Just north of San Pablo Bay in the sunny state of California the Carneros AVA knits together parts of Sonoma and Napa to cradle an area of winemaking country perfect for crafting some of the state’s (and, indeed, nation’s) most renowned sparkling wines. Here, Domaine Carneros has represented its home region well, blending the best characteristics of French-style bubblies with a California flair that honors both tradition and the local terroir.
Wine Nobility in the New World
The name Taittinger is virtually synonymous with Champagne, and with nearly 300 years of experience to support their lofty position in the world of wine (the Taittinger family’s foothold in wine dates back to 1734), there is little reason to wonder why. Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne and sister Rosé are legendary and live on the wine lists of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. Still, like most visionaries, even multiple generations’ worth of acclaim wasn’t legacy enough for Claude Taittinger, and 1987 an extensive search for a worthy spot of land in the U.S. ended when he partnered with Kobrand Wine and Spirits to purchase a 138-parcel of land in Carneros.
In the first of a series of brilliant decisions, Taittinger personally asked Eileen Crane to join the new venture as CEO and Founding Winemaker. Crane, a veritable powerhouse of ingenuity and talent, had graduated with a master’s degree in nutrition, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, attended the Enology and Viticulture program at UC Davis, and already worked in high profile positions as assistant winemaker at Domaine Chandon and at Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, where she was both the winemaker as well as vice president. It was, in retrospect, the perfect pairing.
Harnessing the Terroir
In a state known for its suntanned population and blazing blue skies, Los Carneros is a bit of an oasis for winemakers looking to create something a bit different, and its Champagne-like microclimate heavily contributed to the area being the first in California to receive AVA status based on its innate characteristics instead of purely political reasoning. Cool breezes roll of the nearby bay, bringing with it the salty smell of the sea and the occasional curtain of fog that protects the crops from the sun’s angry rays, encouraging a kinder, more balanced wine. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive here, making the area ideal for recreating sparkling wines comprised of those varietals.
The vineyard is dedicated to green production techniques, and in 2003 they put in the largest vineyard-based solar collection in the world. Finding organic answers to everyday problems is a priority, and the winery’s team opts to cultivate around pests instead of spraying them into submission. It’s a healthier, more natural approach that thrills consumers and allows the wine’s natural flavors to shine through unmasked while protecting the estate’s workers and the environment in equal measure.
Even the chateau is a tribute to the winery’s surroundings, albeit with a serious nod to the owner’s French roots. Widely considered the most beautiful property in California, the structure was inspired by the Taittinger family’s own residence in Champagne, while the grounds are a breathtaking marriage of terraced landscapes with sculpted hedges and grand staircases and a haphazard sprinkling of merry little wildflowers that reminds visitors exactly where their travels have taken them.
The Wines of Domaine Carneros
Domaine Carneros’s sparkling wines encompass three styles, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, and Brut Rosé, with several special releases and other offerings in the mix. The estate first introduced themselves to the world with a Brut Cuvee that was both bottled and released in 1988. A mere 3,000 case production, these wines were meant to test the public’s reception, and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. By 1991 Crane and company realized that the wines they were creating were consistently at a level worthy of aging, and vintage dating began that same year.
The high-end tête-de-cuvée currently sold as Le Rêve (“The Dream”) began as a 1988 prototype called Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blancs. Made from 100-percent estate-grown Chardonnay, Le Rêve is a sumptuous swirl of lemon cream, baked pear, honeysuckle, and spice-dusted toasted brioche that lingers on the palate with long-lasting lashings of bright acidity and a comforting nutty note.
The winery’s Rosé is the newest addition to the market, and was previously only available at the on-property tasting room until customer demand called for wider availability. The wine’s pretty pink patina belies a seriously delicious offering rife with red and black berries interspersed with apricot and tangerine and a scant but impactful scattering of rose petal.
Though Domaine Carneros dominance in and dedication to sparkling wine is inarguably the heart of the winery, it isn’t the only offering the vineyard has on the market. In 1992 they found themselves with an overabundance of grapes and their portfolio expanded with the addition of a luscious still Pinot Noir. Currently, the estate offers five styles of Pinot: Les Alentours (“The Neighborhood), Avant-Garde, Domaine Carneros Estate, La Terre Promise (“The Promised Land”), and The Famous Gate. Each bottling differs slightly in both intent and flavor profile but all are made with three very specific ideals in mind: to be elegant, layered, and seductive.
Some years find Domaine Carneros branching out even further with limited production of an Avant-Garde Rosé and a single-vineyard Chardonnay, both as well-received as the vineyard’s other offerings, but the heart of Domaine Carneros is, and most likely always will be, the methóde champenoise sparkling wines that epitomizes their brand.
1240 Duhig Rd., Napa, CA 94559