French vs. American wines? Vive la différence!

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

In 1976, a handful of California winemakers entered a wine competition in Paris hoping to gain attention from the elites who governed the European wine trade. No one was more shocked than the French judges themselves when the series of blind tastings resulted in overwhelming wins for American viticulture.

The so-called “Judgment of Paris” had immediate and enormous ramifications for the global wine industry. American producers continue to win awards worldwide and have never looked back.

As you schedule your parties this holiday season, consider hosting your own “judgment,” pairing U.S. wines with their French counterparts. Your goal should not be to find one wine better than the other, but to look for complementary pairings that expand your tasting horizons as well as those of your guests.

Here are five complements to get you started:

One of the most consistent, yet versatile varietals is sauvignon blanc. The 2013 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($27) hails from France’s Loire Valley, considered the home of sauvignon blanc. Along with Pouilly Fumé, Sancerre is considered one of the region’s finest brands. The Pascal Jolivet winemakers practice their own version of biodynamic winemaking, using 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes. The result is a bright, youthful wine with refined fruit flavors, subtle sweetness and vibrant acidity. It’s an excellent accompaniment to lighter foods.

Our corresponding California wine, the 2013 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($29), calls to mind New Zealand’s vivid, flavorful sauvignon blancs. The nose and flavor palate offer strong essences of grapefruit, melon and lime zest. The wine, which also contains 16 percent sémillion grapes, benefits from its time in French oak barrels, giving it a rich undertone that complements the wine’s natural flintiness.

As ubiquitous as sauvignon blanc has become, nothing beats chardonnay in a white wine popularity contest. It can be bright, light and reedy, or fully oaked and filled with vanilla overtones. Our complementary pairing strikes a middle ground between the two styles.

The 2012 J.J. Vincent Bourgogne Blanc ($19) comes from France’s Mâconnais area in Burgundy and is named for the chateau’s winemaking patriarch Jean-Jacques Vincent. After the grapes are harvested, 70 percent are vinified in stainless steel tanks, while the remaining wine spends six months in oak barrels. The blended result is a straightforward wine, more fruit-driven than many French wines, with a light acidity and tropical overtones.

The 2012 Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay ($28), JJ’s partner wine, paints a brighter picture both in terms of nose and palate. Having been fermented in both casks and concrete tanks — in the later case sur lie, or resting with the dead yeast and other grape byproducts to extract more flavor — the resulting wine is clean, with notes of slate, peach and citrus on the palate. Balance and acidity combine to make this a great wine for seafood.

Sometimes wine varietals don’t have to match exactly to make a good impression. Consider pairing the 2012 Chateau Fuissé Juliénas Domaine de la Conseillere ($29), from France’s Beaujolais region, and the Wollersheim Domaine Reserve ($30), grown in the Lake Wisconsin viticultural area just north of Madison. 

Wollersheim winemaker Philippe Coquard was born and raised in Beaujolais, and his Domaine Reserve has an extremely dry palate and a clean finish, much like wines from Chateau Fuissé. But that’s where comparisons end.

The French wine, produced exclusively with Gamay grapes, has a delicate, subtle nose that favors raspberries with a hint of smoke. Its American counterpart is bolder and deeper, made primarily of Maréchal Foch, with a touch of Millot grapes. The fruit-forward wine has a structure similar to the Chateau Fuissé, but with a flavor palate of blackberry and spice. Neither is truly better than the other, and they are a delight to sample side by side.

In addition to Burgundy, France’s other great wine region is Bordeaux, the source of Andre Lurton’s Chateau De Cruzeau Red ($27). Like so many of Bordeaux’s great growths, the wine is a blend — in this case, 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 43 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc. The result pours a deep garnet with a nose of black cherry and other stone fruits. The wine is well structured, with a velvety mouthfeel of blackberry, a touch of tobacco on the back palate and a lingering finish.

Not surprisingly, the 2011 Girard Artistry Napa Valley Red Wine ($42) is more fruit forward in its assertions. The blend is more complex, with 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent malbec, 9 percent petite verdot and 8 percent merlot, all harvested from different Napa Valley vineyards at different times. Expect a complex nose of licorice, cherry, cocoa and a little coffee when pouring this deep red beauty into the glass. A palate supported by fine tannins brings to mind dark fruits, such as plums and currants with bright cherry notes.

Your tasting wouldn’t be a holiday event without a bit of the bubbly to help ring in the New Year. Only wines that come from the French region of Champagne can be labled as such, but the U.S. bottles its own sparklers worthy of note. 

The non-vintage Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Brut ($39) is a product of one of France’s great Champagne producers and a multi-award winner in various global competitions. An extended maturation period provides the light, lacy bubbles that characterize the bright, golden wine. Its blend is a variety of dark, juicy pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes from more than 100 top vineyards in the region.

The nose is alive with the subtle presence of pears, apples and a light citrus-grape flush. Those notes carryover to a palate with a fine mouthfeel and flavors of pear, grape and even grapefruit. The wine’s finish is crisp, clean and leaves you wanting more.

Even though it can’t technically be called “champagne,” the sparkler J Cuvee 20 Brut ($19) from the Sonoma Valley’s J Vineyards & Winery is in the same vein. Winemaker Melissa Stackhouse alters the blend to include 54 percent chardonnay,  44 percent pinot noir and 2 percent pinot meunier, with the juice of each grape kept separate until blending.

The more complex mix adds greater character, with a nose of hazelnut and apricot. The flavors carry over to the palate, which offers notes of pear, lemon and lime zest, and even mousse, all bracketed by a lively acidity and a lingering presence.

When it comes to tasting French and American wines, vive la différence, but cheers to the similarities.