Nothing Sheepish About Carneros

Nothing Sheepish About Carneros

Twenty years ago, a drive up Highway 12 from I-80 to Sonoma would have offered rolling hills covered with grass and an occasional herd of cattle grazing on a hillside. We have driven this path scores of times visiting family in the Sonoma valley and have witnessed the transition from green grass to grape vines everywhere you look as the Carneros Wine District has blossomed into what it is today.  

Several influences combine to make the Carneros region unique among wine growing areas. The first California wine region to be granted American Viticulture Area based on geographic delimitations rather than political boundaries, Carneros has a combination of climate and soils which set the region apart from the rest of Sonoma and Napa counties of which both are part of the appellation.

Cool air coming from the San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean through the Petaluma Gap keep the temperatures below what is found in the inland valleys. An umbrella of morning fog begins to fill the region in August and September followed by afternoon breezes that clear the fog allow the sun to ripen the grapes slowly concentrating flavors and color.

These conditions are perfect for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as for sparkling wine made from them. The wines are vibrant and focused with crisp acidity that lend themselves to be the perfect accouchement to any culinary delight you can create. 

In their youth, imagine the aromas of grandma’s plum pudding at Christmas and you can picture Carneros Pinot Noir. Carneros Pinot Noir constantly offers aromas and flavors of cranberry, fresh raspberry, berry jam, spice and cherry. Aging them adds to the complexity of the bouquet brining out more earthy flavors often hidden in young wines. Acacia winemaker Michael Terrien best described this combination of fruit and earth, as a combination of ugly and beautiful that so exemplifies the best the varietal has to offer.

In the production of chardonnay, it is refreshing to find that most winemakers use oak judiciously letting the fruit take center stage in the wines. A good deal of the chardonnay grown here goes into the production of sparking wines from some of the best known producers in California. Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon

In our tasting we also found cranberry and a hint of orange zest in many of the Pinot tasted. Our research may not have been as scientific, but it was a lot more fun than reading a graph.

Shallow clay soils high in calcium from ancient ocean deposits help to retain water for growth and give the grapes added mineral content that often comes through to the finished wine according to Acacia winemaker, Michael Terrien,  

Carneros may be the Spanish name for sheep but there is nothing sheepish about the wines being produced by the many wineries that call the area home. The maritime influences of San Pablo bay and Pacific breezes combine to give Carneros one of the cooler and longest grape growing seasons in California. Grapes are allowed to ripen slowly creating a balance of color, fruit and acidity, perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which predominate the vineyards here.

We find Carneros wines to have a consistency that is difficult to find in other wine regions. The Chardonnay is typically elegant with bright acidity and aromas of green apple, pear, melon, citrus and a balanced use of oak. Pinot Noir is the quintessential Carneros wine. Taste tests done by UC Davis found that Carneros Pinot Noir constantly offered aromas and flavors of fresh raspberry, berry jam, spice and cherry. In our tasting we also found a hint of orange peel in many of the Pinot’s tasted. Our research may not have been as scientific, but it was a lot more fun than reading a graph.

The production of sparkling wine is not surprisingly an important industry for the region. With Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being the primary grapes used in the Champagne, several wineries began specifically to produce sparkling wine. The French Champagne house, Tattinger, built Domaine Carneros and the predominate Chateaux is one of the first building you see when entering the district from Napa.