Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Quick Guide to Carneros

Region: Carneros
Resume: From pasture land to Pinot paradise, the lolling hills of this former sheep grazing region that spreads into the southern halves of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys is considered to be a dream locale for cooler, marine-air loving grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
What’s in a Name: Carneros, or Los Carneros, translates in Spanish as “the sheep.”
Totally PC: Declared an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983, Carneros holds the honor of being the first region to obtain its AVA-status based on climate rather than political boundaries. It’s parent AVA is ‘North Coast.’

While the first Carneros vineyards were planted in the 1830s and the first winery in the 1870s, Carneros truly began building its modern day reputation for producing some of California’s most elegant and balanced Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines in the 1960s and 70s. Early viticulturalists recognized the untapped potential in its gently sloping wind and fog-stroked hills. In 1972, about 200 acres had been planted to vineyard. By 1992, that figure jumped to just over 6,000 acres, and today that number exceeds 8,000.

The key to Carneros’ success is its proximity to the San Pablo Bay on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay, which funnels cool Pacific coast air into the region. While vineyards here bask in plenty of sunlight, the constant wave of cool air keeps vines from becoming over-baked. Instead, the ripening season is slow and steady, and, when thoughtfully farmed, the resulting fruit possesses remarkably balanced acid, tannin and sugars.

Elegance is the name of the game in Carneros, and producers worth their salt, like Donum Estate, Saintsbury and Robert Sinskey (the latter winery is not located in Carneros but most of its fruit is), know just how to draw the most nuance and flavor fruit from Chardonnay and that “enfant terrible” Pinot Noir. And the flavors coming from this region are distinct.

What should a wine drinker expect from a Carneros wine? With Chardonnay, look for a core of citrus, apple and/or pear flavors. Carneros Pinot typically reveals fresh berry, wild cherry, jam and spice notes. As for the marriage of the two grapes known as sparkling wine, expect those same pure fruit tones along with a refreshing streak of minerality.

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