Colombard: Crisp and versatile

For those of you who are not old enough, or don’t have the memory to recall, there used to be a wine brand called Almaden that produced a wine named “French Colombard.” Almaden was an old winery, dating back to the 1850s or so, and over the years the brand became well established. Today, the brand is owned by Constellation Wines, and largely produces box wines. But my first experience of this wine was in the early 1980s. OK, I will admit, it was in my college days, and I found this wine to be within my budget; a 1.5 liter bottle was under 10 dollars! I think the sale prices were even less, but I haven’t the necessary brain cells left to pull this out of the mothballs of my mind. As I went forward in to the world of winemaking, I found that Colombard is called Colombard in France and French Colombard in California, go figure. Perhaps this is homage to the original producers. What I needed to learn continues from here.

Colombard is a white grape that originated in France, where it is a permitted varietal for some Bordeaux wines (although not estate wines). Beyond France, it is planted in South Africa, Australia, and the United States, mostly in California. For those of you that don’t know, that’s where I live, and Colombard is one of the main wines I use in the teaching program at UC- Davis. Incidentally, we list it as French Colombard on our vineyard maps, but for the purposes of this article, I will simply refer to it as Colombard.

From a vineyard perspective, Colombard is easy to grow and produces upwards of 10 to 11 tons of fruit per acre. The clusters of the vine are whitish to yellow-green in medium-size clusters. Colombard was once the most widely planted white wine grape in California. In 1980, there were about 285,000 tons of Colombard crushed in California, and the varietal enjoyed a huge boom in the 80s, rising to 685,000 tons by 1990. Over the next 18 years, the tonnage crushed declined to about 320,000 tons. Conversely, producers crushed a total of 32,000 tons of Chardonnay in 1980. Chardonnay boomed in the 90s, peaking at 650,000 tons in 2000. In 2008, prior to the economic slump, Chardonnay producers crushed a total of 560,000 tons. The success of Chardonnay was due largely to the consumer demands, and because Colombard producers garnered around $150 to $200 per ton versus $1,000 per ton for Chardonnay. Colombard was really not a formidable match and many fields gave way to Chardonnay, and then Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Today, Colombard is used as a blending grape, often in volume-packaged, value-priced wines. It is also processed into concentrate and used as a sweetener in the food and beverage industry.

As a winemaker, the Colombard/ Chardonnay seesaw is confusing. California currently boasts about 90,000 total acres of Chardonnay, of which much is grown in the hot and dry Central Valley of the state. As I have written, however, the best Chardonnay wines are produced from cooler regions. Colombard, on the other hand, is better suited to the climate in the Central Valley, but because of Chardonnay’s popularity, it fell into decline and became a second tier wine.

Now, Colombard is likely ending up in those boxes that fit so well on your refrigerator shelf. The consumer prevailed over logic in the seesaw; perhaps the fault of the Colombard producers for not exploring ways to add some dimension to the wines, or a push by Chardonnay growers in realizing the rising consumer demand and the fact that they could get five times the price per ton over Colombard. The continual package in the “jug” or “box” wine format certainly did not help as the consumer was looking for the romantic bottle of wine. Alas, it had no future being marketed as a varietal. Those bottles that are out there, however, are generally good, drinkable and surprisingly inexpensive.

Most Colombard wines are pleasant and crisp. The reason I say most, is that in a teaching program, the Colombard wines that the students produce are not very pleasant. They are still learning! It is the crispness that makes this wine ideal for our teaching program. The grape retains its natural acidity so it is therefore well suited for the warmer climates in which we have here in the southern Sacramento Valley. Since our academic programs do not start until late September or early October, we need a variety that will retain acidity. Most of the other white grapes we produce are mature in mid- to late-August and if we were to try to hold the fruit until classes start the fruit structure would fall apart.

On a commercial scale, and going beyond the teaching aspect of this variety, the wines are somewhat one-dimensional, with floral and citrus being the most common descriptors. That is not to say that it is a varietal not suited to winemaking. Despite its innocuous character, Colombard is a good choice for winemakers, both professionally and on a home winemaking scale, as it is easy to work with and allows for a wide scope of techniques and styles.

Winemakers have a lot of options with this varietal. Maintaining a fermentation temperature between 55-60 °F (13-15 °C) allows the wines to develop fermentation bouquet esters. I use a strain of yeast from Lallemand called QA23. I stumbled upon this strain/varietal combination when I had some yeast left over after working with a batch of Sauvignon Blanc.

The natural acidity of Colombard is also the key. With the high acidity comes a resultant low pH (3.4-3.5). The low pH can be protective against unwanted and undesirable bacterial infection. That said, this wine needs some of the benefits of the natural de-acidification process of a malolactic conversion. An addition of a freeze-dried culture will specifically direct the course of the secondary fermentation. In addition to the de-acidification process, the malolactic also adds some mouthfeel to the wine. Depending on the extent of how far you took the malolactic fermentation, you could have a very stable white wine. Barrel fermentations of a short time in barrel are also techniques to experiment with. But be careful, since the wine is light in nature, too much oak would overpower and fruit or fermentation characters you are seeking to express. Remember though, if you have only partially induced the malolactic fermentation or have left the wine slightly sweet to counteract some of the acidity, you should stabilize the wines from a microbial perspective by sterile filtering prior to bottling so that you do not have any unpleasant surprises down the road.

The natural acidity of Colombard is so key in all of these techniques and what makes this grape fairly bulletproof in the winemaking process. In many home winemaking competitions that I have judged, I find that acid balance is the major driving force in how I judge a particular wine. On the East Coast, I don’t think acidity is a problem. The naturally higher acids of the native grapes benefit from the malolactic fermentation producing white wines of about 6-7 g/L (0.6-0.7%) acidity. On the West Coast, our climate tends to produce grapes that start out with low acidity (4-5 g/L) and it is paramount that tartaric acid be added to correct for any
acidity deficiencies but also to adjust pH levels to a more workable level.

While Colombard wines are simple, paired with the right foods they can be very surprising. Serve them chilled with lightly seasoned foods, maybe even a little spicy if the wine is slightly sweet. Consider an appetizer that comes off a little sweet to counter the grapes’ natural acidity. Variations on shrimp and poultry with sweet Thai spice sound good.

Regardless of the rise and subsequent demise of Colombard, it is a fun varietal to make. A quick Internet search shows that both juice and concentrate are readily available. Some is imported from South America, but most are produced in the larger California facilities. I encourage you to try Colombard, and as the accompanying recipe shows, the process is fairly simple.

Experiment with this recipe and someday, when the wine is ready and you break the bottle out of the refrigerator for friends, they will most likely be pleasantly surprised.

Colombard Recipe

yield: 5 gal/19 L
• 100 lbs. (45 kg) French Colombard fruit or 5 gallons (19 L) commercially available juice. With French Colombard juice concentrate, follow instructions on the kit to obtain an ideal final volume of 5 gallons/19 L.
• Distilled water
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution: Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water.
• 5 grams Lallemand QA23 yeast
• 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
• 6 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• Freeze dried Oenococcus (CHR Hansen, American Tartaic Products)
• Lysozyme

Other equipment or needs
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
• 6-gallon (23-L) carboy
• 6-gallon (23-L) plastic bucket
• Airlock/stopper
• Racking hoses
• Destemmer/crusher
• Cleaning and sanitizing agents (Bio-Clean, Bio-San)
• Inert gas (nitrogen, argon or carbon dioxide will do)
• Refrigerator (~45 °F/7 °C) to cold settle the juice. (Remove the shelves so that the bucket will fit.)
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55 °F (13 °C).
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40-110 °F (4-43 °C) in one degree increments.
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter.
• Clinitest® tablets to measure residual sugar at the completion of fermentation.
• Ability to test or have testing per formed for sulfur dioxide.

Step by step
1. Crush and press the grapes. Do not delay between crushing and pressing. Move the must directly to the press and then press lightly to avoid extended contact between the skins and seeds.

2. Transfer the juice to a 6-gallon (23-L) bucket. During the transfer, add 16 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of 40 ppm SO2). Move the juice to the refrigerator.

3. Let the juice settle at least overnight. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered.

4. When sufficiently settled, rack the juice off of the solids into the 6-gallon (23-L) carboy.

5. Add Fermaid K or similar yeast nutrient (5 grams).

6. Prepare yeast.
a. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 104 °F (40 °C). Do not exceed this temperature as you will kill the yeast. If you overshoot the temperature, start over, or add some cooler water to get the temperature just right. The end result is you want 50 mL of water at 104 °F (40 °C).
b. Sprinkle the yeast on the surface of the heated water and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed.
c. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension.
d. Measure the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in temperature exceeds 15 °F (8.3 °C). Acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the cold juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Repeat this until you are within the specified temperature range.

7. When the yeast is ready, add it to the carboy.

8. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature ~(65–68 °F/18–20 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (it will likely take about 24 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 55 °F (13 °C). If using the refrigerator be sure to monitor your fridge temperature as some older models can be too cold even at the warmest temperature. If your fridge is too cold (below 55 °F/13 °C), consider placing the carboy in an ice bath and add ice to the water as needed while monitoring the temperature.

9. Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~20 mL). Add directly to the carboy.

10. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove it and clean it and replace as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.

11. Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute.

12. After about two to three weeks, it is time to start testing the sugar. (Note: when fermenting at the bottom end of the temperature range at 55 °F/13 °C, the wine may continue to ferment for up to six weeks). Sanitize your thief; remove just enough liquid to use for your hydrometer. Record your results.
a. If the Brix is greater than 7 °Brix wait another week before measuring. Discard the juice.
b. If the Brix is less than 7 °Brix; begin measuring every other day, discarding the juice after each measurement.

13. Continue to measure the Brix every other day until you have two readings in a row that are negative and about the same. This should be -1.5 °Brix or lower for a dry wine.

14. Measure the residual sugar using the Clinitest®. Follow the kit instructions.

15. If the wine is dry, that being about 0.2% or lower, taste the wine. French Colombard can be very acidic (tart) and have a thin mid-palate and may benefit from a malolactic fermentation. If the wine tastes tart, inoculate with freeze dried Oenococcus preparation. Taste the wine as the MLF progresses, being sure to limit exposure to air as MLF cultures are sensitive to oxygen. When the desired acidity level is achieved, add 20 mL 10% KMBS solution to slow the MLF, lower the temperature to around 45 °F (7 °C), and then add 200 ppm Lysozyme. Rack to the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy and control for headspace.

16. Let the lees settle. At this point, the wine is going to be crystal clear or a little cloudy. If the wine is crystal clear, then that is great! If the wine is cloudy, and there are no visible signs of a re-fermentation, then this is most likely a protein haze. To solve this, you should perform a bentonite addition to clarify.

17. While aging, test for SO2 and keep maintained at 30-35 ppm. pH target is around 3.4-3.5.

18. Once the wine is cleared it is time to move it to the bottle. This would be about six months after the onset of fermentation. If all has gone well to this point, given the quantity made, it can probably be bottled without filtration. Your losses during filtration could be significant. That said, maintain sanitary conditions while bottling and you should have a fine example of a clean, creamy French Colombard wine that pairs well with seafood, spicy foods and poultry.