Carneros, California's Great White Hope
The only American Viticultural Area (AVA) to straddle both Napa and Sonoma counties, Carneros, established in 1983, is fog-cooled and refreshingly undeveloped, compared to many nearby regions.
While other areas have risen in reputation and favor with tourists for having more to do, many of Carneros’s most famous names haven’t offered much in the way of tastings or tours.
That’s changing. There’s no doubt Carneros can produce enviable Pinot Noir, and, in smaller amounts, Merlot and Syrah. Its true calling card might be Chardonnay, a grape that has been quietly making it famous all along. And two of its most respected vineyard-designated growers are, after decades in the business, building wineries of their own.
Larry Hyde and his sons, Peter and Chris, broke ground in February on a site across from the famed Hyde Vineyards, along Highway 12. It’s taken nearly eight years to get to this point, and the hope is to open by September.
In the meantime, the 200 acres of Hyde Vineyards that have brought such renown to Carneros quietly ripen, with a waiting list of winemakers aching for the grapes.
“A lot of people are interested,” says Chris Hyde. “Especially this year, after 2015 having a shortage, they want to keep up with the strong yields of 2012, 2013 and 2014. A lot of people want to make more wine.”
Chardonnay is most in demand, and the Hydes also claim added interest in their Merlot and Syrah.
The family feels it’s important to work with people they’ve collaborated with from the beginning, like John Kongsgaard, who first starting buying Hyde Chardonnay in the 1980s as winemaker at Newton Vineyard.
Paul Hobbs, David Ramey and James Hall of Patz & Hall are the other major players who have been with the vineyard since the early days. Mark Aubert is also a key figure in Hyde Chardonnay.
Hyde fruit has also been crucial from the beginnings of Hyde de Villaine (HdV), a partnership between Larry Hyde and his cousin’s husband, Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which began in 2000.
It’s this relationship that has proved most interesting viticulturally, as HdV prefers to work with grapes from vines that are 20 years or older.
“They’d like them to be 50 or 100 years old, I think,” says Chris.
Since that’s hard to do, Hyde is slowly replanting blocks of its vineyard with that long-term mentality in mind, as well as maintaining older blocks and preserving clonal material.
Citing observations about older-vine Chardonnay by Tyler Thomas, a former assistant winemaker at HdV, Hyde says that as grapevines age, they do everything more slowly.
“They accumulate sugar more slowly, and you get lower-alcohol, higher-acid wines,” Chris says.
Thomas, now winemaker at Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards in Santa Barbara, has a background in plant physiology. That training motivates him to understand how vines provide such interesting material for making great wine.
“We were consistently able to identify old vines from Hyde Vineyard in blind tastings,” Thomas says. “I could never really pinpoint exactly what was going on. It did seem anomalous in its retention of acidity later into ripening.
“We rarely were waiting for flavor ‘ripeness,’ and typically held off picking simply to allow acids to decline. The importance of that experience with freshness has driven my winemaking ever since.”
Hyde’s oldest block is now 35 years old. Larry suspects it could be one of the oldest Chardonnay blocks in California still on its AXR rootstock. It’s challenged by phylloxera, which may also help to slow down ripening. The clone is G9V5, which Hyde describes as a mixture involving Clone 5 that he got from the Linda Vista Nursery.
Soon after, he received Chardonnay clones from the Wente brothers in Livermore. He describes his Wente Chardonnay grapes as perfumed in lychee and kiwi, and high in acidity. The Calera clone, on the other hand, offers white peach.
Over the years, Hyde has donated handfuls of Chardonnay clones to Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis to be made virus-free and then made available to the public, including one known as the Hyde clone.
This genetic material is what separates Hyde and Hudson Vineyards, another top Chardonnay site in Carneros, from the rest.
“The climate’s not it. The soils are not it,” Larry said at a recent GuildSomm Carneros Chardonnay tasting. “It’s probably the genetic material, and that Lee [Hudson] and I have both worked very hard to find selections of interest and share them with each other and with anybody, really, but to spread more interesting types of Chardonnay selections. I think that’s what separates these two vineyards.”
It’s also the weather.
“We share the coolest temperatures in our region, and furthermore, both Hudson and Hyde are sort of on the gap that leads from the ocean to Carneros in general, which is sort of the extension of the Petaluma Gap,” Larry says. “Every night, the whole region fills with cold air. And this is what we all in Carneros share. What we don’t share are soils and exposition.”
Hudson plans to soon build a winery of his own. He’s farmed Hudson Vineyards, 2,000 acres of rolling hills, since 1981. A horticulturalist, Hudson ended up at UC Davis studying enology and viticulture with renowned winemaking classmates like John Kongsgaard and Randall Grahm.
Ramey 2012 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay; $65, 96 points. This longstanding collaboration between vintner and grower reflects years of mutual understanding and respect. The wine offers pretty orange blossom and lemon verbena aromas that wrap around a composed, well-integrated and mineral-laden body. Voluptuous, the wine is also well balanced, finishing in bright acidity. It’s delicious. Editors’ Choice.
Failla 2013 Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay; $50, 94 points. Well-integrated minerality and a combination of exotic fig and guava make this an inviting wine, supported by floral wafts of orange blossom. Finely made, it has creamy lemon and tangerine layered throughout, finished by a spicy, herbal accent. Editors’ Choice.
Hyde de Villaine 2012 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay; $68, 94 points. In this lively, delicately balanced wine, an exuberance of pear and tangerine plays on the palate, buoyed by focused minerality. With just the right touch of ripeness and richness, it ends with a suggestion of lemon custard. Editors’ Choice.
When Hudson bought the former dairy ranch that’s now home to his vineyard and farm, Winery Lake Vineyard and Stanly Ranch were the most established vineyards in the region, and Carneros Creek Winery one of a few wineries in operation. Carneros wasn’t even yet an appellation.
Today, Hudson sells grapes to 35 clients, growing equal amounts of Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah. Cabernet Franc is his fourth-largest planting and he only has six acres of Pinot Noir.
“I think of Carneros as being right on the coast and as we’ve sold grapes to people like Steve Kistler since 1994, we’ve seen that our fruit ripens about the same time as coastal sites,” Hudson says.
In the beginning, Hudson says he could never make enough money selling Pinot Noir, with its fussy yields and relatively low prices. Small Pinot producers eventually went to Russian River Valley or the Central Coast to find the right sites for their wines. Chardonnay was a different story.
“Most calls on the phone were about Chardonnay, as Napa converted to Cabernet Sauvignon,” Hudson says. “If you wanted Napa Valley Chardonnay, Carneros was the only place, but there weren’t many independent growers, so Chardonnay became an important factor in our vineyard.”
Hudson developed his vineyard slowly. He first planted in 1982 and expanded in numerous stages, 10–15 acres at a time.
“It takes years to understand, the sites and selections,” he says. “My intention was to be a custom farmer at the highest level of intent, and I had a group of friends from Davis who were interested in the same things I was.”
Hudson points to the 1980s as the beginning of a viticultural revolution in California, one that has only gotten more intense.
“We spent 25 man-hours an acre in the 1980s,” he says. “We’re at 220 now.”
In 1960, Hudson says that there were only about 200 acres of Chardonnay in California. In the early 1950s, Louis Martini Jr. took Chardonnay bud wood referred to as Wente clone from Stony Hill in St. Helena to plant at Stanly Lane Vineyard, cleaning up the source material to make it viticulturally sound.
“He changed it from a low-producing, uneconomic vine, to a vine with potential,” Hudson says. “Plus, varietal wines started happening.”
The first thing Hudson planted was clean material from a Wente selection in 1984 that he refers to as Shot Wente, an heirloom or heritage version of Chardonnay known for its small clusters, small berries and high percentage of “shot” or BB-sized berries.
For Hudson, working with winemakers like Helen Turley at Marcassin and Steve Kistler, from Kistler Vineyards, was key.
“[Helen] needed low-yielding, high natural acidity and high concentration Chardonnay,” Hudson says. “I had clients willing to pay for that who were barrel fermenting, [doing] full malolactic fermentation, where you don’t add acid. You have to have low-pH wines. That’s what heritage selection clones do for us.”
He adds that the low-yielding part of the equation also has to do with the soils at Hudson.
Twelve to 15 clients a year get Hudson Chardonnay, with many more hoping for a chance to be on that list. Hudson thinks his Chardonnay might be slightly more minerally than Hyde’s, which is more floral.
Patz & Hall 2013 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay; $60, 94 points. The producer has been working with this vineyard since 1990. This vintage, like so many others, is a stunner, lovely and inviting, crisp and well crafted with a zip of minerality. Floral honeysuckle and beeswax rise on the nose, opening the way for tastes of mandarin orange, ginger and toffee. Drink now, or if you can possibly contain yourself, through 2023. Cellar Selection.
Venge 2013 Maldonado Vineyard Dijon Clones Chardonnay; $39, 94 points. Layered and medium in weight, this is a well-crafted, concentrated wine from an exceptional vineyard site in the cool, southeastern reaches of Napa Valley. The rich pineapple and coconut is tempered by crisp acidity, finishing in caramel-accented oak. Editors’ Choice.
Artesa 2014 Estate Reserve Chardonnay; $35, 93 points. The estate-grown grapes for this wine come from some of the appellation’s highest-elevation sites, at the base of Mount Veeder. Natural acidity is the star of the show, a nice surprise after a decadent golden honeyed nose and color. Serious texture and complexity give way to a touch of salted caramel and peach.
Across the wider appellation, Chardonnay also thrives at Durell Vineyard, a portion of which has sections planted to Old Wente within the Carneros appellation. At Bouchaine Vineyards, a rebirth is underway with Winemaker Chris Kajani coming on from nearby Saintsbury along with the consulting help of Paul Hobbs. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, French oak will replace some of the American oak in the Bouchaine Estate Chardonnay.
Carneros Hills Winery is a new undertaking by Jackson Family Wines, anchored by the Coteau Blanc Vineyard on a high-elevation, windy and exposed ridge. It’s practically on the banks of San Pablo Bay and contains a dotting of white limestone.
From there, Donum Estate is within view. Despite its focus on Pinot Noir, the winery maintains one small block of Chardonnay, planted to a selection of Old Wente from Winery Lake and Hyde.
The Schug Carneros Estate, on the end of Carneros closer to the city of Sonoma, makes its Schug Carneros Chardonnay from a block planted to G9V5 Wente, like Hyde’s old block. Oscar Renteria, of Renteria Vineyard Management, recently bought Brown Ranch Vineyard, bordered by Hyde, tapping Kirk Venge to make the Renteria Family Wines.
The Sangiacomo family farms more than 1,000 acres of grapes, much of it within Carneros. Its Chardonnay goes to sparkling wine producers like Gloria Ferrer, as well as wineries like Saintsbury and Rombauer. Saintsbury’s Green Acres Chardonnay is a regional classic, sourced from a vineyard planted in 1969 to Old Wente clone on St. George rootstock. It now also includes Hyde selection plantings.
At Artesa’s Carneros Estate Vineyard, the soils are gravelly, rather than shallow clay, and the vines are more than 20 years old. The Poseidon Vineyard, farmed by Tricycle Wine Partners, is also gravelly, locagted at the confluence of Carneros Creek and the Napa River.
“Carneros should be better known for Chardonnay,” Hudson says. “There’s a hell of a lot of good ground here.”
While Chardonnay is the queen of Carneros, there are small amounts of other white varieties grown, from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris to Pinot Blanc and Roussanne.
Cuvaison has an estate plot of Sauvignon Blanc that it uses for several wines, while Clos Pegase’s Mitsuko’s Vineyard is a longstanding vineyard-designate. Ceja Vineyards, Schug Winery and Cakebread Cellars also grow Sauvignon Blanc, while Mia Klein at Selene Wines makes a Hyde Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Musque selection.
At Hudson Vineyard, Albariño is grown for John Kongsgaard. It also goes into Hudson’s own White Study No. 2, a blend of Albariño, Arneis, Verdelho and Ribolla Gialla, all grown on the estate. Hudson also has Viognier, as does Hyde, who sells the grapes to producers like Joseph Phelps and Hyde de Villaine.
Etude Wines has long made a crisp, lovely Pinot Gris. Robert Sinskey Vineyards, its winery based in nearby Stags Leap District, offers Abraxas, a “vin de terroir” blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, grown at its Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard in Carneros. From the same site, it produces a late-harvest Riesling called I.Q. and a Muscat Blanc.
At Truchard Vineyards, Tony Truchard’s cool-climate yet tropical Roussanne has found favor over the years with sommeliers and consumers, who both appreciate its restraint.
Cuvaison 2014 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc; $18, 90 points. Clean, crisp and fermented in stainless steel, this offers everything you’d want in a refreshing quaff.
Truchard 2013 Roussanne; $25, 90 points. This perennial favorite offers succulent fruit, yet finishes clean and slightly spicy.
Uvaggio 2014 Zelo Bianco; $24, 90 points. This blend of 70% Pinot Grigio, 15% Traminer (both grown in Carneros) and 15% Moscato Giallo from Lodi, is lilting and bright, offering lemon, ginger and pear.
No story of Carneros would be complete without acknowledging the sizable contributions of sparkling wine. Not only has it helped identify where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would grow best, but it also established Carneros as a destination, drawing the interests of European producers with a direct link to sparkling wine.
The Ferrer family of Spain, creators of Freixenet, was the first to arrive in Carneros in the early 1980s. They bought two cattle ranches and planted them largely to Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. They have one of the largest holdings of Pinot in the appellation, but also have Chardonnay—335 acres in total. Much of the winery’s clonal material originates from Champagne.
Domaine Carneros began construction of its grand chateau-inspired winery in 1987, one year after Gloria Ferrer officially opened its doors. Champagne house Taittinger is a co-owner, and from the start was devoted to methóde Champenoise sparkling wine, beginning with a 138-acre piece of vineyard around the winery site. Winemaker Eileen Crane has been there from day one, creating an enviable portfolio of sparkling wines. T.J. Evans looks after an increasing range of still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.
Codorniu from Spain was also an early resident of Carneros, making sparkling wine from Pinot and Chardonnay grapes at its Old Sonoma Road winery. It has since transitioned to making still wines under the name Artesa. Both Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros continue to increase the production and quality of their still wines.
For something completely different, try Schug Winery’s Rouge de Noir, a sparkling Pinot Noir made in a saignée method, followed by a second fermentation in bottle. It’s fresh, fruity and a fun apéritif wine.
Gloria Ferrer 2007 Royal Cuvée Brut Late-Disgorged; $40, 93 points. The late disgorging of this wine gives it a complexity of texture and flavor that’s compelling.
Domaine Carneros 2007 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs; $99, 91 points. Made entirely from estate-grown fruit, this has complex layers of pear compote and ginger spice.
Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs; $22, 90 points. Quaffable and likable, this 100% Chardonnay finishes mellow and round.
- 1Is Older Really Better?
- 2“Coastal” Carneros
- 3The Primacy of Chardonnay
- 4Beyond Hyde and Hudson
- 5Carneros’s Other Whites
- 6The Bubbly Side of Carneros