A Frenchman in Napa Valley

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A glass of Rose at Y. Rousseau winery in Napa Valley

In the past two decades or so, Napa Valley wines have had a profound impact on the global wine industry, influencing how “good” wine taste, how wine should be made (fermentation practices, barrel aging, alcohol content), and certainly how to market wine to consumers.  This influence extends even to France, which has a much longer wine making history than Napa.  Maybe now the French are returning the favor, as French winemakers are gaining a foothold in Napa.  One such winemaker is Yannick Rousseau, a native of the Gascony region in the Southwest of France.  Through a chance Twitter encounter with Olga Mosina, one of the team members at Y. Rousseau Wines, we were invited to a special industry tasting a few evenings ago at the Rousseau tasting room in Napa.  Luckily for us, we got to meet Olga, her husband, quite a few wine industry veterans, and the winemaker himself.

For the tasting, Olga had set a beautiful table in the barrel room for us to enjoy the wines, cheese and charcuterie.  We all sat down at the table and Yannick told us a little bit about himself: where he grew up, his wine education, why he came to California, and his philosophy of making wine.  Right away, we could tell how important Yannick’s home region is to him.  Paraphrasing the old saying – you can take the boy out of Gascony, but you can’t take Gascony out of the boy. Yannick’s upbringing is most evident in the varietals that he has chosen to make his primary wines – grapes that are native to Gascony.  One of these grapes, Colombard, is a white variety native to Gascony that Yannick encountered when he was a young man growing up in France.  In fact, when he was studying winemaking at Toulouse University and interning at Cotes de Gascogne, he made his very first white wine from Colombard grapes.

The Colombard varietal has had both a noble and, shall we say, less than noble history.  On the one hand, Colombard grapes have been used to make fine cognac and Armagnac. On the other, as late as the 1990’s, Colombard was California’s number one white wine grape, appearing as a staple in the “jug wines” that were prevalent back in those days.  As a result of their use in “bargain” wines, many people, including us, have associated Colombard with wines of lower quality.  Right away, Yannick took this myth head on and assured us the Colombard grape can be used to make sophisticated, balanced, high-quality white wine.

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Y. Rousseau Colombard

For the first wine in our tasting, Yannick opened a couple of bottles of Colombard sourced from a 45-year-old vineyard in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.  Most of the vineyards in that area are planted to Pinot Noir; it was a near-miracle for Yannick to find Colombard grapes in an area where the price-per-ton for Pinot Noir grapes would motivate most growers to tear out the Colombard and re-plant.

After tasting the Y. Rousseau Colombard, we can assure you that it is no jug wine!  One of the principles Yannick brings from Gascony is picking the grapes at exactly the right time, before they become too ripe and the sugar content (and thus, alcohol content) gets too high.  To our taste, the Y. Rousseau Colombard was perfect – hints of pear and honeysuckle on the nose, and on the palate strong citrus, minerality, and acidity. Yannick’s Colombard is fermented in 100% stainless steel and then aged on the lees for 5 months in 85% stainless steel and 15% neutral oak.  As a result of the vineyard management (early picking) and the subtle winemaking, the Colombard is crisp, refreshing, balanced and sophisticated.  The alcohol content is 12.5% and there is only 0.1% residual sugar, resulting in a “bone dry” wine.  At $20.00 a bottle, it is one of the biggest bargains in Napa Valley.

The next wine we tasted was also crisp and refreshing – and, for us, as much a delightful revelation as the Colombard.  Yannick’s second wine was his Rosé of Tannat.  We have tasted many rosé wines in Napa made from different varietals (Pinot Noir being the most common, but we have also tried rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel).  Rosé of Tannat was a first.  True to his Gascony roots, Yannick has committed himself to making wines from Tannat, a varietal native to his home region.  The color of the rosé was gorgeous – lighter than many wines of that type that we have tasted – closer to light salmon in color.  Beyond its appearance, the rose was spectacular – aromatic, with hint of strawberry and watermelon and floral notes. In terms of flavor, the rosé was refreshing and robust, another nice balance between fruit, acidity and minerality.  Yannick makes his wines to be enjoyed with food, and at our tasting the rosé was paired beautifully with a selection of cheeses.  When we checked the price sheet, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the Rosé of Tannat, which has a 90-point rating from Wine Spectator, is only $24.00 per bottle.

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2015 Y. Rousseau Rose of Tannat

When we finished the rosé, Olga and Yannick revealed the next part of the tasting experience, a blind tasting of three Y. Rousseau wines: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from 2013, and Tannat from 2012.  All three bottles were covered and the wines were poured into our glasses.

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Blind tasting:  Merlot, Cab and Tannat

Blind tastings can be tricky, especially with wines from the same winemaker and varietals that share some similarities (such as Merlot and Cab, both Bordeaux grapes).  Moreover, both the Merlot and Cab come from high-elevation vineyards on the same mountain – just different sides of Mt. Veeder.  Surprisingly, we correctly picked all three of the wines (Merlot, Cab and Tannat, in that order) after diligently swirling, sniffing, and tasting the wines.  A few others in the group also picked the wines correctly. All of us really enjoyed the three red wines and the winemaking style that went into each of them.  We drink a fair amount of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, two wines common in Napa.  A new experience, though, was the Tannat, one of the darkest wines we have consumed. Although Merlot and Cab are on the darker side, they tend to have lighter coloring around the edge of the glass. The Tannat, meanwhile, more closely resembled squid ink in color.  On the palate, it was as bold as the appearance, with deep fruit flavors complemented by earthy tones.  Y. Rousseau’s Tannat definitely requires some food to stand up to the boldness of the wine.  Our hosts took great care of us in this regard, providing a tasty paté as well as a duck rillete.

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The Ideal Pairing for Tannat

We took home several bottles of the Merlot, very competitively priced at $50.00, and comparable in quality to wines that would cost much more at other Napa wineries.  We also purchased a bottle of Tannat ($60).

Less than a week later, we were back at Y. Rousseau with some friends of ours visiting from Southern California.  These friends are sophisticated wine drinkers and we only take them places we are confident will meet with their lofty standards.   Our second experience included a different blind tasting where we were able to taste the difference between two of Yannick’s Tannat wines – one 100% Tannat and the other a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was interesting to compare the two, which were from different vineyards and different vintages.  Our friends purchased 8 bottles of wine. They loved everything – the Colombard, the rose of Tannat, the Merlot, and the Tannat.

If you are coming to Napa and want to taste some unique wines made with Old-world love and attention, and pay a reasonable price, Y. Rousseau should be one of your destinations.  Olga will treat you well and you’ll come away knowing more about wine.

To purchase Y. Rousseau wines, go here:  https://yrousseauwines.vinespring.com/purchase

To make an appointment go here:  https://www.yrousseauwines.com/#tastings

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 29, 2016

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11 thoughts on “A Frenchman in Napa Valley

  1. Excellent, detailed article! I will definitely put Y. Rousseau on my “must visit” list for my next trip to Napa! It was interesting to note that the Rose of Tannat label identified it as from Solano County. It makes sense that Napa’s neighbor would produce grapes, too, but I’ve not seen it on a label before. Thanks for the enlightenment!
    Cheers!

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed Y. Rousseau as much as I did! I was impressed with the colombard too, and the rose came home to Florida with me. It’s sitting on my counter waiting for the right occasion. Olga didn’t put me through my paces with any blind tastings, but that would’ve been fun! I bet it was fascinating to compare them without knowing which was which at first.

  3. What a fun tasting! Yannick proves the old adage that it is the artist who creates, not the tools he/she uses. He takes your grubby little Colombard grape and make magic out of it. I love that. This was a really interesting post.

  4. Lovely and complete post here. Thank you for the tip. I am always looking for new places to visit in the Napa area and I have never been here. I am always looking for wineries that are beautiful to photograph as well as having the tasty wine! 😉

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