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Was Trump Right About French Wines?

Sun setting over a vineyard

So despite the fact that he has never drunk wine, Donald Trump recently claimed that US wine is better than French wine. The French have called such a claim absurd – as for me, I’m with the French.

Firstly, it is true that California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay repeatedly score higher than Cru Classé Bordeaux and White Burgundy when they match off in blind tastings. This happened first in 1976’s ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting organised by Stephen Spurrier, to the shock of the wine world when Château Montelena Chardonnay took the top white wine from a famed Grand Cru Burgundy, and Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet beat out wines of the calibre of Château Latour. They even made a half decent movie about it all starring Alan Rickman, called Bottle Shock.

The French, and much of the rest of the world, declared the win a fluke.  The tasting has been repeated numerous times sice, and in almost all instances the US wines have won. I say almost as it doesn’t work in my house.

My wine club has re-created the tasting on two occasions using some of the same wines, I’ve attended others, and I’ve never once scored the US higher than France – on average I lean 75% towards France. Most recently in 2018, David Whelehan of Whelehan’s Wines re-ran the tasting with Stephen Spurrier himself and France won out.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do love a good Napa Cabernet and I’d take Ridge wines and some others over many a wine from Bordeaux up to Lynch Bages level. I would also take good Carneros Pinot Noir over many a red Burgundy, although I would probably not take Californian Chardonnay over a half-decent Burgundy as I often find them over-oaked. Crucially however at the very top end California just can’t compete when it comes to my taste buds.

Yet the most important point is not the top 3%, but the bulk of wine in the middle to higher range that most of us can afford to drink occasionally. This is where the US really falls down for me.

There is literally no wine in the US that I’ve tasted that can be compared to a good silky Bandol, or a honeyed Sauternes, or a chocalatey Banyuls. There is little to match the best of the Rhone – nothing like Côte Rôtie or Hermitage, and yes I know that Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon and others are making some good Syrah and Southern Rhone style wines (e.g. Le Cigare Volant), but they are not exactly Guigal La Landonne or Ch. Beaucastel or even Mont Redon or good Gigondas.

America struggles to do subtlety.  There are few high quality cooler regions that can make anything to compare to the best of Saumur Champigny or Chinon.  They will never ever match a Krug or a Ruinart Blanc de Blanc Champagne. Even at the entry level they could never give me a salty fresh Muscadet, or say at €25-35 a stoney mineral Chablis or Pouilly Fumé.

Then there are the highly local unusual wines from France, like Marcillac from the Aveyron made from Fer Servadou on iron rich red soils, or the pear drop and creamy textured Mauzac wines of Gaillac.  Then there’s the weird and wonderful flor influenced Vin Jaune from the Jura, or indeed a basic Savignan and Chardonnay from that region – they taste like wines from nowhere else on earth.

I have had good Finger Lake Rieslings from New York State, but for me the best Rieslings and Gewurztraminer of Alsace have no counterpart in USA.

I haven’t even mentioned the joys that can be found in the Minervois, Côteaux du Languedoc, the Savoie, Madiran, Cahors, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, even Irouléguy to name just a few other regions. I’ll stop now.

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