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25 Years of Wild Yeasts
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Apr 23, 2013
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Franciscan Estate, Napa Valley, Chardonnay “Cuvée Sauvage” 2011 ($40):  California is a-brimming with wine anniversaries lately.  One of the less obvious of them is the 25th release of the first California Chardonnay to be fermented entirely by ambient yeast.  The original vintage was 1987, the winery is Franciscan Estate, and the 2011 Franciscan “Cuvée Sauvage” Chardonnay is the anniversary release.  At a moment when non-interventionist winemaking is the rage, it is interesting to note that this particular non-interventionist innovation is now a generation old in California.

In 1992, to research an article, I visited several wineries in California that were conducting or experimenting with Chardonnay fermentations that did not involve the usual (for California) inoculation of the juice with commercial yeasts to trigger and sustain the fermentation.  Winemaker Greg Upton of Franciscan was the poster child for the process.

He explained to me the risk of the process -- the concern that fermentation might not get going, or might not complete.  He also described the hard work involved -- that every barrel, each undergoing its own fermentation, must be monitored continually.  The reward would be a wine with better integration of oak, more subtlety of expression, and more textural richness, thanks to its cooler, slower fermentation.  Janet Myers, today’s winemaker at Franciscan, describes “layers of complexity” as a key benefit of the process, thanks to what she calls the “relay effect” of multiple yeast strains that individually spring into action and then pass the baton of fermentation on to a subsequent strain.

In the early days, the yeasts that exist naturally on the grapes and in wineries were called “wild” yeasts -- thus the name of this wine, Cuvée Sauvage (“wild” in French).  There s noting “sauvage” about the style of this wine, however.  It is a sophisticated Chardonnay in a gentle style, alive with flavor and energy but not at all assertive.

When I first tasted this wine, I was just coming out of a head cold, and it was therefore the wine’s structure and texture, rather than its aromas and flavors, 
that seduced me.  Silky texture, rich but not unctuous, surrounding a spine of crisp acidity.  Depth in its core, alive with energy, yet softened with creamy flesh.  Full-bodied but graceful, and long in the mouth.

Subsequently, I was able to put words to the wine’s aromatics: ripe pear, baked apple, honey, caramel, and ripe lemon.  The wine does not have an oaky taste, despite being fermented and aged in mainly new (86 percent new) French oak for 14 months.  But that texture, that understated richness, owes itself to the oak and the slow interaction of juice and oak that the ambient yeasts effect.

For as much as I describe this wine as rich, it carries a signature elegance of the mild 2011 season, when the grapes ripened slowly and the harvest began two weeks later than usual; some grapes from Carneros in this wine came in as late as October 1. 

This wine is a lovely accompaniment to dishes with subtle flavors, such as baked cod with potatoes.  However, its active acidity enables it to face even the acidity of fresh tomatoes without flinching.

91 Points