French Style California Wines
A discussion with Bill Williamson.
Fine French wines have always represented the highest standard to which many winemakers aspire. Generally French wines need time in bottle to age where chemical reactions involving a wine's phenolic compounds may alter the aroma, color, mouthfeel and taste of the wine in a way that it becomes more pleasing.
Vineyards ~ Growing French Grapes in California
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 the International French grape varieties with full-flavored California fruit 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 each planted to ensure each rootstock and clonal variety is grown in the best place in the correct way.
Each vineyard block is designed to be individually farmed for our chosen variety in accordance with the site terroir. This includes its 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.
Winery ~ Making French Style Wines in California
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 flavor and color compounds from the skins, after which time the temperature is raised to begin fermentation using natural yeasts.
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 wine, together with its skins and grape residue, is allowed to rest in an oxygen-free environment for a period of thirty-five to forty days at a lower temperature. This extended period of post-fermentation, sur-lees maceration allows the wine to extract even more of the the phenolic compounds and color from the skins, delivering full richness and flavor.
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 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 centuries.
Single-Vineyard, Single-Varietal Wines
Varietal specific wines are made from a single grape variety grown in a single vineyard.
These wines reflect the purity of the particular grape flavor profile and show the various vineyard nuances (terroir). They are referred to as having “a sense of place.”
They are also most difficult to make since the vineyard and winemaking must be both natural and perfect because any amendments to the wine will show through.
All Williamson wines are first made and bottled as varietal specific wines. These include: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Roussanne, Viognier, Riesling, etc.
Traditional Blended Wines
Many of these varietal wines are also blended to make more complex wines designed to complement various food groups and to make California versions of iconic French and Australian wines, for example: Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Barossa Shiraz-Cabernet Cuvee, etc.
About Williamson Wines
Williamson wines are made exclusively from grapes grown under the control of the Williamson family. All the vineyards are certified "sustainable" and include growing protocols calling for crop yields of about 30% of most vineyards. Less fruit per vine means higher costs but also higher quality fruit.
The wines are all natural, made slowly and naturally without additives or constraints on time or effort and aged in French Oak barrels.
They contain no animal products and have very low sulfide content which means they are not likely to cause histamine headaches many associate with red wine consumption. As a natural product containing antioxidants they are considered compatible with a healthy lifestyle.
Williamson tasting experiences pair these wines with food to show how wine and food working in the mouth together increase the pleasure and value of both. Since we make and bottle both the standalone and blended wines, a wine-lover may taste the blended wines and then taste the individual wines that made up that blend.