Franciscan Estate: A Napa Valley Workhorse That Keeps Improving

Decades of excellence: Franciscan Estate wine
Honor 45 years of excellence: Franciscan Estate wine

Franciscan Estate Reserve Merlot (2013) is a featured wine as the estate continues to produce excellent vino.

Franciscan Estate is just a few years away from celebrating its 45th anniversary. As it approaches that milestone, it keeps innovating and improving its wine, putting it in great position to enjoy many additional milestones beyond 45.This puts Franciscan Estate squarely in the company of Napa Valley’s Elder Statesmen of Producers. The great news is that it hasn’t rested on its laurels. In fact at a recent dinner with winemaker Janet Myers where I tasted a swath of the winery’s current releases and some brand new, soon to be released, wines it was clear how much forward movement is still going on at Franciscan.  Janet started with the winery in 2003 and became Director of Winemaking and General Manager in 2005. I’ve been drinking Franciscan wines since the early ‘90s and her imprint is obvious in every glass; already solid and tasty wines have gotten better and new offerings have been added to the fold. The care she takes in crafting each wine is obvious when you listen to the steps she takes to select fruit for each offering as just one example. 

The bottom line is that at a variety of price points, starting at under $20 all the way up to wines that approach $100 there is quality and value in bottles bearing the Franciscan name. Here are thoughts on my favorites from the aforementioned tasting. 

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($17.99)

This is one of the most widely distributed of the Franciscan wines. It's composed of entirely sauvignon blanc. It was fermented entirely in stainless steel and had no contact with oak. Grapefruit and tropical fruit aromas fill the nose. The mouthfeel is soft and lovely with lots of citrus and stone fruit flavors throughout. White pepper and sour yellow fruits mark the crisp, clean, and refreshing finish. This is a textbook example of Napa Valley sauvignon blanc.

Franciscan Estate Equilibrium White Blend 2014 ($22.99)

This wine is predominately sauvignon blanc (72 percent), with dollops of chardonnay (17 percent), and muscat (11 percent) blended in. The nose here is generously layered with white and yellow fruit aromas. Lychee, apricot, and hints of papaya are all evident on the lush palate. Wisps of citrus zest, white pepper, and continued yellow fruits are all present on the solid finish. There’s an impression of sweetness from the first whiff to the last sip that makes this an intriguing and seductive wine. But in reality it’s largely dry, delicious, and a great match for a broad array of foods, particularly curries.

Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage 2013 ($40)

This chardonnay was produced using fruit sourced in Carneros. This offering is fermented entirely in barrel utilizing wild, native yeasts. The nose is infused with a gentle hint of smoke as well as lots of apple and Bartlett pear aromas. The story of the palate can best be told as a remarkably pure expression of fruit. Droves of orchard fruit are in play alongside bits of lemon ice. Continued yellow delicious apple, limestone, and bits of linzer tart are all present on the persistent finish. Here’s an example of Napa chardonnay with plenty of new oak, and it’s perfectly integrated, never becoming obtrusive. 

Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Reserve Merlot 2013 ($45)

The Reserve Merlot represents a brand new release in the Franciscan Portfolio. In addition to merlot (93 percent), small amounts of syrah (six percent), and cabernet sauvignon (one percent) were blended in. All of the fruit came from Oak Knoll and then select barrels were picked for this wine. Red cherry, leather, and black pepper are all evident on the nose. When you take the first sip, your senses are knocked out by all the continuing red cherry fruit tinged by bits of black cherry. Cinnamon and clove spices are in play as well. The velvety finish shows off dusty dark cocoa, pencil lead, and sweet dry cherry flavors. This is an absolutely outstanding merlot with tremendous structure. It’s wonderful now, but I’d hold it for three to four years and drink it in the five after that. Either way, this is a very serious stab at top shelf merlot at a very reasonable price. Wines such as this show how a producer as big as Franciscan can still keep pushing the envelope with relatively small quantities of super high-level wine that fill a niche.

Franciscan Estate Magnificat 2013 ($45)

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Franciscan launched this Bordeaux-inspired blend with the 1985 vintage. This year it’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon (73 percent), merlot (24 percent), malbec (two percent), and cabernet franc (one percent). Hints of savory herb, spices, and red fruit are part of the alluring nose. Lots of red and black fruit flavors inform the palate with cassis, plum, and cherry of particular note. Dark chocolate, black pepper, and black raspberry flavors are all part of the long finish. This blend is woven together seamlessly; no single variety rises above the rest. Instead they all come together to form a unified, mouth-filling wine that is both elegant and intense. The 2013 Magnificat is delicious today but I’ll improve in the bottle. This beauty should drink well for 15 years at minimum.