robust disease-resistant vine. 

France exported their Vitis Vinifera, which was grafted onto the rootstock of Vitis Riparia, making the resultant vines resistant to the vine diseases that Native American vines had adapted to. [Reference: Horticulture Research Paper]

So when the Phylloxera virus from America decimated the French vineyards in the nineteenth century, France imported grafted Vitis Vinifera/Vitis Riparia vines from California to replant its vineyards. These days Vitis Riparia is used worldwide as vineyard rootstock.

As you can see, French wine is made from vines imported from America, so vines are essentially the same. The differences come from Terrior (climate, soil, elevation/altitude) and winemaking practices.

French soil is mainly limestone/chalk and clay based with gravel areas such as on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Californian soil is dominated by granite, sandstone, quartzite, and lava.

These different soils impart unique flavors to the wine. It is the gravel on the Left Bank of Bordeaux that makes those wines taste different from the Right Bank.

There is a common belief that California has a hot climate that makes grapes ripen quicker and earlier. However, even though California is warmer than France, there is a cold ocean current that creates early morning fog on most days that cools the temperatures and slows the ripening process of the grapes. 

What does make the difference is that California is known for having drought conditions every autumn that delay/extend the harvest season as late as the first half of November.

This later harvest means that the grapes can ripen fully every season, and there is never a need to harvest unripe grapes like what happens in France. California’s fully ripe grapes show similarities to regions that have even higher temperatures than those of California.

When we compare Californian wines to the wines of Bordeaux in particular, you will see a clear example of one of the key differences between the wine-making regions. Californian wines are often single cultivars, and that cultivar is indicated on the label, for instance, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

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By comparison, the wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of cultivars, and the cultivars are seldom ever mentioned on the label. As I mentioned earlier, grapes in Bordeaux need to be harvested earlier in the season, and there is no guarantee that the grapes will be fully ripe in time for harvest.

The wineries of Bordeaux reduce that risk by planting different primary cultivars so that there is a chance that at least one of the cultivars will be fully ripe in time for harvest. Based on which cultivar has ripened best, the decision is made on what the ratio of cultivars will be for that particular vintage.

The primary red cultivars are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The primary white cultivars are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. These cultivars have slightly different ripening windows within the season. 

Why Cold Climate Wines Taste Different From Warm Climate Wines

The grapes in cold climates do not ripen as well as those in warm climates, and in some instances, need to be harvested before they are fully ripe.

This means that the grapes are harvested with lower sugar content, and this means a lower alcohol level as the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol during the fermentation process.

Grapes harvested slightly under-ripe will have a higher acidic level, and you can taste that in the finished wines as their acid levels are higher, especially when they are still young.

By contrast, warm-climate wines are made from fully ripe grapes. This means that the acidity levels in the grapes are far lower, and the sugars are at their highest. This results in a wine that is less acidic and has a higher alcohol level.

An example of this is a Pinot Noir from Burgundy will have an alcohol level of between 12% and 13% depending on the vintage, while a Pinot Noir from California is hardly ever below 14% alcohol.

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Comparing The Soil Types And Temperatures Between France And California

Differences between French and Californian wine
Differences between French and Californian wine

The limestone clay soils of France tend to stay cool and retain water. The retained water also keeps the soil cooler. Cooler soil slows the ripening process of the grapes.

This is another factor that further impacts the French vineyards’ ability to produce fully ripe grapes within the limited timeframe for harvesting.

When it comes to Californian vineyards, the soil tends to be more sandy or sandy-loam, in the case of the famous Sonoma Valley and Nappa Valley.

Sandy soils are well-drained and retain heat. When soil retains heat, it speeds the ripening process, leading to the harvest of grapes that are fully ripe with higher sugar content.

A side effect of sandy soil is that it is resistant to the pests that can infect vineyards, most notably the vine-killer Phylloxera that wiped out the French vineyards in the nineteenth century. [Reference research paper: Soil-related terroir factors: a review]

Why California Wines Need To Be Served Cooler Than French Wines

If you taste a wine served too warm, more alcohol will vaporize in the glass. This means that the alcohol will overpower the taste to the point where sometimes you can’t taste or smell anything besides the alcohol.

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As I’ve already mentioned, French wines are made from grapes often harvested before they are fully ripe because of the cooler climate and lower soil temperature.

This has two effects on the wine. The first of these is lower sugar content and, consequently, lower alcohol levels. The second is a tendency for higher acidity.

The lower alcohol level in French wine makes them more forgiving at the upper end of their temperature spectrum, as the overpowering release of alcohol vapors won’t happen as quickly. 

On the lower end of the wine’s temperature spectrum, French wines are less forgiving as acidity increases at lower temperatures. French wine already has high acidity, and serving them below temperature will worsen it.

Californian wines are made from fully ripe grapes that have high sugar content. This results in wines that have lower acidity and much higher alcohol levels.

Lower acidity means they can cope with lower temperatures without the acidity taste becoming a problem.

However, at the upper end of the temperature spectrum, the high-alcohol Californian wines can quickly “blow out” and have the taste of the wine ruined by overpowering alcohol vapors and the resultant bitter taste.

[This is from the winemaker I spent two weeks with – The Essential Guide To Wine by Madeline Puckette covers this too]

Why Californian Chardonnay Tastes Different From French Chardonnay

When comparing French (Burgundy) to Californian (Nappa Valley) Chardonnay is that the French often don’t do any oak aging of their Chardonnay while the Californians do.

This gives the Californian Chardonnay its distinctive caramel/Creme Brule aromas and flavors that are missing from the French counterparts.

Citerion Chablis (Burgundy)Smith Madrone (Nappa)
Sight:Pale yellow with a hint of green.
Legs: forming but moving quickly, meaning lower alcohol.
Deep yellow color.
Legs: Forming and moving slowly, meaning lower alcohol.
Nose:Passion fruit, green apple Daffodil flowers in springtime. Green leaves, almost like thyme.Pine needles, pineapple, Creme Brule crust, yellow apple, lemon curd.
Palate:Light-bodied. Passion fruit leads to green crunchy apple flavor. Fills out with lots of acidities.Fruity with pineapple and yellow apple. Finish with caramel/Creme Brule. Sense of alcohol in the throat.
Why Californian Chardonnay Tastes Different From French Chardonnay

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Why Californian Cabernet Tastes Different From French Cabernet

In France, Bordeaux is known as Cabernet Sauvignon country. As I’ve already said earlier, Bordeaux has a cooler climate and soil, so grapes ripen more slowly in a shorter growing season.

To reduce the risk of a harvest failure, the winemakers of Bordeaux also grow Merlot and Cabernet Frank alongside their Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape in Bordeaux wines, it is nearly always blended with Merlot and often with Cabernet Franc.

Although many Californian wineries claim to produce Cabernet Sauvignon without any blended wines, the truth is that up until September 2000, a wine needed as little as 51% Cabernet Sauvignon to be labeled as such. The new regulation by the ATF has set the minimum at 75%. 

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Many wines from Bordeaux Right Bank are 66% Merlot. However, Left Bank Bordeaux wines are at least 60% Cabernet Sauvignon. Some, such as the Legends by Domains Baron de Rothschild, are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and a good choice for direct comparison with Californian Cabernet.

The easiest way to tell them apart is the Californian Cabernet has a deeper ruby color with a tiny rim variation. Californian Cabernet has 14.5% alcohol compared to 12.5% in the Bordeaux Cabernet.

This can easily be seen in the legs or lines of alcohol clinging to the glass when you swirl the wine. Higher alcohol means quick-forming legs that stay on the glass.

Legende Pauillac (Bordeaux)Alpha Omega 
“Proprietary Red Wine” (Nappa)
Sight:Deep ruby color with lighter rim variation. Touch of yellow at the Indicating Merlot.
Legs: Not forming quickly or too many, meaning medium alcohol. 12.5%.
Dark ruby color. Tiny rim variation, so tricky to see the Yellow tinge of Merlot.
Legs: Form quickly, and lots of them. Medium/high alcohol. (14.5%).
Nose:Black cherries, sour cherries, Cranberries, Crushed gravel, allspice, menthol/mint. Green leaves, almost like thyme.Heavy fruits. Blackberry brambles, Black cherry, cherry sauce. Moving to allspice/vanilla/clove like a Christmas spice cake.
Palate:Tart savory fruit into smooth tannins. Finishing with a slight bitterness.Almost like a Christmas pudding of deep dark fruit. Baked plums, dark chocolate, and spicy Christmas cake flavors. Distinct tannin at the tongue’s top but high alcohol cuts through the tannins.
Why Californian Cabernet Tastes Different From French Cabernet

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Why Californian Pinot Noir Tastes Different From French Pinot Noir

French Pinot Noir is grown in Burgundy, which has a warmer climate than Bordeaux, so the wine has higher alcohol than Bordeaux at 13% but less than the Californian Pinot Noir at 14.5%.

You can easily see the difference by swirling both wines and see the slower-moving legs on the side of the glass in the case of the Californian wine.

Classic Pinot Noir has a ruby/garnet color. California’s riper grapes mean that their Pinot Noir has a deeper ruby color with less garnet-yellow showing through. The French Pinot Noir has a paler ruby color that lets more shades of the yellow show through.

Joseph Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy)William Hill Pinot Noir (Nappa)
Sight:Ruby/garnet color with slightly more yellowy garnet than ruby.
Legs: good slow-moving legs indicating higher than average alcohol from a warmer vintage. (13%)
Deep ruby/garnet color. More ruby and less yellow/garnet.
Legs: Quick forming, moving slowly, meaning higher alcohol. (14.5%)
Nose:Savory, tilled soil, bergamot. Subtle vanilla and ripe raspberry.Very ripe sweet black cherries with cherry sauce.
Palate:Starts with bold raspberry. Tannins are hitting the middle of the tongue. Finishes on sweet clove/allspice and light oak.Deep dark fruit, blackberry, and black cherries. Low acidity. Can feel the alcohol burn in the throat.
Why Californian Pinot Noir Tastes Different From French Pinot Noir

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Do French Winemakers Use The Same Vats As Californian Winemakers

Similarities between French and Californian wine
Similarities between French and Californian wine

In general French wineries will use French oak barrels almost exclusively. Californian winemakers, on the other hand, tend to use French barrels for their top-end wines and less expensive Slovenian barrels for their more affordable wines.

The most significant difference in the taste of the wine comes from the age of the barrels rather than the country from where they are sourced. French wineries use older barrels that impart more subtle aromas to the wine, while Californian wineries use new barrels. 

The charred inside of a new barrel gives off the distinctive caramel/chocolate/Creme Brule aromas found in almost all Californian wine.

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What Is The California Equivalent Of A Bordeaux wine?

The Californian equivalent of a Bordeaux wine will be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines from the Left Bank of Bordeaux are at least 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, blended primarily with Merlot. 

The Californian Cabernet is at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, blended primarily with Merlot.

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In California, grapes are harvested riper than they are in France and hence are bolder in color and have a higher sugar content which translates into a higher alcohol percentage.

French wineries use older oak barrels for maturing their wine and hence have more subtle oak aromas. Californian wineries use new oak barrels that give off the distinctive caramel, chocolate, and Creme Brule aromas we recognize in Californian wines.

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