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The French Diffe'rence.

France treasures variety. Take a lesson, California.

March 29, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paradise can get pretty boring. As much as I love California wine, I often feel oppressed by its cheerfully fruit-driven sameness.

There is a cure for this relentless sensory tyranny: Paris. A week or so of eating and drinking in that marvelous city is a fine way to rediscover the amazing diversity of viticultural expressions that makes wine so endlessly fascinating.

Here in California wine comes in half a dozen flavors: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A few other grapes such as Syrah and Sangiovese are making bids for prominence, but despite the hoopla, they have yet to establish firm identities here--largely because, when you get right down to it, a big, fat Syrah isn't a whole lot different from a big, fat Merlot.

Exacerbating the narrow varietal range is a pervasive monotony of style. In recent vintages we have seen an increasing number of wines making regional statements about such areas as Napa Valley and Dry Creek Valley. However, California wines of all stripes tend to be oppressively similar in character: big, bold, rich and, almost always, reeking of oak.

That sameness is partly the result of a warm climate with relatively few variations from place to place, which produces uniformly ripe grapes and, therefore, big, high-alcohol wines. It's also derived from the heavy-handed winemaking that has become the California signature, aiming to shape every Cabernet Sauvignon into a simulacrum of premier cru Bordeaux, every Pinot Noir into grand cru Burgundy and so on down our short varietal roster.

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Things are different in Europe, where hundreds of grape varieties and dramatically varied climate/terrain combinations yield an astonishing array of distinctive regional wines. France, in particular, has evolved into a constellation of fine-tuned wine regions, each with its own clear identity. Winemaking is seen as a partnership with nature through which the vineyards of a given place express their unique qualities.

Thus, the lively Cabernet Franc of Chinon doesn't try to be the sterner, more angular Cabernet Franc of St. Emilion nor the fruity Cabernet Franc of Anjou. The Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre doesn't try to be the Sauvignon Blanc of Graves--nor even the Sauvignon Blanc of Pouilly, which is just across the Loire from Sancerre but with such different soils and local climate that its Sauvignon Blanc expresses its own sensory profile.

In other words, diversity of local and personal expression is prized at a level well beyond California's current state of evolution. In wine and food, as among people, vive la difference is the rule in France.

One has to take the initiative, of course. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans fail to make the most of the opportunities France presents to wine lovers; their single-minded pursuit of preconceived pleasures negates any chance of sensual discovery.

I was thinking about that recently in a Paris bistro. A pair of American tourists at a nearby table were disgruntled campers, and they were blaming it on the French. Of course, it was their own fault.

The problem was that they were wine geeks in search of something familiar, and they weren't finding it. "I can't believe they don't have any premiers crus Bordeaux," groused one, and the other just shook his head in disgust.

For a moment I considered leaning over and pointing out a couple of things. Like that the name of the place, on a fine stretch of sidewalk along the Place des Vosges, was Ma Bourgogne--as in BURGUNDY. Hellooo. And that the short but excellent wine list naturally specialized in food-friendly regional wines from the greater BURGUNDY region.

I didn't say anything. The waiter did, however. Patiently explaining that the restaurant had a defined style of food and wine, he more or less ordered them to drink a Beaujolais from the village of Morgon (a shrewd call, because Morgon generally produces the biggest, most California-like Beaujolais). They looked skeptical, but it only took a sip to put smiles on their haggard, jet-lagged faces.

Beaujolais will do that. I was drinking some too--a '97 Chiroubles (another village in Beaujolais), Domaine de la Combe au Loupe. Full-bodied yet buoyant and silky on the palate, with bright red-fruit flavors, it was just the wine for steak tartar and thick slices of crusty bread.

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Of course, the really fine restaurants have who's who lists of the greatest French wine, as they should. While dining on chef Alain Passard's three-star cuisine at Arpege, for example, my wife and I happily rose to the occasion and drank a '92 Meursault, Domaine Roulot "le Mon Plasir." (Which the sommelier decided on the spot to decant, thereby releasing an exquisite but very delicate perfume.) Noblesse oblige, n'est-ce pas? If you must drink Chardonnay, it might as well be Mersault.

But most of the time we are quite content to follow the logic of a restaurant's cuisine and choose from among the wines that the proprietors believe go best with their food.

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