A discussion with Bill Williamson.
Williamson winemaking follows a regimen dedicated to quality. Our fruit is hand picked at physiological ripeness to gain maximum depth and richness in the finished wine. Small lot production is utilized in our state-of-the-art winemaking facility so each lot receives the custom care required to bring it to full potential.
Picking Ripe Fruit
Once fully ripe the grapes are picked in the cool of early morning and transported in small, clean half-ton bins to ensure the weight of the fruit does not crush the grapes at the bottom of the bin. These small bins also allow control of the quantity of fruit being introduced into the receiving hopper.
Sorting to remove all but the best
From the receiving hopper the grapes are fed to a sorting table. Here they are separated into bunches and any material other than perfect grapes is removed. This time consuming process is performed by trained hands to ensure only the best grapes and nothing else goes into the wine press. By this process the wine's flavors will be expressed without the bitterness associated with non-ripe grapes or additional material such as stems, seeds or leaves.
After de-stemming with minimal crushing, whole berries are fermented using predominately native yeasts. A gentle punch-down technique provides oxygen to the yeast and helps the fermenting juice extract texture, color and flavors from the grape skins without breaking the seeds and extracting the tart green tannins.
Barrel Aging in French Oak
Our white wines spend up to one year in oak barrels while our red wines are aged anywhere from eighteen months to four years, all exclusively in tight-grained French oak barrels using a variety of French cooperage to allow more infinite control over style, aroma, flavor and finish characteristics of each individual wine, for example:
- Oak adds texture and subtle aromas such as spice, toast and vanillin.
- Time in oak allows the fruit flavors and tannin to integrate providing a more smooth flavor.
- Wine tannins and the barrel wood tannins provide structure and bottle aging ability.
During this process the progress of each wine is tested via lab panels, then each barrel is tasted, the wine is racked (moved to tank) and the barrel cleaned, all as appropriate for each wine's variety and its progress.
The oak in our barrels comes from four forests in France, Allier, Nevers, Tronçais and Vosges. Planted by order of Napoleon to ensure these unique French Oak forests survived, each tree is between 200 to 300 years old when it is selected and cut. After three to five years of air drying the oak is formed into a barrel by a master cooper. The barrel is toasted internally to our selected level then sealed for shipment to us here in California.
Each barrel contains about 25 cases of wine and costs about $1,000 USD. We use them for only three vintages with each vintage using a percentage of new, once used and twice used barrels.
Our wines do not contain any animal products and qualify as vegan. The usual way for animal products to be introduced into wines is the fining process. A red wine is usually "fined" in order to soften a harsh or astringent character and/or to improve clarification. Fining agents are usually either egg white; Isinglass - a kind of gelatin obtained from fish, especially sturgeon; or Potassium Caseinate a milk-derived protein.
We do not fine our wines. It is basically a cosmetic effect to make the wine look clearer which, in our opinion, can rob the wine of some of its natural attributes and potentially change the flavors within the wine.
"Contains Sulfites” Sulfur in Wine?
Sulfur is an essential element for all life and the fifth most common element on Earth. Sulfur has been used to preserve food since ancient times and there will always some sulfur in wine.
In the vineyard, sulfur is used to protect grapes from mildew and has a natural breakdown rate of several weeks. Normally sulfur enters wine via the grape only if the vineyard was sulfured as a result of rain prior to harvest, a practice by growers who sell their grapes on or very large vineyards where the harvest may take considerable time.
Sulfur protects from bacteria and mold in grape clusters, juice, must and wine whenever they may become exposed to oxygen throughout the winemaking process. Every time wine is moved in the winery, during racking, blending, trucking and bottling, sulfur is added.
Wine made in large quantities is moved from tank to tank or trucked from winery to winery more often so will receive more sulfur treatment than wines from small wineries where the wine is rarely moved.
In bottle, wine sealed with a natural cork may have some contact with oxygen via cork porosity whereas wine sealed with a screw cap will not allow the same rate of sulfur breakdown so higher levels of sulfur might be more present in wine under screw cap.
The quantity of sulfur in wine generally does not affect most people however it may aggravate those with asthmatic conditions causing the airways to narrow, potentially resulting in sinus-like headache.
It stands to reason therefore that if you fear sulfur induced headache you should restrict your wine choices to small wineries where they grow their own grapes and make the wine in just one place. Then choose only their single vineyard, single varietal wines that have been bottled using natural cork.