France vs California, where do we start? The competition and comparisons are endless. Which wine is better? New world vs Old world... quality vs quantity...Red vs White....and more specifically Napa vs France? And then there are us Californians; full of ego and local pride that want to focus on the relatively new history and tradition of Napa and its more well-known labels. However, if we really want to understand California wine in comparison to France, we have to understand the soil, the geology and the distinctions between regions.
Well known "soilest" Josh Jensen has made a career defining those very characteristics. He knows that to truly produce great wine, you need to understand what makes up the geology in the much, much longer history of France and its wine. Then you can apply that to the geology here in California when planting and growing grapes. Jensen started the comparison breakdown by defining what he felt was the best place to plant Pinot Noir in California. He knew that Burgundy produces the best Pinot Noir in the world, and he understood the soil of Burgundy and marked his ground in California.
This leads us to the question....Is there a Burgundy region in California? My answer is yes! Understanding Burgundy, and what makes the wine so delicious, can help us Californians understand how to source quality wine, and how to enjoy the best of Burgundy. If you are like myself, and were raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, then there is a good chance you were raised on Napa Valley wines and maybe a bit tainted. Defining California's Burgundy is not easy, and we have to abide by three rules. First, Burgundy, France is small with many small vineyards that produce a very high quality of wine. Secondly, the soil complexion in Burgundy, France is largely made up of limestone. And finally, Burgundy, France has a climate that changes; very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter - this makes for a grape that develops a richness over time with great acidity and balance. "Burgundy, California" follows these 3 rules, for the most part......1) "Burgundy, California" is made up of a small region - about 60 miles in length, with many small vineyards producing very high quality wines. 2) The "Burgundy, California" region does have large pockets of limestone, and claylike surfaces. The soil can be tight and dense in some areas and more broken up with crystalized granite in other areas, much like Burgundy, France. This contributes to the differences in the wine from vineyards that are just across the street from each other. 3) The "California, Burgundy" region has a climate that runs hot and cold due to geographical location - warm California and inland temps, that cool off in the afternoon and evening due to pacific breezes, fog, and higher elevations. Finally, both the "California" and French Burgundy regions provide excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties, which is the golden rule of Burgundy, France.
The "Burgundy, California" journey begins south of San Francisco in the southern Santa Cruz Mountains, specifically, the Ben Lomond appellation. I would compare the whole Santa Cruz mountain region to the Côte de Nuits, but focus more on the Ben Lomond region. The Ben Lomond appellation was actually first planted in the 1860's, by William Coope's Ben Lomond Wine Company. A premature death shut down the winery, but it was brought back to life in the 1970's. Much like Burgundy, France, this region can see a loss in volume but due to deer and bird damage instead of hailstorms that can wipe out crops in Burgundy, France. The 16-mile area has elevations up to 2600 feet and sit above the layer of fog, soaking in sunshine all day, yet staying cool due to the Pacific Ocean and elevation. To taste the Côte Nuits from France, try this Pinot Noir, Nuits St. Georges 2010.
If we are in France and head south, we will run into the Côte de Beaune, which is what I would compare the next "Burgundy, California" region to. As Beaune is known as the heart of Burgundy, I predict that this little California region will become one of the best over the next 100 years. Three different tiny AVA regions make up "California's Côte de Beaune": Mount Harlan, Cienega, and San Benito. If you can only make one stop in "Burgundy, California", this should be it. Mount Harlan is full of limestone and produces amazing Pinot Noir, just ask Josh Jensen! San Benito is bouncing back from a roller coaster ride through the 80's and 90's after Almaden sold out, but the appellation is ripe for Burgundy comparisons. Unique microclimates range throughout the area due to variations in elevation and soil structure. Cienega also shows qualities for a variety in richly developed grapes. The San Andreas fault runs through the middle of the region creating fragmented granite and crumbled sandstone on the eastside and granite and limestone on the west side. This provides structure for a variety of acidity and balance throughout the region. Check out this list of great red and whites, all from the Cote Beaune region.
As we continue south of the "California Côte de Beaune", we head into the Côte Challonaise, or what I refer to as the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Chalone region. It is warm with mountain coverage from the Pacific Ocean, but mixed with morning fog and afternoon breezes, and produces one of California's longest growing seasons. Over 1/2 of the production from this region is Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir breaking into the scene. Vineyard elevations start as low as 40 feet and climb to over 1200 feet on terraced granite soil. North of Santa Lucia is the Chalone appellation - a much better representation of Côte Challonaise. This California region has the soil complexion that produces such greats as Givry, Rully, and Montagny from Burgundy, France. High up on the Gabilan Mountain full of limestone and decomposed granite soil with less than 300 acres under vine, this appellation is warm during the day and cool at night. Ironically, Chalone is in the California region of Côte Challonaisse. To compare the Côte Challonaisse, sample a bottle of Montagny Premier Cru, La Grande Roche 2012.
Finally, we reach the end of our journey. In France, as you travel further south you hit the Mâcon region, and in California, Arroyo Seco, is my comparison; a smaller appellation within the Monterey County region. It is further south and like Mâcon will only be considered part of Burgundy by some people, depending on who you ask. This region, also like Mâcon, is known for its Chardonnay, due to warmer weather and sandy soils, but with that cool ocean breeze at night. Although the region produces great Chardonnay, this region also produces other grapes such as Zinfandel, Bordeaux, and Rhone (which is another reason why it should or should not be included in "Burgundy, California"). Regardless, it produces high quality wine. Taste the Mâcon, France, region by trying a bottle of Mâcon-Lugny Les Genievres 2009.
Maybe in the end, California and France can share some good qualities about wine production and wine making.....on second thought, it might take a few more generations!