Friday, December 21, 2012

Hardly Monastic: Franciscan Estate Winery

A double barrel of holiday cheer showed up the other day – a couple of bottles from Napa’s Franciscan Estate Winery. Franciscan was founded in 1972 by Justin Meyer and Raymond Duncan – a couple of the old-heads in Napa winemaking. Meyer purchased the winery outright in 1974 and produced the first vintage in 1975. He sold the winery in 1979 to pursue his other venture, Silver Oak, now one of the best-known names in Napa Cabernet.

In the 1980's, Franciscan bottled "Magnificat" -- one of the first "Meritage" blends in California, along with a chardonnay called "Cuvee Sauvage," the first barrel-fermented California chardonnay made with wild yeasts.

Franciscan's popularity expanded throughout the 90's and oughts. They still make the aforementioned wines, as well as estate cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, and chardonnay. The samples I received were of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- which are "two of our most widely available wines," according to Janet Myers, Franciscan's director of winemaking. Myers believes that these wines "represent classic expressions of each variety." Here are my thoughts:

Franciscan Estate 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay – A cool growing season in Napa like 2011 usually means an extra boost of richness for the white wines. This richness is definitely reflected in this 100% Chardonnay, which I thought was nicely structured and full. I got a whiff of caramel-covered apples on the nose. The mouthfeel is creamy with enough mineral to keep it from being overly thick. There's a nice array of melon, honey, cream, and minerals with some oak as an undertone rather than a feature. The finish is crisp and a little flinty with just a touch of oak at the end. The note I wrote sums up with "Nicely done." For $18, you're getting a quality bottle of Chardonnay -- one of the better ones I'd tasted from Napa this year.

Franciscan Estate 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- We were in the mood for a special meal one evening around Vine HQ and roast leg of lamb sounded like it would fit the bill nicely. Since the promotional material from Franciscan specifically mentioned lamb as a potential food pairing, we got the roast ready to go (cloves of garlic plugged in, rosemary paste smeared all over), and let this cabernet get some air. Once we took the roast out of the oven -- and it turned out marvelously, by the way -- we poured a glass of the wine (85% cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, syrah, and malbec thrown in for good measure) for a first taste. Even after an hour or so decanting, the flavors were still quite tight. Very strong coffee notes -- so strong initially that it overwhelmed the fruit in a large fashion. We set the glasses aside, finished preparing the side dishes (buttered carrots, some herbed couscous, and small salads), plated everything up and moved to the table.

After some time sitting in glasses followed by a good swirl, the wine improved dramatically. Plum and fennel flavors started to emerge in a much more harmonious fashion. The tannin was considerable, but hardly off-putting. My first reaction was that it was a very solid, complex wine. I don't have detailed notes after that, and I think that's a good thing. We had a lovely meal, laughing and talking and savoring. We'd cobbled together one of the better tasting meals in quite some time, and the wine complemented it as I hoped it would. Flavors were married, lips were smacked, glasses were poured. Blissfully yummy all around. It retails at $28, but for such a meal, it's worth it.

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