Domaine Carneros is owned by the Taittinger family in France. They are one of the largest producers of sparkling wine in the world, and their faux chateau emits unmistakable grandeur from the side of HWY 12 in Napa County. The Carneros appellation is the only one that includes parts of Sonoma and Napa counties.
Domaine is a perfect place to grow Pinot and Chardonnay grapes – both of which go into making their sparkling wines.
The winery, founded in 1987, has been certified organic for three years now and uses 100% solar power for their Pinot facility. They have panels in the main building, too, but require additional power. Of the nearly 80,000 cases of wine they produce annually, only 8,000 cases are of still (non-sparkling) wine. That tells you something about how successful their sparkle is — not the other way around. The still wines, at Domaine Carneros, are supplementary. But that’s not to say they’re superfluous.
The Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir is 100% estate grown and aged in French oak barrels. I found it to be surprisingly complex, with an afternote of spice and thick, plump berries. They also make a wine called Famous Gate Pinot which is named after the rustic doorway to their estate — perhaps foisted from the motherland. The Famous Gate is more distinguished. I would even say it was mellow, with less spice or bite. The first produced in me an inspiring series of food-thoughts; the Gate made me want to sit down and drink more Pinot.
As for the sparklings, the majority of Domaine’s production is Brut – which means dry. Our guide was able to explain what has eluded me for years. “Why does brut stand for dry, and dry sweet?” It has always seemed backwards – is backwards! Of course the French were producing the champagne, but the English were the biggest consumers. And the French didn’t very much like the Brits, who liked their champagne sweet. So the French called them Bruts, and that came to stand for their preferred champagne. It’s not hard to remember the British have a penchant for sweet drinks. Now all you have to do is remember they’re brutes. That may be easier or harder for you, I don’t know.
The Brut is vintage (meaning all the grapes used to make the wine were produced in the same year), and each season is aged for three years in-bottle. The winemaker of Domaine Carneros is Eileen Crate, who also happens to be CEO. She has been winemaker there for 23 years now — a fact which certainly helps explain the winery’s success. The product is consistent, year-in and year-out. She’s been churning out quality sparkling wines for a long time now. Unlike places with higher turnover rates, she does not need to make her mark by changing the game. Because of this, you know what you’re going to get at Domaine Carneros.
La Reve, DC’s premium sparkling, is aged five years. All of their wines use Taittinger yeast, which give them that distinct Taittinger flavor: full-bodied, creamy and effervescent at the same time. La Reve has a hint of creme brulee to it, and was far and away the finest I had there. You pay for it though: retail price is $85, compared to only $26 for the Brut and $36 for the Rose — a refreshing combination that is only aged for 24 months. Traditionally a Rose is my least favorite, as it seems sweeter than the others (although it does not have more sugar), but I found Domaine’s version surprising. Both La Reve and the Rose are sold exclusively at the winery. I also tried a Demi-Sec, which has twice the sugar of the Brut and Rose, and have to confess it would make a very good dessert wine. I was not put-off, as I usually am with such sweetness.
The facility was very nice. The terrace is almost monstrously large and wraps around half the building. On one side is yet another patio exclusively for members of the Chateau Society, the lots of discounts lots of fun wine club. No matter where you’re sitting, though, the view is pretty incredible. Across the street you can see relics from the di Rosa preserve, one of the largest collections of modern art this side of the country – and all of the artists come from the Bay Area. This is definitely something I wish I’d had time for. Next time!
Domaine Carneros hosts an ongoing Sparkling Brunch every Sunday at The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn from 9AM-1PM at the price of $35/person. This features the Brut Sparkling Wine and a selection of innovative California cuisine. The winery is open daily for tours at 11, 1, and 3, and the tasting room / retail sales are available daily from 10AM-6PM (last pour at 5:45).
1240 Duhig Road
Napa, CA 94559