Much is made of the rivalry between Sonoma County and Napa Valley, but for the most part both wine regions readily share talent, services and grapes. They also share Carneros, an entire viticultural region that’s uniquely split between the two counties.
So is there a distinction in the wines from the Sonoma and the Napa sides when wine tasting in the Carneros Region?
Every year the Sonoma and Napa members of the Carneros Wine Alliance, a nonprofit association of wineries and grapegrowers, get together to reconnect and share vintage notes at their annual Spring Barrel Tasting event. This year’s event, open only to the trade and media, was held in the barrel room at Starmont Vineyards on March 21, 2017.
One of the region’s newer wineries, Starmont is located in the middle of the historic Stanly Ranch, where University of California professor Harold Olmo and winemaker Louis Martini coordinated on winegrape clonal experiments in the 1950s — in some cases using material collected at Sonoma County’s famed Monte Rosso vineyard.
At this recent springtime tasting, most wineries offered barrel samples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the recent vintage.
Wine Tasting in the Carneros Region
Carneros is located at the southern end of both Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, and gained American Viticultural Area (AVA) status in 1983. It’s unique not only for crossing county lines, but because it was the first AVA in California defined largely by geography and climate rather than political boundaries.
Producers on the Sonoma side have the option of printing “Sonoma Valley” on their label, or even “Sonoma Coast,” in cases where those AVAs overlap Carneros. But they choose not to at Anaba Wines, says Michelle Hogan, marketing director at the Sonoma County winery.
Does Carneros carry more cachet? Not necessarily, says Hogan. “I think it’s more because of where it’s grown,” she tells me. “It tastes like Carneros.”
The folks at the Anaba table, who are offering a lean 2014 Chardonnay detailed with light lemon curd and butterscotch notes, don’t feel there’s a big difference between Sonoma and Napa Carneros wines.
Also on the Sonoma side, Donum Estate winemaker Dan Fishman offers an interesting insight: there may be more differences from north and south than east to west. That makes sense because a key factor in the region’s cool climate is proximity to the San Pablo Bay, just to the south.
Donum’s 2016 Chardonnay, made from Wente clone grapes planted in 2013, is bright and zesty, and while it did not go through malolactic fermentation (which softens the wine and often adds a “buttery” character after the main fermentation is done) it does not have the simple tang of Granny Smith apple, like many “unoaked” Chards. These characteristics showed up in other samples of 2016 Carneros Chardonnay throughout the tasting.
Donum Estate’s 2016 Calera clone Pinot Noir displays the signature aromas of spicy potpourri—dried rose petals and berries—that I think of as classic Carneros.
“We’re like Switzerland,” Etude Wines general manager and senior winemaker Jon Priest says of the Carneros bunch. “We don’t take sides.” As the winery is located on the Napa side, they also pour wines at a vintners association tasting there. “They love our Cabernet,” Priest says, “but sometimes we sneak in a Sonoma Pinot Noir!”
Etude’s estate vineyards are tucked into the northwestern corner of Carneros — and that’s in Sonoma County. When they developed Grace Benoist Ranch, according to Priest, no trees were cut to plant vineyards amid the rolling oak woodland, and wildlife access to food and water sources was taken into consideration. Indeed, while I’m lingering by the selection of Etude wines, Donum Estate president Anne Moller-Racke stops by the table to compliment Priest on the environmental sensitivity of their vineyard development.
Although Etude’s clone 113 Pinot Noir, grown in cobbly rock and loam soil, and “heirloom clone” Pinot Noir from an eclectic selection of clones whose sources are a closely held secret, differ from my “classic” notion — and it’s only a notion, after all — of Carneros Pinot, it’s an alluring detour: perfumed with blackberry and vanilla, plush with back cherry fruit that streams over the palate, these wines seem ready to enjoy now.
More yellow-fruited 2016 Chardonnay at the Schug Winery table, where the Block 5 Estate Chardonnay shows a fleshy hint of mango along with lemon and peach. Again, not so much apple, but no malolactic.
It isn’t just the region. “Personally I don’t prefer the buttery style,” says longtime Schug winemaker Mike Cox. While some wineries, not represented at this tasting, do coax a bit of rich, buttery flavor out of Carneros Chardonnay (particularly some in a certain valley, er, east of Sonoma), Cox thinks that very few areas in California can withstand a full malolactic fermentation and still be true to the style that he likes.
Bouchaine Vineyards’ Carla Bosco, who is current chair of the Carneros Wine Alliance, says that getting recognition for Carneros in the shadow of both larger viticultural districts is a struggle that they all share. “It’s a little more challenging,” Bosco says of the road ahead, “But also more exciting.”
Few of these wineries are located on a main road, so it’s easy to overlook this breezy region by the bay. But fans of cool climate, Burgundian varietal wines would do well not to. “The charm of Carneros is discovery,” Bosco says. “Because you have to get off the highway.”
Learn more about the other American Viticultural Areas in Sonoma County.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight