A report was released in April 2017, showing that in Californian wineries, business is booming. California wine shipments throughout the U.S. reached an estimated retail value of $34.1 billion in 2016, up 4.6% on last year. This equates to shipping an all-time high of 238 million cases of wine all across the U.S., up 2% from the previous year. So I thought today I’d write a piece on one of the more premium Californian wine regions currently going through a boom to see what all the fuss is about.
Carneros, or Los Carneros (‘the rams’ in Spanish) as it is also known, is located 50km due north of San Francisco city centre and sits in the heart of wine country. Directly to the north-west is the Sonoma wine region, and if you drive 10 minutes east along the Carneros Highway you’ll find yourself at the southern edge of the Napa Valley. Carneros is actually one of the oldest wine regions in California, with vines first being planted here in the 1830s. This was almost definitely not high-quality wine however, as the vines were planted by Franciscan missionaries who needed wine for the sacrament. Carneros at this time was an isolated church outpost, charged with converting the indigenous population to Christianity. This was truly the Wild West- the pioneers were constantly in danger from local Indian tribes (who perhaps didn’t want to be converted!), bears and the threat of attack by Russian soldiers camped along the Sonoma coast at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay (which is now the wine region known as Russian River Valley AVA due to its Russian history!). Click Image for larger version.
The region struggled along as a grape and wine provider as the city of San Francisco grew, with the fertile lands drawing farmers to settle and grow food for the ever-growing local population. As often as not, vines made way for grain and cattle, though at the time whilst California was under Mexican rule, wine for Christian sacrament was a must, so grape vines found a home in the foothills of the Mayacamas Range where the land was too cold and rocky for cattle or wheat. When the revolt against Mexican/Spanish rule occurred in 1846, California would become a part of the USA, and many farmers could see great potential for sales of their produce, however for the Californian wine industry, a dark cloud was on the horizon…
Vine growing was never easy in Carneros; the region receives a lot of morning fog as it floats up from San Francisco Bay, making mornings cold and damp. Mornings in the spring are perfect for frost, which is a constant threat, however these are also the perfect conditions for fungal diseases like downy and powdery mildew which can destroy whole vintages and came to California in the 1860s. Life got harder in the 1880s with the arrival of the Phylloxera louse, which decimated the roots systems on European vines. Just as a cure was found for these issues, Prohibition (1919-1933) decimated the industry once more. After this came WWII. Not a great time to be a winemaker in Carneros. After these challenges, new winemakers sought out the easier plots of land like the Napa Valley, so the cold, wet Carneros region remained relatively unknown. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the larger Napa wineries started to look for other regions to grow grapes that Carneros picked up again. Through the 70s and 80s, vineyards sprung up everywhere in this region as it was recognised that when the right varieties were matched to the sites, some magnificent wines could be produced. In 1983 Carneros was awarded its own American Viticultural Area Designation (AVA), and this is where things really took off.
The big thing that sets the Carneros apart from its surrounding wine regions is not necessarily the varieties it grows, but the style of wine it makes with them. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the king and queen here, as they ripen late enough to dodge the worst of the spring frosts. Whilst the fog shades the vines from the morning sun, they receive a lot of mid-morning sun on the south-east-facing slopes, but none of the harsh afternoon sun. This amount of sunshine is not ideal for the typically fruit-forward American styles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but they are perfect for another style- sparkling wines! The Carneros region is world-famous for its Traditional Method sparkling wines, a style first established when fruit was sourced from here to make Domaine Chandon Napa Valley, the New World brand owned by Champagne brand Moët & Chandon. Over the years this was followed by other Champagne houses; Taittinger established Domaine Carneros and Champagne Mumm set up Mumm Napa, however it wasn’t just the Champenois who decided this was a good place to make bubbly; in 1991 Cordoniu, one of Spain’s largest Cava producers established Artesa.
Many local producers (Etude, Liana and Saintsbury to name a few) have also done well making elegant sparkling wines which are like tasting a blend of the new and old worlds; they have the minerality and acid of a high quality French bubbly, but with the alcohol and fruit power of a new world one. Delicious! The region in the past 15 years has also diversified quite a bit, as the desire for cooler-climate expressions of the classic wine styles have gained popularity. Still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from warmer sites are found more often, providing more elegant and light examples when compared to their neighbours in Sonoma to the north-west, but new plantings Merlot and Syrah producing blue-fruited, mineral, cool-climate wines are becoming more popular as well.
Wine Sales Manager