Yannick Rousseau at A Voce.

Yannick Rousseau is doing everything he can to make you like tannat and colombard.

Rousseau grew up in Gascony, a region in southwestern France near the Pyrenees Mountains and the Basque border. There, tannat and colombard wines flourish along with the rich cuisine in which foie gras, cassoulet, goose and every part of the duck except the quack play starring roles.

On a visit to New York City, Rousseau recounted during our dinner at A Voce that every Sunday from five years of age, he ate a five-course meal with his family, including his grandfather, Pepe, who made the wines accompanying the food.

At first, Rousseau thought he would pursue a career in the coffee business, but growing up with the taste of his grandfather’s wines led him instead to winemaking. After earning his degree in enology and viticulture program at the University of Toulouse in 1998, Rousseau worked at Chateaux Montus and Boucasse, owned by Alain Brumont, the leading authority on tannat.

The following year, Rousseau went to Paris for an interview with Dr. Su Hua Newton, owner of Napa Valley’s acclaimed Newton Vineyard. What was to be an 18-month stint as an assistant winemaker turned into a three-year job, and then a six-year winemaker position at Mt. Veeder’s Chateau Potelle. When that winery was bought by Kendall-Jackson in 2007, Rousseau decided it was time to launch his own wine, Y. Rousseau.

From the outset, Rousseau’s search for tannat in California could be described as Quixotic. With an ocean of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and other red grapes, the Golden State was the Rust Belt for tannat. Eventually, he found a half-acre of tannat growing in Mendocino County and a single vineyard in Russian River Valley.

Hailing from Gascony’s Madiran appellation (and found also in Uruguay), tannat is a red grape known for its high tannin concentration. For this reason—while a wine can be pure tannat—it’s usually diluted with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, or beginning in the 1990s, a new winemaking technique founded in Gascony, micro-oxygenation. This method pumps small amounts of air into the wine as it ferments or ages in tanks or barrels. The process breaks down the tannin molecules, softening the wine. Now, it is applied to other red wine grapes in Bordeaux, America, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and other regions. As an aside, micro-oxygenation is not without its critics who claim that along with breaking down the tannins, it also reduces the aromatics, flavors and aging potential of wine.

We began the tasting with the 2012 Y. Rousseau Tannat Alder Springs Vineyard Mendocino County.  Made from grapes of two French clones whose origins are from the University of Montpellier, Rousseau said these clones “are used to make the very best Madiran wines.” Stuart Bewley produces them in the cool climate, high altitude, rocky volcanic soil of his Alder Springs Vineyard.

Rousseau’s purplish 2012 Alder Springs Vineyard tannat had a mellow black fruit and leather scent with blackberry fruit flavor riding on a mineral, gravelly texture that reminded me of wines from Bordeaux’s Pessac-Leognan and Graves appellations.

It was poured from a decanter, which is the way you should serve it, too: Air is a good friend of tannat.  91 Points.  Expect to pay about $50. Only 135 cases made.

For the 2012 Y. Rousseau Tannat Russian River Valley Sonoma County Rousseau composed a tableau that blended tannat grown in the Saralees Kunde family’s Russian River Valley Matthew’s Station vineyard with 5 percent of each merlot and cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent syrah. The tannat vines were planted in 1994 from a clone developed by the University of California at Davis.

The composition yielded a blackberry-colored wine with blackberry, briary and new oak scents of vanilla and milk chocolate, and its black-fruit flavors are bound with surprisingly soft tannins. 89 Points. Expect to pay about $28. 809 cases made. 

The Russian River Valley tannat is as different from the Alder Springs Vineyard version as Beethoven is from Vivaldi. In addition to being different clones, the Russian River Valley tannat is grown on the valley floor, delivering a fruitier and less tannic, youthful, drinkable wine; whereas, the Alder Springs Vineyard is at 2,000 feet, yielding a denser, more tannic-structured wine capable of long aging.

I recommend serving the Alder Springs Vineyard tannat with barbequed spareribs and the Russian River Valley rendition with a Gascony cassoulet or medium-rare duck breast with a side of potatoes sautéed in duck fat.

If Rousseau’s love for his childhood tannat is an uphill climb to American wine consumers, getting Americans to reach for colombard is an Alpine ascent.

Wine consumers know colombard as a grape used in cheap jug wines. Grown in massive amounts in California’s Central Valley, it’s a blending grape for the pejorative “supermarket wine” and usually contains a fair amount of residual sugar.  But that is not Rousseau’s colombard.

In Gascony, colombard is a respected table wine and a grape used in the region’s beloved Armagnac. With his understanding of colombard, Rousseau captures the mild floral and stony aroma, and the lime and passion fruit flavors in the 2014 Y. Rousseau Old Vines Colombard Russian River Valley Sonoma County by fermenting and aging 85 percent of the wine in stainless-steel tanks and keeping the remainder in older, neutral French oak barrels. The wine’s very good balance of fruit and acidity and minerality leaves a pleasing ocean sea salt-like finish. The 2014 Y. Rousseau Old Vines Colombard Russian River Valley is a wake-up call for American white wine drinkers. 91 Points.  Expect to pay about $19.  480 cases.

Rousseau’s established his vineyard on Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder in 2008.  Rousseau’s understanding of the importance of balance in his colombard and tannat wines extends to the 2012 Y. Rousseau Chardonnay Mt. Veeder Napa Valley. 

By limiting the use of new oak barrels to 20 percent and using two- to three-year-old barrels for the other 80 percent, Rousseau dialed back the slick vanilla taste that slathers many California chardonnays. And not subjecting the wine to malolactic fermentation (a process that converts the grapes’ natural tart acid to a creamy texture: think green-apple tartness to milk) kept the 2012 chardonnay’s bright fruit and crisp texture more in line with Meursault.  93 Points.  Expect to pay about $35. 262 cases.  

I found it ironic that the tannins in the 2013 Y. Rousseau Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Napa Valley were more noticeable than in the two tannat wines. Blended with 5 percent merlot, this wine stood apart with its disjointed smoky, charcoal and black-fruit scents. Its blackberry flavor has an undertow of vanilla from the new French oak barrels and the tannins that leave a gravelly texture.  Mt. Veeder cabernet sauvignons are rough-and-ready in their youth, needing much more time to merge their parts than do wines from Napa Valley’s floor vineyards. Put this vintage in your cellar for at least three years and then decant it for an hour before serving it, too. 90 Points. Expect to pay about $65. 250 cases.

Yannick Rousseau could have made a “wanna-be” chardonnay from his colombard by subjecting the wine to new French oak barrel fermentation or aging. And he could have given us an aggressive tannat, but that was not the style of wines that Rousseau recalled from Sunday dinners with Pepe.

Photo: John Foy