Whilst in the Napa Valley I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit Domaine Carneros. This is a dramatic and beautiful winery surrounded by vines and perched on a hill overlooking the rolling Carneros countryside.
It was created in 1987 as a partnership between US wine company Kobrand and Champagne Taittinger. Indeed Claude Taittinger had been looking for a suitable site for a Californian sparkling wine vineyard since the 1970s.
They settled in Carneros as they had decided to use traditional Champagne grapes for their sparkling wines and the relatively cool climate there really suits the delicate Pinot Noir and a crisp style of Chardonnay. So cool is the area that traditionally nothing grows here except scrub which was used for sheep grazing – Carneros means ram in Spanish. Carneros is a cool climate wine region that straddles both the Napa Valley and neighbouring Sonoma.
They started with 138 acres and now farm 300 acres of vineyards which allows them to use their own fruit for pretty much all their wines and to farm how they want, which is organically. They have a permanent viticultural staff of 30 who constantly patrol, control and manage the vineyards, they only use natural fertiliser, hold back on water and plant grasses between the rows to prevent soil erosion and to give the vines some competition. All the harvesting is done by hand and the sorting of the grapes is rigorous.
Attention to detail here is key to all they do and they take environmental protection very seriously with 60% of their power coming from solar panels on the roof and with more to come.
In 1992 an experimental lot of 400 cases of red Pinot Noir was made and the results were impressive. So impressive indeed that it led to red wine production becoming a regular part of what the estate does and a separate winery was built just for the Pinot.
I have to mention their building, it is quite amazing – from a distance it looks for all the world like a French Château looking down on the California vineyards – indeed it is modeled on Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie near Epernay. Who knows what archeologists will make of it in 500 years or so? In the mean time I highly recommend a visit to their terrace to taste the wines, it is a wonderfully calm and lovely place to sit.
So, this a premium wine producing domaine that concentrates on making traditional cool climate style wines; sparkling and Pinot Noirs. Temperatures here are much cooler than the rest of the Napa Valley, but as you might imagine they are warmer and more reliable than in Champagne or Burgundy, therefore these wines are much riper and softer than their European counterparts and are in a style all their own.
The sparkling wines: The entire production of Domaine Carneros is vintage wines, there are no reserve wines as the climate is generous and reliable enough to make a vintage every year.
Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage 2005
Very fresh nose with delicate bready/yeasty aromas and nutty hints.
The palate has a very soft, attractive mousse with a creamy texture and an elegant finish.
A very good sparkling wine, much softer than most Champagne, but no less enjoyable for that. – 87 points.
Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Brut 2003
One of their top Cuvées, made in a Blanc de Blancs style – the inspiration for it was Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne – the blend is 98% Chardonnay with 2% Pinot Blanc to give a softness to the palate.
The nose is delicate and enticing with touches of dried peach and hints of raspberry. The palate has almost bracing acidity leading to a long, clean soft, almost creamy, yoghurt-like finish. This is a lovely, complete, elegant and fine wine – 90 points.
Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé N.V.
I know I said that everything was vintage here, and so it is – however for this wine they decided to only age it on the lees for 2 years, that is less than the 3 years that vintage Champagne must have and they have imposed the Champagne ageing regulations upon themselves. So no vintage appears on the label even though it is all from 2005. They stopped the lees ageing as they felt that any longer would bring in too much lees character and detract from the fruit.
This is a pretty and flamboyant rosé made from 67% Pinot Noir, 5 of which is still red wine that spent 2 months in French oak barrels and the rest is Chardonnay.
The nose is soft and seductive with strawberry and redcurrant notes which follow through on to the palate.
A very enjoyable wine, very soft and supple and fruity – hedonistic stuff rather than profound – 86 points.
Again the Champagne ageing regulations are applied here, the fruit is all from the 2006 vintage. They just felt that further yeast autolysis would spoil the brightness of the wine.
There is no blush to the colour, it is white, while the nose is fresh and honeyed with touches of chopped nuts.
The palate is big and charfacterful, toasty and fresh with savoury and brioche notes. The acidity is fresh and zesty with some red fruit richness and a long clean finish.
This was pretty good and was perfect with charcuterie – 88 points.
Domaine Carneros Ultra Brut 2004
The nose offers some honey notes with an underlying austere brioche character.
The palate is gently citrussy and yeasty like the dried lemon peel in a pannetonne. This is fresher and not as yeasty as a similar style champagne, but still has a Champagne-like nervy quality.
This was very good with the lighter dose of sugar suiting the soft base wine very well – 89 points.
The red wines:
The baby of the range made from the youngest vines and aged in the oldest barrels.
Very pale strawberry red, translucent.
The nose is quite simple, but very attractive sweet ripe starwberry with just a little savoury note in the background.
The palate is very soft and smooth with a lovely big flavour. It is light-bodied, but very tasty offering red fruit, the merest hint of oak spice, some refreshing acidity and a smooth, silky texture.
A very pleasurable wine with lovely bright fruit and a good structure – 87 points.
Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir 2006
Very pale colour, a translucent cherry and strawberry red.
The nose is quite savoury with mushroomy, farmy notes and a slight dusting of oak spice.
The palate is very smooth with red cherry flavours and a fleshy ripe texture making it surprisingly concentrated. The tannins are very supple and almost negligible.
This is a good, straightforward Pinot that leans in a French direction, albeit with richer fruit – 86 points.
Domaine Carneros La Terre Promise Pinot Noir 2006
This Pinot is a single vineyard wine.
The wine is quite pale, translucent with a cherry red hue and a brightness to it.
The nose is rich and intense with raspberry, red cherry, wild herbs, mushrooms and toasty oak.
The palate is smooth and supple with sweetly ripe red fruit and a classsic Pinot earthy/savoury character as well as a surprisingly edgy and fragile nature that is reminiscent of Burgundy. The tannins are very soft as the fruit is so much to the fore.
A very good wine indeed, superb with an array of softish cheeses and charcuterie – 91 points.
This is the flagship Pinot from the estate.
A much deeper colour than the previous wines showing black cherry rather than red, but still not opaque.
The nose is much bigger too with oak spice and savoury mushroom as well as rich dark fruits. This is clearly complex and enticing.
The palate is very fleshy, almost fat in texture with juicy rich red fruit, great acid balance keeping it fresh an d a backbone of smooth, ripe tannins. This is mouthfilling and elegant with a lovely tingle of spice on the long finish. A great Pinot Noir – 92 points.
All in all I enjoyed the visit, learnt more about sparkling wine production and lots about the Carneros style of Napa Valley Pinot Noir as well. The wines were all good and some, as I have shown were quite outstanding and wonderfully elegant.
There is no doubt that many Pinot consumers want all Pinot Noir to taste like Burgundy, well that is not going to happen from California and nor should it. These wines came from a cool climate area of Napa and were made in a very French manner using French oak barrels, but even so they are not like Burgundy. They are Carneros Pinot Noir, a style which on this showing combines the delicacy and elegance of good Burgundy with the intense ripe fruit character that only a long sunny growing season can create – I liked them very much indeed.
Many Domaine Carneros are available in the UK, contact Hatch Mansfield Agencies for details.