Wine lovers enjoy stocking their cellars with a variety of amazing wines. A well-stocked cellar includes abundant varieties of reds and whites, imported and domestic, sweet and dry, full-bodied and light wines — something to pair with any dish or offer to any visitor who happens by.
Imported wines from any country come with a markup to cover shipping costs, import fees, and other expenses of selling across national borders. Typically, that markup amounts to 25% to 50% of the cost of the wine at any particular price point.
So, do you get what you pay for when you invest in premium wines from France? How do Napa Valley wines stack up against French wines in terms of taste, quality, and overall value?
Until the late 1970’s, French wines (as well as those from Italy) were considered the benchmark for premium wines. Having honed their grape growing and winemaking skills for centuries, European wineries literally owned the market for fine wines. That all changed at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, otherwise known as the Judgment of Paris.
This competition pitted top-tier wines, both white and red, in a blind taste test judged by two notable French connoisseurs. Shocking to all, the California wines ranked the best in every category, a severe disappointment to the British wine merchant, a marketer of solely French wines, who organized the event.
Today, Napa Valley continues to reign as California’s elite wine regions, and is recognized worldwide as a solid producer of high-quality wines. While noted for primarily producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, there are dozens of wine grape varieties grown in Napa Valley and surrounding counties, known collectively as the North Coast American Viticulture Area, or AVA.
So, how do Napa Valley’s wines differ from French wines? Is it worth paying that 25-50% markup to stock your pantry with only Bordeaux, Burgundy, and real Champagne? Let’s take a look …
French Versus Napa Wines: The Growing Conditions
Generally, French wines are grown in wetter, cooler conditions. Napa Valley is noted for its soil, which is fed by millennia of volcanic activity, but also for its predictably mild temperatures (usually neither too hot nor too cold) and somewhat limited rainfall. The cooler climate in French wine regions tends to deliver grapes that produce lighter, less alcoholic wines that are more acidic in flavor. Whether that’s desirable depends on the drinker — Americans tend to enjoy a fuller-bodied, less acidic wine that’s stronger in alcohol content.
French Versus Napa Wines: The Qualities of the Wines
Quality in France is assessed much by the region where the grapes were grown, as opposed to the variety of the grape and the winemaking process. Hence, a Burgundy or Bordeaux is judged more for being authentically grown in that area of France instead of what kinds of grapes the wines were made with and the process that yields the final taste, texture, and qualities of the wines. Hence, French wines are called by the region (aka Champagne) while Napa Valley’s wines are named for their grape variety (Chardonnay and Merlot).
French Versus Napa Wines: The Final Verdict
The conversation in the wine industry no longer focuses much on French versus American or Napa Valley wines. It’s broadly accepted (aside from a few who have obvious bias) that excellent wines regularly come from both regions. The discussion now falls on the skills and products of individual wineries. Yes, there are some big name wineries in Napa Valley that regularly accept awards for their efforts, but just as many excellent wines come from the smaller, family-owned wineries in Napa Valley and Northern California. While you don’t usually see their wares in the national supermarket chains, they’re readily available for direct order, and are commonly featured in wine tastings around the world.
How can you choose? Start with a wonderful Napa Valley wine tour and pick out your own favorites. Then you can decide when to pay that hefty markup for French wines, knowing that you can always have a fully-stocked cellar of delectable domestic wines that taste just as good for a fraction of the price. With more than 3 dozen grape varieties and over 500 Napa Valley wineries to tour, there’s something for everyone!