Napa's Franciscan Estate: Where small lots and blending prevail

This is the famous courtyard fountain at the Franciscan Estate's visitors center and winery in Napa Valley. (Images courtesy of Franciscan.com)

The eye-grabbing fountain welcomes visitors to the tasting room and winery at Franciscan Estate in Napa Valley. (Images courtesy of Franciscan.com)

WHETHER you shop for wine in Metro Detroit or other cities around the U.S., one venerable Napa Valley winery stands out for its quality-value ratio: Franciscan Estate. How does this winery put so much love and craftsmanship into a bottle that sells for under $20 for most whites, under $30 for reds, excluding the reserves? The “everyday” Napa Valley appellation wines demonstrate how the signature vineyard and winemaking practices have set the tone at this winery for more than 40 years.

Senior winemaker Jay Turnipseed conducted several events in Detroit recently.

Senior winemaker Jay Turnipseed conducted a blending event in Detroit to demonstrate the art of small-lot winemaking.

Senior winemaker Jay Turnipseed, who joined the winery in 2004, was in Detroit recently to introduce the new 2013 Reserve Merlot and educate the market on the small-lot winemaking that distinguishes the Franciscan Estate brand.

“What we do here illustrates the art of winemaking,” Jay said. “You have to see our cellar. We have 160 fermentation tanks; that means we have the space to ferment blocks of grapes separately. We can be artists at small-lot blending.”

As Jay pointed out, you have to look at this winery’s history: It’s had gifted leadership since 1975 when Justin Meyer and Ray Duncan (think Silver Oak Cellars) bought it from the group of San Francisco investors who founded it two years prior. In 1978, it sold again — to the Peter Eckes Company of Germany. Meyer and Duncan retained a parcel of the original property to start Silver Oak. Meyer stayed on at Franciscan as winemaker and president. When he left in 1985, the noted Chilean vintner Agustin Huneeus of Concha y Toro became a partner. Today, under the ownership of Constellation Brands, the director of winemaking is the long-respected Janet Myers who came to the winery in 2003 with a wealth of experience in Napa Valley and around the world.

Jay ticks off the advances the early pioneers made at Franciscan: It was Justin Meyer who wanted to make wine like an artist or master chef and divided the 240-acre vineyard in Oakville into 40 distinct blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals of varying clones and rootstocks, and fermented them separately in a cellar that holds 160 fermentation tanks. He even paired barrels to the individual lots. This practice gave him the building blocks to create the character and style he envisioned.

It was Huneeus as owner who joined with vintners like Robert Mondavi and Joseph Phelps to form an alliance to provide the trademarked Meritage name for blends made in the Bordeaux style. It also was Huneeus who purchased Mount Veeder Winery for its intensely flavorful mountain Cabernet Sauvignon in 1989. And it was Huneeus who launched Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay, the first Chardonnay in California fermented entirely with native, wild yeasts, and the red wine blend Magnificat. Magnificat is a Meritage (rhymes with heritage) named for Bach’s famous work that was scored for five vocal parts — Magnificat is a blend of up to five Bordeaux varietals.

***

The higher end Franciscan Estate and Mount Veeder wines are well-represented at Market Square in Southfield and wine purveryor ml. Spirits in Birmingham. The Napa Valley appellation wines are widely available in Michigan including at well-stocked supermarkets.

Here’s a taste starting with the Reserve Merlot, which is new to the portfolio, followed by comments on the regular Napa Valley varietals, which are the heart and soul of this brand — they strut the greatness of Franciscan Estate without overly punishing your pocketbook. I’ll end with the two Reserves — the Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay and Magnificat red blend — and two Mount Veeder Winery Cabernets.

Franciscan Estate Reserve Merlot Napa Valley 2013, $46: Created to honor the winery’s passion for Merlot and its integral role in the Magnificat blend, this velvet-smooth beauty is a bigger, richer, denser version of the winery’s $23 Merlot. Flavors are intense — vibrant dark cherry, plum, dark cooking spice and well-infused cedar, with notes of vanilla bean and dark chocolate. It features the best grapes from the best blocks, all vinified separately and matched to specific barrels before the final blending.

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014, $17.99: The perfect summer white, it brims with juicy citrus and tropical flavors made in the fresh, crisp grapefruit-lime style without assertive grassy, herbal tones. The key is picking the grapes a little earlier to retain the fresh acidity.

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Chardonnay 2015, $18: The style is so consistent — fresh, full of life with that inviting apple-pear-crème brûleé character. It’s fermented on natural yeast, almost all of it in barrel, which is remarkable for a wine under $20. Pluck it off the supermarket shelf.

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Merlot 2013, $23: If this is Franciscan’s “everyday” Merlot, I’ll vote for it … everyday. Senior winemaker Jay Turnipseed calls it “the most underrated wine we make.” It’s got structure, length and softness in the midpalate. The fruit is lush and inviting.

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, $29: Don’t think twice: Consider the vintage (the most touted in the new millennium) and Franciscan’s painstaking small-lot blending of Oakville Estate fruit. This is no entry-level Cabernet but even wine novices should find it appealing. I love the hints of blackberry, tobacco and leather behind the upfront aromas of cassis and plum.

Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley 2013, $40: If you’re expecting this to be a big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay, you would be mostly wrong. It’s big, all right, but more by way of generous fruit than overpowering oak. For all the time in barrel, it’s actually delicate, with tones of golden pineapple, baked pear and ripe nectarine deftly infused with tones of hazelnut and crème brûleé. It’s fermented in 100 percent new oak and aged 14 months in barrel — and it’s highly approachable.

Franciscan Estate Magnificat NapaValley 2013, $55: Magnificat is the reserve level red blend that Franciscan has produced since 1985. This one, from the terrific 2013 vintage, is made like a master tailor would sew a fine silk suit — classy styling, silken mouthfeel, fruit with richness and density, a seamless infusion of oak. Notes of cherry, plum and brown baking spices are complemented by tobacco, cocoa and vanilla. It’s 73 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 24 percent Merlot, finished with Malbec and Cabernet Franc, all grown at Franciscan’s Oakville estate vineyard.

***

Mount Veeder Winery grows Cabernet Sauvignon on these rugged mountain hillsides.

Mount Veeder Winery grows Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals on these rugged mountain hillsides. Franciscan Estate purchased the winery in 1989.

Mount Veeder Winery became a sister winery to Franciscan Estate with its purchase in 1989 by Agustin Huneeus. It gives the Franciscan portfolio a small stable of intense reds grown in rugged, contoured mountainside vineyards.

Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013, $44: The price is reasonable for a mountain Cabernet from a great vintage. Mountain fruit is more intense, berries are small, flavors are concentrated, yields are small. This one shows you what a different breed it is from wines grown on the hot valley floor — flavors are earthy and robust with tons of dark berries, dark chocolate, black peppercorns and a touch of herbs. It’s 81 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, finished with Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013, $100: Buckle your seatbelt for a big, brooding wine with tannins that are dry and clingy and flavors still so tightly furled they can only give you a glimpse of what’s to come. Right now, you can pick up the big dark berry fruit and notes of dark plum, espresso coffee, cedar and anise. If you are too impatient to cellar it (for a decade or more), then do decant it and pour it in tiny amounts. Only 1,000 cases were produced.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.