French Style California Wines

A discussion with Bill Williamson.

Fine French wines have always represented the highest standard to which many Californian winemakers aspire. Generally French wines need time in bottle to age where chemical reactions involving a wine's sugars, acids and phenolic compounds such as tannin may alter the aroma, color, mouthfeel and taste of the wine in a way that it may become more pleasing.

In spite of planting French varieties however the extended sunlight of the California Summer tends to increase sugar in the grapes resulting in a higher alcohol level in the wines. Often described as fruit-forward, powerful and tannic these wines may lack balance, becoming too hot (alcoholic) or too dry (tannic). There is also a widespread belief that wine always improves with age when it may only really be true for a smaller percentage of these wines.

Our personal goal is to make French style wines with the power of high-quality California fruit that, by design, do not need to be aged but will actually continue to improve for seven to ten years as their flavor profiles mature. The terroir gives us the grapes and it is up to the winemaker, working in both the vineyard and winery, to determine the style of the wine.

In our vineyards we are growing French grape varieties that are producing full-flavored California fruit capable of producing powerful wines determined by the varietal, location, soil, sun and micro-climate. French vignerons refer to these contributing factors collectively as terroir.

To manage this varietal/terroir aspect as perfectly as possible we farm and manage over a dozen different vineyard sites incorporating more than forty vineyard blocks planted with twenty-four varietals. This ensures the correct variety is grown in the correct place in the correct way.

Each vineyard block is designed to be separately and individually managed. This includes individual trellis system, cover crop, irrigation, canopy management, fruit yield and harvest time. Each block is designed to produce a grape yield of two to three tons per acre for a total of five tons per block of ultra-premium fruit. Each block is harvested separately, at night, by hand, at exactly the right degree of ripeness and transported to the winery before the sun can heat the grapes.

In the winery for red wines we use 5-ton, open-top, temperature controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks. Here the grapes are handled gently taking great care not to comprise the fruit quality that has taken nine months to mature. Whole clusters are added to the fermentation tanks and allowed to rest at low temperature for up to ten days of pre-fermentation maceration, referred to as cold-soak. Ever so slowly the clear juice absorbs the phenolic compounds and color from the skins, after which time the temperature is raised to promote the fermentation process to begin.

Fermentation is maintained over approximately eight days during which the skins and seeds are carried to the top of the tank by the carbon dioxide gas produced by the action of the yeast consuming the grape sugar and converting it to alcohol. To allow the yeast the oxygen it needs the cap of skins and seeds is broken by a process called punching-down at a frequency which is gradually reduced as the sugar level in the tank is reduced.

After fermentation is complete the cap is allowed to set firm and the wine allowed to rest in an oxygen-free environment for a period of thirty-five to forty days at a lower temperature. This period of post-fermentation maceration allows the wine to extract even more of the the phenolic compounds and color from the skins giving the wine enhanced richness.

All of the wines are made as single-vineyard, single-varietal, standalone wines. Now, after nearly two months in tank these rich powerful wines are consigned to 59 gallon French Bordeaux oak barrels to mature over the next two years. Approximately half way through this period blending decisions are made and some of the wines are blended together to make our representations of their traditional French counterparts that have become famous over twenty centuries.

Discussion with Bill Williamson

People often ask me why French wines?

French wines have represented the best evolution of wine varietals and terroir for more than two thousand years.

They have persevered and survived through countless wars, owners and climate vagaries.

They have become the measure of great wines all over the world; with consumers from connoisseur to quaffer, with winemakers from Argentina to Australia, with chefs, foodies and barbecue masters.

On top of all that - they grow (possibly) better in California than they do in France.

My question is - why not French wines?


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