Regional Overview: Carneros
Every appellation has its own story to tell and a unique rationale for existence. But Carneros, with its rolling hills and mineral-laden soils, may very well be one of California’s most distinctive AVAs. The fact that Carneros includes portions of both Napa County and Sonoma County is unusual enough, but it’s the often chilly, always foggy climate – and long growing season – that truly sets it apart from other Golden State terroirs.
When trying to unlock the key to the cool, consistent growing environment of Carneros, which is the principle catalyst for the finesse and elegance found in its wines, look no further than the AVA’s unique geographic location. The San Pablo Bay borders the region to the south and produces the chilling fog and brisk weather that brings out the brightness and freshness that sets these wines apart. Those of us who cut our teeth on Old World wines – particularly Chardonnays and Pinots from Burgundy – know that the best wines walk a tightrope of vinous pleasure, bridging the depth and richness of the New World with the delicacy and vibrancy of the Old World.
Carneros manages this juggling act with greater ease than almost any other California appellation. Partly because of its unusually cool climate, Carneros boasts some of the best Pinot and Chardonnay in California, many of which are acclaimed as ‘Burgundian’ in style. Its reputation as one of the great American wine regions was largely built on the success of its Burgundy-style wines.
But the fun doesn’t end there. The thin sandy soil filled with fossilized marine deposits and an abundance of minerals has proven to be equally adept in bringing out the best of other cool-climate varietals. Fine nuances of white pepper and bacon fat spring to life from the best low-yielding Syrah plantings, mimicking the elegance of Northern Rhone reds. Spanish varietals like Albarino and Tempranillo have also found a home here as well, shedding that sun-soaked sweetness and over-ripeness found in so many other regions in favor of a more precise, elegant, food-friendly style. And while the Cal-Ital movement is largely based on the flavors and grapes of Tuscany, varietals like Nebbiolo and Dolcetto from the cooler Piedmont region are gaining acreage in Carneros with every new vintage as recent results continue to impress.
- Los Carneros is Spanish for ‘the rams’, an homage to the region’s agricultural history
- AVA established in 1983, the first to be based on climatic and geographic features
- First vineyards were planted in the 1830s, first post Prohibition winery was built in 1935
- First substantial growth began in the 1970s with a suggestion from master winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff that Pinot Noir would do well in the cool climate. At this time, roughly 200 acres were planted to vine
- Total AVA size is roughly 39,000 acres with 8,000 acres planted to vine today
- Over 175 different producers make wine from the region’s grapes
- There are 25 different varietals planted in Carneros, although Chardonnay and Pinot Noir make up the majority