Domaine Carneros is an unmistakable landmark in Napa Valley. Sitting between Napa and Sonoma in Carneros, the magnificent chateau at Domaine Carneros sits on a hill overlooking Highway 12.
While the winery is modeled after the Chateau de la Marquetterie in Epernay and inspired by its French legacy, Domaine Carneros is a pure reflection of the Carneros terroir.
Established in 1987, Claude Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger selected a 138-acre parcel in the heart of Carneros, Napa Valley. From its beginning, Domaine Carneros has been a sparkling wine house and a worthy counterpoint to its French sibling.
In addition, Domaine Carneros is an exclusively Carneros sparkling wine producer. Today, 30 years after the inaugural harvest, Domaine Carneros has 400 acres in Carneros, as well as long-standing relationships with growers in Carneros. Currently 95 percent of the fruit comes from their estate vineyards and by 2020, Domaine Carneros will be exclusively estate fruit.
Domaine Carneros offers a distinct range of styles, including vintage dated Brut Cuvée and Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs. Each of the wines produced by Domaine Carneros take between three and ten years from harvest to release.
Producing Domaine Carneros is a game of patience, and the people behind this are the founding winemaker Eileen Crane and winemaker Zak Miller who oversees the day-to-day operations of sparkling winemaking. I met Miller when he visited Los Angeles and we enjoyed a few of the Domaine Carneros wines over dinner.
Zak Miller joined Domaine Carneros in 2008. Originally from the East Coast, Miller studied forestry in college in Virginia, where he met his wife, also a winemaker. He moved out West and worked his first harvest at Saintsbury Vineyards in Napa Valley where he developed a fascination for Pinot Noir.
Miller then traveled to Marlborough, New Zealand and Chile where he continued to hone his craft. But joining the Domaine Carneros team opened up a new world to him. While he thought he would continue to work with Pinot Noir under TJ Evans, who makes the Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir, Eileen Crane set him on the path to making sparkling wine.
Learning to make sparkling wine, Miller developed an appreciation for the versatility of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, making sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros also shifted Miller’s perception of Chardonnay, a grape to which he had not previously gravitated. But today, he appreciates the versatility of Chardonnay, which provides the base for its finest expression, Blanc de Blancs. This is also now Miller’s personal favorite wine, and it is easy understand why.
Domaine Carneros’ tête de cuvée, Le Rêve, is a Blanc de Blancs. French for “the dream,” Le Rêve is made from 100 percent estate grown Chardonnay. Aged for a minimum of five and a half years on the lees, Le Rêve is a wine that can be aged.
I had the opportunity to enjoy both the 2011 Le Rêve, and the 2012 Le Rêve. 2011 was a lean and restrained year whereas 2012 was a big harvest but lacked even-ripening. The 2011 Le Rêve has aromas of green apple, pear, pineapple and lemon zest. On the palate, the wine has chalky notes and the acidity is bright. The 2012 Le Rêve has aromas of apple, pear and lemon with a touch of brioche. On the palate, the wine is creamier with fresh acidity.
Le Rêve is frequently named America’s Best Sparkling Wine and, if you know bubbles, this is a wine to seek out. At $115 per bottle, Le Rêve may be saved for special occasions.
But for less than $40, there are two Domaine Carneros Wines that can be enjoyed on any day. The Domaine Carneros 2015 Brut Cuvée is a blend of 51 percent Chardonnay, 47 percent Pinot Noir and 2 percent Pinot Gris.
The wine, which adheres to French law, is aged for three years to enhance its complexity. The wine has aromas of lemon curd and honeycomb and is round and creamy on the palate with hints of lemon meringue.
The Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour is a blend of 59 percent Pinot Noir and 41 percent Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir macerates on the skins for a few days for color and the juice is then drained off and fermented. The result is gentle aromatics of rose petal, raspberry and tangerine. The wine is delicate and fresh on the palate with a smooth finish.
From Le Rêve to Brut Cuvée, Domaine Carneros honors its French foundation but is a true expression of its Carneros roots.