A new era of Carneros Chardonnay reveals a uniform regional style of elegance
by Alan Goldfarb, Napa Regional Editor
"...the overall quality of the wines, which saw elegance without the overuse of oak, was that if one is tired or turned off to Chardonnay, they need to try these."
~ Alan Goldfarb
Los Carneros: its beginning; recent vintages; and the future
In the beginning
It was most likely the late André Tchelistcheff who, as the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu, first discovered the virtues -- and vagaries -- of growing grapes in the Carneros (or Los Carneros) region of the Napa Valley. The diminutive Tchelistcheff thought that Pinot Noir, then a little planted grape in California, would do well in the windswept region. As the southern-most area of the Napa Valley, whose southern border tipped the shore of nearby San Pablo Bay (north of San Francisco Bay), the White Russian surmised that since Pinot was a cool weather, hard-to-harness, fickle grape, it would thrive here.
Although it took years for Pinot to be understood by Carneros’ winemakers, Tchelistcheff’s empirical knowledge proved to be correct. Others such as Frank Mahoney at Carneros Creek, David Graves at Saintsbury and Michael Richmond at Acacia, soon followed.
As did Chardonnay, due chiefly to the same notion that the grape does best in cool climes. And goodness knows, Carneros is the coolest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Napa as well as Sonoma, the two counties it straddles.
The 2003 and 2004 harvest seasons in the Carneros (the focus of this Discovery tasting) saw a couple of records fall. The rains of April ’03 made it the wettest in Napa Valley history; while the harvest of ’04 was one of the earliest on record.
the unpredictable nature of this growing season began with a series of early heat spikes in March, followed by the aforementioned wet April. A long cool summer allowed the fruit flavors to evolve beautifully ahead of the sugar accumulation. Heat spikes in September helped move the harvest forward after many felt it would be a late year.
The cold, very wet spring delayed vine development, and once bud break occurred, so did more rainfall, causing a greater than normal threat of mildew. Heat in late May spurred vegetative growth that may have interfered with fruit set.
The relatively slow and seemingly late vintage was put into fast forward by the two heat spikes of September 12-13 and 21-22. Yields were anywhere from 10 to 40 percent below average, but quality was excellent.
Bud break occurred earlier than many vintners could remember and the trend carried forward throughout the growing season. Heat spikes occurred in June and at scattered intervals throughout the summer.
Grapes completed veraison (coloring) early and ripeness with well-developed sugars in all varieties was realized early. The cool nights of the Carneros helped preserve the acidity and growers held on as acid balance eventually caught up. A heat spell in late August betrayed the summer's moderate temperatures and quickly changed the pace of the harvest. Relatively light crop loads only quickened the maturation process. Sugars rose, acids dropped, and crews found themselves working into the small hours of the morning to keep pace with optimal ripeness.
In what turned out to be the earliest and shortest harvest on record, grape quality was very good with a crop that was smaller than average. Chardonnay ripens a couple weeks later than Pinot Noir and was more robust when the heat came.
Looking to the future
Throughout the Discovery Panel tasting Michael Richmond, who recently returned to the Carneros after many years to become general manager at Bouchaine Vineyards, kept referring to the “old” and the “new” Carneros.
The “new” Carneros that he witnesses now, is quickly transforming itself in response to other regions, which have come on the scene with Pinot Noir in recent years to eclipse Carneros. In the vineyards and in the cellar new methods which will produce wines of distinction are taking hold. And perhaps regain the foothold that Carneros enjoyed in the 1970s and ‘80s when it was the first region in California to tame the finicky Pinot Noir grape.
He disagrees, therefore, with Jim Laube of the Wine Spectator, whom he considers a friend, who once wrote some biting remarks about the Carneros.
Writing in June of ’01, Laube told his readers to look at “the Russian River and Sonoma Coast for the future,” and “Wineries that pick Carneros instead of the Russian River, bet on the wrong horse. Big advantage: Sonoma. … When it comes to sheer value and getting the most for your money, well then, chalk one up for Sonoma.”
As you can imagine, that still sticks in Richmond’s craw.
“Laube’s comments have reverberated,” he admits. “(But) if there’s an intellectual honesty at all, people’s opinion about Carneros will have to change.”
He beseeches Laube too, to try Carneros again. He admits that many of the techniques utilized in the region “were old” and that clonal material “was old.” He also says that it’s going to take another three to five years before the Carneros gets its groove back.
He concludes regarding Laube, “He was right for the time, but maybe that horse has sired a new colt.”
The Carneros Appellation Discovery tasting took place on a chilly but sunny Thursday, January 19 in the conference room at Bouchaine Vineyards, with myself and Sonoma Regional Editor, Dan Berger, moderating the tasting and recording the observations of the Panels.
The focus of this Discovery tasting was to discern those qualities of taste and style that best define Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In other words, what is the terroir stamp that impacts these signature varietals of Los Carneros?
Sitting on the Discovery Panel were five of the region’s top winemaker’s/growers. To witness the proceedings and findings of the Discovery Panel was a 12 member Confirmation Panel consisting of other top Carneros winemakers, industry professionals, and journalists.
A total of forty-two wines (22 Pinot Noirs and 20 Chardonnays) representing 23 wineries were tasted double-blind in Riedel glassware. This Record of Proceedings will concentrate only on the Chardonnay portion of this tasting, which included two flights of eleven and nine, 2003s and 2004s respectively. (Dan Berger’s report on the results of the Carneros Pinot Noir tasting will follow next