Friday, July 19, 2013

Franciscan Chardonnay: Wine on Friday

Yeast is to used convert grape juice into wine, but also for flavor. At Franciscan Estate Winery they make two different Chardonnays, one specifically with wild yeast. I spoke with winemaker Janet Myers to find out more. But first, it's important to be familiar with some wine vocabulary:

Lees: The dead yeast at the bottom of the barrel, wine can absorb some of the yeasty flavor from being aged with the lees. 

Malolactic: The fermentation process when tart malic acid, naturally present in grape juice and skins is converted to softer lactic acid. In Chardonnay a by product of malolactic fermentation produces a buttery flavor and a soft mouthfeel. 

Carneros: An American Viticultural Area which includes parts of Southern Napa and Sonoma. It is relatively cool because it is closer to San Francisco Bay breezes. 

Janet, are you a fan of Chardonnay? 
I used to be tired of it; when I got here 10 years ago Chardonnay was too oaky and buttery, many were a caricature of themselves. I want oak and malolactic to complement. The barrel frames the fruit. Being here, I've made some slight changes, our Chardonnay used to be more oaky, and I've taken it to be a little softer--less toast, there's a gentler voice of the barrel. I've done that with both of the Chardonnay. We like the fruit expression here and it's where the consumer is going. 

Tell me about Franciscan Chardonnay--the Napa Valley Chardonnay and Reserve "Cuvée Sauvage" Chardonnay 
The reserve ($40) has much smaller production, versus the Napa Valley ($18) and it has has much less new oak, it is made to be fruit forward. Stylistically they are different, the reserve is in the barrel twice as long. It has a lot of Carneros fruit, it's vibrant with minerality, creamy but not buttery, there is oak to support but not to dominate. 

When did Franciscan start using wild yeast in the Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay?
The winery started in 1987, and the winemaker at the time was interested in Burgundy and how wild yeast was used. He was the first to use wild yeast in Napa. Even our Napa Valley Chardonnay is half wild yeast fermented. Using wild yeast takes more work and it takes longer; it takes longer for it to finish. There's less yeast and it's less reliable. 

Why do you make some wine with commercial yeast and some with wild yeast?
We like the results with the commercial yeast, but we get a little more complexity with the wild yeast. The difference is not night and day but if you taste blind you will notice it. The reserve has the biggest richest fruit lots, but layered on complexity. Malolactic fermentation takes more time on the lees -- 15 months versus 7 months.

When you let the native yeast do the fermentation, the yeast that's on the bloom, there might be a dozen type of yeasts. Plus some that are native to the winery. Each gives a different flavor. They each have a  niche for alcohol tolerance so it's like a relay in that one starts, then as the alcohol rises that species might rest and another kicks in. It's luck of the draw with the yeasts in the environment and on the grapes. 

Why do you source fruit from Carneros? 
It's in the cooler part of Napa which is conducive towards natural acidity and balance. It's cooler, crisp and vibrant. Our Napa Valley Chardonnay is over half Carneros fruit, in Napa and South. I don't buy it from up valley, it's not stylistically what I want. I don't want a low acid Chardonnay.

What do you think of Chardonnay from Napa today?
I think Chardonnay is in a really good place right now, the pendulum hasn't swung too far. There's good balance, and it's very well crafted. But it's ultimately a matter of taste, so find a producer that you like.

I couldn't agree more! Thanks Janet! 

Franciscan Estate Winery is open to visitors from 10 am - 5 pm daily, go and you can try both Chardonnays. No appointments necessary. Call ahead if you wish to take part in one of their "Taste Explorations" including a wine blending session or a sensory evaluation class.

Franciscan Estate Winery
Highway 29 @ Galleron Rd
St. Helena CA

Disclaimer: Franciscan sent me a sample of their Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay