Bordeaux vs. California Cabernet -- Why They Should Never Be Compared!

By Matthew Citriglia, MS on February 6, 2006

Sunny Brown wrote a great piece about the current Crisis in Bordeaux and the saga continues! An effort to halt the avalanche of falling prices was taken up by a union of Bordeaux grape growers and wine makers in early November. They voted to withhold AOC status for any wine sold for less than 1,000 euros a barrel. The President of the CIVB, the trade body responsible for promotion, distribution and controlling production of Bordeaux responded to this radical move that over production was the culprit for falling prices and the growers should consider other alternatives. The union countered, like unions do, by bricking shut the entrance to the CIVB.

So what is causing the current crisis in Bordeaux? Is it yields, pricing, value wine from the new worlds… what is it? To me the answer is obvious, but the arrogant, self-righteous Bordelaise are so busy pointing fingers they have lost sight of who they are. That’s right, they have lost their identity and a whole generation of wine drinkers world wide don’t know who or what a Bordeaux wine is. Before solutions to a problem can be found, the problem must be acknowledged and then how the problem came to be must be evaluated.

Bordeaux’s identity crisis began innocently in 1976 when the Bordelaise allowed their wines to be compared to California Cabernet in an international head-to-head competition in Paris and they lost! Smartly the California wine industry began to use this information and started to promote these competitions throughout the US. I clearly remember going to numerous blind California Cabernet tastings in the late 80’s and early 90’s where California Winery X compared their wines to First Growth Bordeaux, and don’t remember any of these tastings ever pointing out vintage or climatic differences between the wines. At the time, no one took me seriously when I pointed out the hazard of this type of tasting, and why should they since I was in my early 20’s?

Technological advances in the 90’s combined with the power of a rating began to compound the problems I found with these pointless competitions. Egos drove winemakers to replace Mother Nature with technology allowing wineries to artificially produce AWARD wining wines and the international wine style was born: wines with no sense of place or varietal identity that won competitions and impressed the critics.

Defining Regional Identity

When I first entered the industry over 20 years ago, the differences between Bordeaux and California Cab were striking; they were as different as Mozart is to Nirvana. I was taught to appreciate the wines of Bordeaux and California for their differences and learned to understand the identity of region and Mother Nature’s impact on the grapes grown there. I learned to celebrate regional difference and the diversity of styles it created -- not to determine which was better.

In order to respect and appreciate regional identity, consumers need to better understand the 4 primary influences on any wine: Grape Character, Mother Nature, Grape Grower and Winemaking Philosophy.

Grape Character

There is one analogy I use ad nausea in most of my seminars because of its utter simplicity and direct correlation to grape character. We Americans grow up eating apples and can easily understand why Granny Smith and Golden Delicious each have their own color, aroma, taste and texture. We expect each variety to have a unique identity, yet for some reason we can not apply that same logic to wine grapes. Each grape variety has a distinct identity that can be found in the finished wine.

In this respect California Cabernet and the Medoc wines of Bordeaux share a common interest. They are based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. But the similarities of the wine stops there as Mother Nature, the Grape Grower and wine maker influence how the grape ripens, which in turn impacts how the juice of the grape will taste after fermentation.

Mother Nature -- AKA -- Terroir

So what does this somewhat pretentious, foreign-sounding word really mean? Well, since we Americans like to “keep it simple stupid” a strict translation of it means soil or dirt, but this misses the essence of the meaning. Terroir refers to all the influences of a vineyard site: the land, sun, wind, rain, temperature… I like to refer to terroir as Mother Nature and she is responsible for the basic grape character. Terroir is what makes Bordeaux different from California Cabernet and you can SEE, SMELL, TASTE, and FEEL the differences of Mother Nature in the wine.

The Grower

They work with the vine throughout the year to intensify grape character and complexity. A great grower captures Mother Nature’s yearly variances in the fruit of the vine.

The Winemaker

It is the winemaker’s job to extract Mother Nature and varietal character from the fruit. A GREAT winemaker should highlight the grapes best features, not pretend they are Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon!

Bordeaux's Regional Identity

• Cool to moderate growing region with limited sunshine and moderate to heavy rainfall
• The soils are sparse and calcareous in nature dominated by well drained gravel beds with limestone and clay.
• This mixture of warm and cool soil types slows the ripening process.
• It is has a marginal climate with sparse soil.
• The region struggles year in and year out to get the grapes ripe and need every day of the growing season.
• It is not uncommon to harvest grapes in October.
• Bordelaise always plant a variety of grapes to hedge their bet against Mother Nature, so the resultant wine is almost always a blend.

Wine style – Moderate to deep plum red color with a slight pink hue on the edge. The color saturation fades to the edge of the glass. Traditionally alcohol levels are moderate when fully ripe at 12.5% and acid levels can be a bit sharp. The tannins can be a bit astringent during youth. The wine is hard and edgy in its youth and can challenge the palate. The fruit flavors are of ripe black fruits such as black currents, blackberry and plum. It is not uncommon to find a slight herby bush fruit edge.

California's Regional Identity

• This is a much more southerly growing region than Bordeaux.
• It is a moderate to hot growing region with plenty of sunshine and almost no rain.
• The soils are more fertile, alluvial and loamy in nature.
• The soils tend to be warmer and accelerate the ripening process.
• Mother Nature is far more predictable and rarely challenges the vines ability to ripen.
• It is not uncommon to harvest grapes in August!
• California wineries can plant most any grape any where and get it to ripen.
• Single varietal wines from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon can be outstanding.

The wine style – Dense, dark and almost opaque red wine with more blue and violet highlights. The color saturation holds well to the edge and usually stains the glass as well. Alcohol levels are high, usually at 13.5% or higher and acid levels are low. The tannins are supple and textured. The fruit flavors are of jammy blackberry preserves, cassis, and stewed plums. It is not uncommon to find a green bean, asparagus or bell pepper character in the wine. The wine is friendly and welcoming in its youth.

Bordeaux and California Cabernet may be based on the same grapes, but Mother Nature’s impact produces very different results. Imitating American-style wine to win a competition or score big points from some narrow minded wine critic may soothe the French ego, but it has come at a tremendous sacrifice – Identity. Bordeaux has sold its soul to the critic in exchange for high ratings and easy sales and the cost of redemption will be high.

Fortunately for Bordeaux the raw material of the region, the vines, the dirt and climate, have a proven track record that is centuries old. The Bordeaux crisis will only be resolved when the people who make it stop pointing fingers and rioting with each other and begin pointing fingers and rioting with wine critics, consulting winemakers, reverse osmosis machines and other technology that have caused the homogenization of such a great region. What is wrong with finesse, grace, fragrance, and subtlety? High extract and alcohol are poor principles to build quality wines around. The wines of 1959, 1961 and 1966 all contained 12.5% alcohol and have long remained the benchmarks of great Bordeaux.

Bordeaux, the solution to your problem is clear and the path will not be easy. The attributes of subtlety are far more difficult to appreciate in a blind tasting than the immediate gratification of a high-octane fruit bomb. Your future demands that you play to your strengths and stop accepting power (i.e. alcohol) as the primary premise for high quality. This will require a strong education campaign aimed not only at the consumer but also at the misinformed wine critic. When your identity is clearly defined, consumers will once again accept the unique character Bordeaux has to offer.