WINEGROWING BY THE BAY
Take a scenic tour of Sonoma Valley’s, literally, coolest AVA.
Mark Twain famously called a summer in San Francisco “…the coldest winter I ever spent.” In fact, the phenomenon he was describing has a name. Diurnal Temperature Variation. It describes extreme differences between high and low temperatures that occur within a single day. It also has a place: Los Carneros, the unique American Viticultural Area that defines Sonoma Valley’s southern border. We invite you to travel along as we take you through the geography, along with a sampling of the wines, and winemakers of this fascinating and beautiful region.
SEND IN THE MARINE INFLUENCES
Cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, Los Carneros is a bit of climactic contradiction. But, it’s these unusual weather conditions that made this the first wine region in California to be defined specifically by climatic, rather than political boundaries. Los Carneros gets its cool temperatures from the San Pablo Bay to the south. And it’s those chilly winds, the morning fog, and the warm summer days and cool evenings that makes the region so ideal for winegrowing. But not just any wines. The conditions here are best for two varietals in particular. Los Carneros has become one of the world’s most celebrated regions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
WINES THAT SPARKLE
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and bubbly shine in Los Carneros.
If you’re a fan of fresh fruit flavors and crisp acidity, those are the defining features of Los Carneros wines. For Chardonnay that plays perfectly into the movement towards wines that don’t let the fruit hide behind oak or butter. Cool climate California Pinot Noir was pioneered here, with roots going back to the early 1970’s. Sonoma Valley legends like Walter Schug and the Sangiacomo family learned early on that Pinot preferred to chill. And while earlier Pinot Noir clones produced a lighter style with earthy overtones, new French clones have been introduced that increase the concentration of flavors in Carneros Pinot Noirs. Sparkling wine producers also took notice of the quality of Carneros fruit, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being the primary grapes used in the finest sparkling wines. Today, Gloria Ferrer’s estate vineyards in Carneros produce sparkling wines that rate among the world’s most highly acclaimed.
The team at Auteur explores tiny micro-climates and crafts fine wines from pedigree vineyards.
Kenneth and Laura Juhasz create pure, profound and authentic wines from coastal vineyards throughout California. Their focus on the might and grace of each vineyard creates a unique juxtaposition in their wines. That grace in particular is on full display in their 2014 Green Acres Chardonnay.
“The maritime influence of Carneros is so purely shown in our Chardonnays, you can taste the salt air, the vein of minerality that comes from the close proximity of the bay.”
— Kenneth Juhasz, Winemaker
Green Acres Chardonnay
Sourced from the first Carneros vineyard planted by the Sangiacomo family back in 1969, Green Acres benefits from rocky, well-drained soils and signature afternoon winds. The 2014 Green Acres Chardonnay shows off its broad, rich texture, a natural gift from the Old Wente clone, which contrasts with its minerality and a provoking acidity.
THE DONUM ESTATE
Donum Ranch is a 147-acre property on gently rolling hills in Los Carneros.
The Donum Ranch covers the slopes of three Carneros hills. Nestled amid these hills is a 50-acre vineyard, planted to a diverse collection of Dijon clones and heirloom selections of Pinot Noir. The Carneros Estate Grown Pinot Noir not only comes from the best blocks in the vineyard, the grand cru sites, but also is a selection of the most appealing barrels in each lot.
“The rolling hills in Carneros give us many aspects to play with. For example, the eastern exposure of our estate is cooler, and the Calera clone selection is a fantastic fit. Our Donum selection is a match made in heaven on the western exposure. Overall, the moderating temperatures allow us more hang time to fully ripen the Pinot Noir skins, giving us long, chewy tannins.”
— Anne Moller-Racke, Winemaker
The 2012 Carneros Estate Grown Pinot Noir
The 2012 Estate Pinot is medium ruby to garnet in color, with cherry, Asian spice, red plum, and maybe even candy apple on the nose. The palate shows rich black berry and cherry flavors, along with a unique flavor they call sassafras, for lack of a better descriptor. Full and intense, but with excellent structure, this is showing remarkable complexity now, but will only get better with more time in bottle, as extra layers develop.
Sonoma-Loeb crafts wines that express the elusive character of Burgundian varietals.
Sonoma-Loeb’s earliest roots are in Carneros. In fact, their relationship with the Sangiacomo family, and Sangiacomo Vineyard, goes back to the debut of their 1990 Sonoma-Loeb Private Reserve Chardonnay, a wine sourced from one small block of their famed “Home Ranch.” A quarter century later, Sonoma-Loeb is opening their first tasting room. Located at 27 East Napa Street just off the Sonoma Plaza, it will be the perfect place to experience Sonoma-Loeb wines when it opens on May 14, 2016.
“Our focus is to make some of the finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the world. That’s what brought us to Carneros, and it is still why we use grapes from this incredible region. With its wind and fog, and temperate days, the climate is perfect here. We get these beautiful ripe flavors, with lots of acidity and a low pH, which, for Burgundian varieties, is absolutely ideal.”
— Phillip Corallo-Titus, Winemaker
2014 Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros
The cool, windswept vineyard has an ideal location bordering San Pablo Bay where the grapes slowly mature, developing intense varietal character, while retaining excellent acidity and structure. The wine was fermented in French oak barrels, and aged on its lees for eight months. From its gorgeous nose of guava, lychee, nectarine and lemon custard, to its rich and silky mouthfeel, it is a vibrant and beautifully proportioned wine. On the palate, lively flavors of apricot, Meyer lemon and green apple are underscored by sweet and savory notes of melted butter and fresh baked pie crust, with hints of vanilla and clove.
The wines of Saxon Brown tell the stories of their winemaker’s favorite vineyards.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Jeff Gaffner was drawn to Los Carneros by the wind. A self-confessed “wind geek,” Jeff sees the unique air flow here as the key to Los Carneros’ unique terroir. And he should know. Jeff started picking grapes in Sonoma Valley as a kid in the sixties. But it was his stint in the early eighties, harvesting for Dan Van Staaveren at Chateau St. Jean, that put him on his current path to cool climate master status. For Saxon Brown, Jeff brings his obsession with vineyard specific wines to a range of offerings. But among the most interesting for him is the Chardonnay from Sangiacomo’s Green Acres vineyards.
“Carneros is incredible for its unique wind signatures and wind timing. No matter how hot it gets, Green Acres gets the wind earlier in the day. It gets cooler quicker, and that really helps give us long hang time without elevated sugars for that distinctly Carneros acid profile. But it also helps with skin thickening, which is how we get that big explosion of flavors.”
— Jeff Gaffner, Winemaker
2013 Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Green Acres Vineyard
The grapes for our 2013 Sangiacomo “Green Acres” Chardonnay were harvested in the early morning, and transported immediately to the winery where they were whole-fruit pressed. After two days of cold settling, the juice was racked to small French Burgundy barrels, inoculated with a low rate of Burgundian yeast, and cold barrel fermented at 58-70°F for 100 days. The wine was aged sur lies for an additional 11 months in 50% French oak, undergoing true secondary malolactic fermentation in the spring. The wine was bottle unfiltered and unfined.
In addition to being the full time operations manager for Sangiacomo Family Vineyards Mike Pucci is an avid photographer, who always has a camera close at hand as he makes the rounds of the vineyards. His images offer glimpses into the daily workings of the family business and the natural beauty of the ranch. Special thanks to Mike for providing many of the regional landscape images and the video footage for this article.
You can see more of Mike’s amazing work here.