Ask a confirmed lover of red Burgundy what he thinks about California Pinot Noir, and you’re likely to be met with a raised eyebrow and a sniff.
Burgundy aficionados know what they like and typically believe that all other wines somehow fall short. Fans of specific wine types may like Chardonnay and they may love Cabernet Sauvignon, but they REVERE Burgundy.
Of course, there is no effective method of comparing “Burgundy” with “California Pinot Noir” because every bottle made by every vintner is unique. It’s a debate that will never be settled, but is both engaging and educational as it unfolds.
Let’s examine the four primary points of contention in “The Great Burgundy-California Pinot Noir Debate”…
- ELEGANCE. Drinking French Burgundy has been compared to sipping liquid silk. The best bottlings typically take years of cellaring before they’ll reveal all of their underlying aroma and flavor nuances. But a perfectly aged Burgundy can be as blissful to drink as a summer sunset is to watch. California Pinot Noir is made in a bolder style, often with a bit more alcohol retained. So in this category, score one for Burgundy.
- RICHNESS. This refers to the “feeling” one experiences in the mouth as the wine is being consumed. The drinking experience often is described as unfolding in “layers” of flavors and textures, and a long, lingering finish is a must. Because Burgundy is more “shy,” particularly in its youth, and because California winemakers have adopted a more “in-your-face” style with the variety, we give the richness nod to California Pinot Noir.
- INDIVIDUALITY. What California vintners gain in richness, they lose in uniqueness. While there are subtle differences in aromas and flavors from region to region, there also is a certain sameness that occurs as a result of winemaking techniques and technology being so uniform in the state. Conversely, lovers of Burgundy will tell you that each bottling is unique because French vintners are focused on making “wines of a place,” and a “place” can be as small as a corner of a single vineyard. Individuality advantage: Burgundy.
- FRUITFULNESS. Here is perhaps the most noticeable stylistic difference between Burgundy and California Pinot Noir. Whereas Burgundy tends to offer a wide array of nuances — including a hefty dose of terroir — California Pinot Noir usually is all about the fruit.
If you’ve been keeping score, you know that we now have a 2-2 tie.
What to do? Well, a fair tiebreaker would seem to be price and value. And in that regard, few would argue that California provides a lot more vinous bang for the buck. French Burgundy can be a real budget buster, whereas comparable bottlings of California Pinot Noir can be secured for about half the price.
What about the wonderful Pinot Noir wines from Oregon? That’s another debate for another day.