Yannick Rousseau felt the pang of homesickness in 2007 when he took a taste from a fermentation tank at a Sonoma County winery. The unfinished wine was colombard, a varietal once widely planted in California but seldom made into fine wine. In Rousseau’s native Gascony in southwestern France, however, colombard is held in high esteem.
“Literally, the first white grapes that I touched with my hands were colombard,” Rousseau said, recalling his childhood and the ultimate decision to become a winemaker. He was excited to find that colombard was being grown in a small Russian River Valley vineyard, a minuscule reminder of the varietal’s past glory.
The following year Rousseau and his wife, Susan, launched Y. Rousseau, a Napa-based winery that the winemaker hopes will expose and glorify Gascon-style wines in the U.S. Appropriately, Rousseau’s first vintage was a 2008 Russian River Colombard. Then in 2011, the winery made a small batch of another traditional Gascon wine, tannat, a bold, tannin-rich red wine that can sometimes be overpowering to the uninitiated.
“I didn’t want to make the colombard just to make something different,” Rousseau said of his inaugural 2008 wine. “I wanted to bring a slice of my hometown into Napa Valley, which is very pretentious, because it’s just Gascony.”
Before starting the family winery, Rousseau worked as a winemaker in Napa Valley for nearly a decade, including stints at Newton Vineyard and Chateau Potelle. During that time, he honed his skills making high-end cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, two varietals he continues to produce under the Y. Rousseau label. From the winery’s beginning, however, the relatively obscure Gascon-style wines have set Y. Rousseau apart from other startups.
“I thought he was crazy to not do sauvignon blanc like everybody else,” Susan Rousseau said of her husband’s decision to make colombard that first year. “But he saw the trend coming.”
Indeed, the couple’s 2008 colombard was a hit almost instantly. Despite starting a new winery during the 2008-09 economic crisis, the Rousseau’s non-traditional white wine drew the attention of restaurants and other customers looking for something different.
“At least they had something new to try,” Rousseau said. “At least they opened the door, they tasted the wine and not everybody bought the wine but we sold out in six months because the price was $18 and the wine was good.”
Colombard, also known as French Colombard in the U.S., was once widely grown throughout California, including Napa and Sonoma counties, for use mostly in wines often marketed as “chablis” or other non-descript white “jug” wines. Usually blended with chenin blanc or other bulk wines, colombard was never given its proper due in the U.S., Rousseau said.
“One of the beauties with colombard is that it retains the acidity so well,” Rousseau said. “That’s why it was very interesting in the (American) chablis. They could really have low alcohol and a very good acidity.”
Rousseau’s colombard is dry and aromatic with, as promised, an acidity that provides a bright finish and makes it very food-friendly.
Beginning in the 1960s as American wine tastes became more sophisticated, most colombard vines in Napa and Sonoma counties were replaced by cabernet, chardonnay and other fine wine varietals. Still, many knowledgeable oenophiles were aware of colombard’s potential as a fine wine.
“Actually in Napa Valley,” Rousseau said, “we had a lot of people buying the (2008 Rousseau) colombard by the case because they remembered some producer from the ‘70s and ‘80s making a quality colombard here.”
Rousseau is finding a similar reaction to his tannat project. A mainstay varietal in southwestern France, tannat makes a highly tannic wine. The grape is also used to make Armagnac brandy.
To make tannat wine more approachable, it is often blended with merlot or cabernet sauvignon and aged extensively in oak to tame the tannins. The wine is a traditional favorite among the Basque region, an area encompassing the western Pyrenees from southwestern France to northern Spain. Rousseau said the bold character of tannat complements the bold character of Basque food and the typically rich cuisine of Gascony, known for its foie gras, duck and decadent cassoulets.
Rousseau is well aware of tannat’s well-earned reputation as an intense and powerful wine. After all, a wine that is typically “toned down” by adding full-bodied cabernet is not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, Rousseau said that with the proper finesse and careful blending, tannat yields an outstanding wine that will go well with a variety of foods.
“I’m aware that we have to make wine that is also approachable,” he said. “That’s why ... I’m going to have two tannats. One is a tannat from the Russian River Valley that will be a little more of a blend. It will still have close to 80 percent tannat but the rest is going to be a little bit of merlot and cab to give it some flesh with shorter aging to make it approachable. If I come out with a big monster, rustic, typical tannat that you could get from southwest France that’s not going to work.”
Like colombard, tannat vineyards are rare in Northern California but Rousseau found a five-acre block north of Santa Rosa. The cooler climate of the Russian River Valley results in a more subdued tannat fruit, he said.
“Then I’ll have my Alder Springs tannat,” he added, “which is going to be the big boy that will need more time in the bottle to really enjoy it.”
Rousseau’s bolder “big boy” tannat is sourced from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino County, a warmer, high-elevation vineyard.
“It’s really about putting tannat on the map in the U.S.,” the winemaker said. “I really want to do that. I want to bring some awareness about a variety that can be very versatile.”
Tannat also represents a connection to Rousseau’s childhood when he helped his grandfather harvest the grape from a small family vineyard in Gascony. Back then his grandfather, now 92, would make the family wine that accompanied the rich foods coming from grandmother’s kitchen. Starting at five or six-years-old, Rousseau was allowed to drink the diluted tannat and other wines with meals.
After choosing winemaking as a career, Rousseau earned an enology degree from University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, interning under famed winemaker Alain Brumont at Chateau Montus and Domaine Bouscassé. A gifted winemaker, Brumont is credited with elevating the status of Gascony’s Madiran appellation. He is also a staunch advocate of tannat and other Gascon varietals.
In 1998, Rousseau decided to go abroad to learn more about winemaking. Just before departing for a three-month job in New Zealand he got a call from Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley. Owner Su Hua Newton, he was told, would be in Paris interviewing for a six-month cellar position.
“At first I thought I’m not going to go (to the interview),” he said. “At one o’clock in the morning (the day of the interview) … I called my dad, woke him up and said ‘Papa, we have to go.’”
Rousseau and his father drove the six hours from Gascony to Paris and arrived just in time for the 9 a.m. interview with Newton.
“I told her about my experience at Chateau Montus and with tannat and she knew Alain Brumont,” he said. “She said I think I want to give you the job but it’s going to be for 18 months not just six months. I thought about it for about one minute and I said ‘yes’.”
Though he loved his native Gascony, Rousseau chose to stay on in Napa Valley where he soon met his wife Susan, a transplant from East Texas.
Trained as a dancer, Susan Rousseau spent 25 years in the Pilates/yoga “business,” owning studios first in San Francisco then in Napa. She sold her business in 2012 to devote full time to the growing family winery.
At NewtonVineyard and later at Chateau Potelle, Rousseau became an accomplished winemaker and developed an appreciation for mountain-grown cabernet and chardonnay. At Mount Veeder-based Chateau Potelle he helped craft the highly regarded VGS cabernet and other wines.
“I really feel like (with) mountain fruit you get a little more intensity,” he said, “a little more soul in the wine.”
In addition to his winery’s colombard and tannat wines, Rousseau makes highly rated cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot vintages sourced from both the Napa and Sonoma sides of Mount Veeder. The merlot is named “Pépé” in honor of Rousseau’s grandfather in Gascony.
In a market packed with Napa Valley cabernets and chardonnays, however, Y. Rousseau’s colombard and tannat varietals are bringing the most attention to the small winery. But for Rousseau, his penchant for the Gascony varietals is both a business strategy and a personal mission to build awareness of the wines and culture of his native region. He would like to see tannat become more of a household word among wine enthusiasts and plans to involve his winemaking mentor Alain Brumont in promoting the varietal in the U.S.
Colombard and tannat are also a nostalgic link to Rousseau’s roots as well as his family, who still enjoys an idyllic lifestyle in southwestern France.
“My grandfather is 92 years old and he still hunts,” Rousseau said. “He was picking mushrooms on Saturday with my mom and my dad. He still makes his own foie gras and his own duck confit.”
The Rousseau’s visit the family in Gascony at least once a year and dream of a time that they can evenly split their time between Napa Valley and France.
“When I came to this country,” Rousseau said, “I can’t say that I came because I wanted to leave my home country. I came here because I wanted to experience something new, I wanted to speak better English and I wanted to learn winemaking.”
Susan Rousseau acknowledges and respects her husband’s bond with Gascony. She even jokes about it.
“He thinks he’s in a golden cage here, in some ways,” she said, “because he’s not hunting the palombes (game birds) back with his dad and his grandpa right now.”
Replacing the cover on the fermenting vat holding recently crushed 2013 tannat, Rousseau responds, “That’s why I think the idea of bringing a little bit of home here just makes sense.”