Pinot Noir thrives in the Diverse Conditions of Carneros
Despite the fact that Carneros overlaps both Napa and Sonoma, the region has an identity all its own. This can be seen in every aspect of the terrain which is generally quite flat and less varied than Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Carneros is also decidedly more rustic and less pretentious than its more famous neighbors.
Why Pinot Noir Thrives in Carneros
Summer days are often cooled by fog from the San Pablo Bay. But it is Carneros’ wind that really makes it a world-class Pinot Noir region. These winds can actually shut down the metabolic processes of the vines, retaining all-important acidity. The wind is also critical because it dries out moisture that settles on the vines overnight. This helps protect against mold and mildew.
Pinot Noir is also well-suited to the soils of Carneros, which are generally quite dense and shallow. These soils have medium to low fertility and are comprised of a significant amount of clay. This makes for small root systems and natural vigor management, leading to dense fruit flavors.
The southern part of Carneros is extremely flat, and only a few feet above sea level. This is the coolest part of the region, and generally makes the lightest wines. Undulating hills roll through the northern part of the region, especially on the Napa side. Some of these hills reach an elevation of 400 feet above sea level. Pinot from this part of Carneros, including the warmer Congress Valley, is quite a bit more extracted and fuller-bodied.
However, climate does not explain everything. A couple decades ago, most Carneros Pinot Noir was light-bodied and known for its dried cherry, dusty cranberry, and herbal flavors. But when phylloxera struck in the 1980s and 1990s, the older Martini clones were largely replaced with Dijon clones. These grapes make distinctly darker wines with more concentrated flavors that are often more a matter of plums, black cherries, and blueberries.
Carneros is in a bit of a transitional phase right now. Although the region’s Pinot Noir is famous the world over, there has been a lot of talk about Merlot or Syrah possibly supplanting the grape. While it is true that some of the warmer microclimates in Carneros are perhaps better suited to Merlot and Syrah, Pinot is still alive and well in the wine region.