Revisiting the wines of Carneros

When you look at the expanse of rolling Carneros countryside covered with grapevines, it’s hard to believe that the area was once thought to be suitable only as pastureland for sheep. Hence the name — “carneros” is Spanish for sheep.

There was good reason: It’s not easy to grow grapes in Carneros, which stretches across the southern ends of Napa and Sonoma counties. The soils are shallow and weak; what little water there is drains off quickly to the sloughs and marshes of San Pablo Bay; and the climate is cold and windy. Nevertheless, the first vineyards were planted there in the 1830s.

Hardy souls who recognized Carneros’ potential have been trying to grow grapes there ever since, despite phylloxera, the root louse that devastated California’s vineyards in the late 1800s, and Prohibition. In the 1930s, Louis M. Martini and famed Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff started buying Carneros grapes because both saw that the area could grow great chardonnay and pinot noir. Martini went on to buy 200 acres in Carneros in 1942; BV purchased 142 acres in the early 1960s.

But it wasn’t until 1972 that Carneros got its first post-Prohibition winery: Carneros Creek. After that, development took off. Carneros became an official American Viticultural Area in 1983. As of 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were about 8,300 acres of vineyards, mostly pinot noir and chardonnay, almost evenly divided.

The region of Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay. (Photo courtesy of Carneros Wine Alliance.)

Despite its long history, Carneros is a viticultural area that’s often overlooked in favor of trendier, newer areas. That’s a shame, because there are some outstanding wines.

Carneros pinot noir has long been a work in progress, but they show steady improvement. Sparkling wine spurred a lot of vineyard development, and many vineyards were planted with high-yielding pinot clones that were fine for moderately priced bubbly but not suitable for high-quality still wines. Vintners got a do-over after phylloxera hit the area again in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, forcing replanting.

It’s hard to generalize about a style of Carneros pinot. Wines range from pretty and bright, with flavors like strawberry and raspberry, to pinots with darker-toned fruit, to more savory examples, with a forest-floor note. The Carneros Wine Alliance held a tasting a couple of months ago where a number of member wineries poured, but it’s a little difficult to make specific recommendations from the tasting. Some wineries poured wines that are no longer available; others poured wines that haven’t been released yet or are available mostly to wine clubs. Still, based on that tasting and some blind tastings I’ve organized at home, I can recommend a few wineries whose bottlings I admire.

The 2013 Starmont Coury Clone Pinot Noir ($55) is quite spicy, with juicy red raspberry and cherry, while the 2013 Starmont Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55) is more supple, with a cola note. The 2014 Truchard Pinot Noir ($35) is a relative bargain and exhibits a more savory style. The 2014 Domaine Carneros “The Famous Gate” Pinot Noir ($80) is a racier wine, with great tension and supple texture. And the 2014 Etude Temblor Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75) and 2014 Anaba Las Brisas Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) both add a slight leafy note.

Others who poured impressive pinots at the tasting, either from a past vintage or one that’s not yet available, included ZD, Cuvaison, Bouchaine and Schug. The latter’s 2014 estate pinot ($45; fall release) is dark and structured, with a hint of forest floor.

The classic style of Carneros chardonnay is all about lemon cream or lemon curd, although I find some of them to be a little hot, with obtrusive alcohol. On the plus side, Hyde Vineyard is the source of some wonderful chardonnay. Grower Larry Hyde’s own brand, Hyde Vineyards, has a 2014 Chardonnay (not yet available) that’s zippy and lemony with hints of creaminess and wet stone. The 2015 Domaine Carneros Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay ($50) is also very racy and shows some toasty oak.

The 2015 Truchard Chardonnay ($30) displays mouth-watering salinity, while the 2015 ZD Reserve Chardonnay ($75) is more tropical. The 2015 Schug Estate Chardonnay ($45, fall release) is snappy, with a stony quality. The 2015 Donum “Year of the Ram” Chardonnay ($60) is a little floral.

In a tasting at home, I enjoyed the chardonnays from Sonoma-Loeb, a brand devoted to pinot and chardonnay that’s owned by Chappellet Vineyard. The wines are zippy and lemony, with some nice richness wrapped around a firm core of acidity. The 2015 Sonoma-Loeb “Envoy” Chardonnay ($38) is particularly good. The 2015 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay ($52) is much more opulent, but it’s also bright and quite floral.

There are, of course, grapes besides pinot noir and chardonnay growing in Carneros. Artesa produces a 2016 Albarino ($28) that’s very fresh, with white peach, golden apple and a touch of fleshiness. And Starmont showed a pair of wines at the tasting that were very interesting: a 2015 Stanly Ranch Viognier ($35) that’s floral but not overly so, with white fruit, nice freshness and a long finish; and a 2014 Stanly Ranch Syrah ($45) that’s a great example of cool-climate syrah, with its smoky and savory nuances.