The other Napa (Los Carneros, California)

Although still part of the Napa AVA, Los Carneros is a very different beast. It is closer to San Pablo Bay so has more coastal breezes, and the fog is pushed into the Napa Valley from here. So although it is a lot cooler, there are more sunshine hours for a much more even ripening. There are two major varieties here, pinot noir and chardonnay. Countless wineries in the Napa Valley source fruit of these varieties. In fact every chardonnay I tried came from Carneros. The region feeds into the Sonoma Valley, and thus Carneros actually has feet in both Napa and Sonoma County. Hyde de Villaine is a partnership between Larry Hyde who planted his famous vineyard back in 1979 in Carneros, and Aubert de Villaine who married Larry’s first cousin Pamela, and is the winemaker at Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Their goal is to find a truly iconic and unique expression of California, and the winemaker since 2002, Stephane Vivier, is succeeding at this in spades. The winery itself is located in Napa town, but the vineyard is in Carneros. It is difficult not to compare the wines to their French counterparts, but in style they reflect their origins significantly.

HdV Vineyards tasting

Compared to the majority of the chardonnay I have tasted thus far, there is an elegance of fruit in the HdV wines and a minerality that is quite amazing. More than any other chardonnay I have seen these are ones that deserve to be aged. The merlot cabernet blend is hauntingly similar to a great St. Emilion with fantastic acid and tannin structure. The highlight for me was the syrah, treading that very fine line between showing elegant varietal fruit character, and not over-expressing the savoury spice elements. It is one of the most complex syrah wines I have tasted outside of the Rhone, and I’m sure that sounds very unpatriotic but its true. It was really fun wine-geeking out with AJ Fairbanks, Pamela’s nephew and General Manager, and I hope I can catch up with him again at some point.

Yeasts in the Saintsbury winery

Dick Ward and David Graves were Masters of Oenology students together at the University of California Davis Campus, but met in a beer-making course. Together they decided to establish a wine business together, but it wasn’t until the 11th hour they decided to name the winery after their favourite wine critic, a turn-of-the-century Englishman known for his erudite pontificating. Their focus today is on chardonnay, syrah, and the king is pinot noir. They have two estate vineyards they source from, and have growers throughout Carneros and even the Anderson Valley which straddles Sonoma and Mendocino. They have a modest production, but their single vineyard wines are astonishingly good, and amazing value.

Saintsbury Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir 2008

The chardonnays surprised me a lot because they were the first to have a pure citrus fruit expression, whereas most of the others had an element of melon and pineapple in them. Whilst my personal tastes aren’t towards the earthy, smoked meats and grainy qualities of Carneros pinot noir, I can appreciate the quality in the Saintsbury pinot noirs. Once you get into the single vineyard pinots in particular, they have a very silky and supple nature to them. My favourite to be honest was actually the Anderson Valley Cerise Pinot Noir 2009, partly as the others were all 2008 and the ’09 vintage was better for reds, and partly because of the expression of fruit. The Anderson Valley Pinot Noir seemed to have much brighter, lighter and tighter fruit, red cherries and strawberries and a bright fresh acidity to it. The peppery syrah was fantastic, coming from the Sonoma Valley. It was very generous of the guys at Saintsbury to invite me to join the winery team for lunch, and show me around the winery during such a busy period.

Lunch with the Saintsbury 2011 vintage team

As I headed up towards Santa Rosa where I am staying for two nights I stopped in at Benziger Estate in Glen Ellen. Benziger has been in the Sonoma County area for over 30 years, and it is a true family enterprise. For many years Benziger have been at the forefront of biodynamic and organic viticulture, not only in the US but all over the world. The first thing you notice as you come down the driveway are various non-grape plants between rows of vines. This practice is designed to introduce natural fauna that protects the micro-climate (hence the vineyard) from disease and pests, and allows the vines to produce better fruit more consistently, without the use of chemicals and additives. Benziger convinced their contract growers to convert to sustainable green practices, certain that would produce better fruit, and it is hard to argue when you taste the wines. The Bordeaux blends in particular show depth, velvety tannins, complexity and intensity that puts most of the Napa Valley wines to shame, and is about half the price. The 2008 vintage for the Tribute is superlative for the price, a steal at only $80.

Benziger Biodynamic Discovery Trail

Click here to see more photos from Los Carneros.

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