Wait a minute… holy crap, have we really hit 40 virtual tasting features since the start of Covid SiP sipping?!? FORTY?!?? My eyesight has taken a serious hit, and I am blaming staring at the computer screens for Zoom samples tastings during this somewhat unprecedented time of non-travel for us media types (and not yet blaming the fact that my eyeballs are almost 50 years old…).
This 40th virtual gathering in less than half as many months was a good one, too, and well worth the eye strain — focusing on a 2019 lineup of Pinot Noir releases from Domaine Carneros, and hosted by winemaker TJ Evans (now in his 25th vintage, having worked with Mondavi, Wente, and La Crema, as well as doing stints in New Zealand, Dry Creek, and Chile before returning to the U.S. in 2008 and taking the job at Domaine Carneros), and CEO Remi Cohen (a well respected industry veteran who recently took over for the venerable Eileen Crane).
The background: Domaine Carneros is famous for being a Taittinger and Kobrand partnership started in the `80s, and producing bubbly that is gobbled up with gusto by the many tourists that visit the Domaine’s expansive, gorgeously manicured property every year (except, well, for most of the last year, that is). Eileen Crane (who had already amassed a decade of sparkling wine experience by the `80s) led the building of the winery. Their Pinot program started in 1992 and — quite presciently — they bought up nearby Carneros land whenever they could over the decades, correctly anticipating that this region of Napa Valley farming real estate would become ridiculously expensive in the ensuing years. They now own six estate vineyards, understandably non-contiguous. Regarding their Pinot Noir, they have a somewhat obsessive focus on vine clones: as Evans put it, “clone determines the personality. We had a 15 year plan to have all the wines estate grown by 2025. We achieved it five years early. This ranch is on its third iteration of replants; on each successive replant, we’re able to fine-tune.”
During our tasting, I got the sense that this duo is proud of where their Pinot program now stands — justifiably, by the state of their 2019s…
2019 Domaine Carneros Pinot Clair ($48)
An interesting, delicious, and unique take on “White” Pinot Noir (do NOT call it a rosé!), comprised of 57% Martini clone selection and 43% Pommard, that sees a bit of new French oak. This has a round lusciousness that’s meatier than most whites (and most rosés, for that matter). Lots of lanolin, honeycomb, and red apple action, and a long finish that has lovely hints of toast, citrus pith, and red plum skin. A rosé alternative for the steakhouse crowd (and a damned good one, too).
2019 Domaine Carneros Clonal Series Pommard Pinot Noir ($60)
569 cases of this wine club selection red were produced, using only the free run wine going right to barrel. According to Evans, “my goal here wasn’t to make a wine ‘by the numbers’; we’re building those blends barrel by barrel.” This Pinot is fruity and delicious… it’s voluptuous with red berry and brambly, wild strawberry aromas and flavors, with a lithe, buoyant personality. All served up with this generous, lifted, polished fruit and lovely floral notes. Hints of spice and vanilla bean, along with a touch of smoke, also make appearances. The summary versions: I loved it.
2019 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir ($44)
Assembled from five different estate vineyards, which are all certified by Fish Friendly Farming and located within four miles of the winery, and seeing 10 months of barrel aging. Tea, citrus peel, a slight hint of game, lots of cherry and juicy red fruit notes mark killer nose. On the palate, there’s a nice balance of richness, freshness, and depth. It’s deep with black spices, ripe with sweet fruits, and silky in texture. Perfumed and juicy, juicy, juicy. “It’s a mosaic of our Domaine Carneros terroir,” noted Evans. “This wine is kind of a wine that makes itself.” It’s impossible to put down, really — and an overachiever even at this price.
2019 Domaine Carneros Le Ciel Serein Pinot Noir ($60)
From a single, rolling hillsides vineyard that’s the foundation of the Pinot Noir program” according to Evans. You’d recognize it, actually: it’s that vineyard, the one that now stands where the infamous Windows XP default background image photo was taken. Various clones make up the composition here: 81% Dijon 667, 17% Dijon 777, 2% Pommard UCD-5 (nerd alert!). The fruit is tangier and “bluer” here, with more savory, too. Some subtle smoked meat makes its way in there. It has a darker personality on the palate, while still being polished, and refined with pomegranate and exuberant boysenberry flavors… but it’s still a bit brooding. There’s a sinister streak in there, with a long toasty finish. Dangerously sexy stuff.
2019 Domaine Carneros Dijon 777 Pinot Noir ($60)
Another wine club selection, once again produced free-run, with only 617 cases made. “It’s a clone that I don’t like, but I respect it,” Evans mused. More reserved on the nose, with brambly red fruits and hints of fine leather, this red has a ton of plums, cigar spice, and herbs to offer. The palate is rich and round, and ends with a vibrant rush, a hit of structure, and a grip of leather and power.
2019 Domaine Carneros The Famous Gate Pinot Noir ($92)
From vines planted between 1998 and 1999, from the same source material. In terms of the Clone Wars, Swan wins at (and it’s always the base), complimented by 5% Hanzell, and 18% Dijon 115. As Evans explained, “this wine is the DNA of the Pinot Noir program at Domaine Carneros,” coming from plant material that is a bit over 20 years old. “We really baby these vines. For me, it’s just really, really worth it. I just ‘carry the torch’ for the Famous Gate.” His slight change to the now famous Famous Gate was adding a bit of whole cluster fermentation to give the wine a touch more floral lift. It’s such a young wine… supple, with dried rose petals, potpourri spices, and savory red fruits that are ripe, deep, but fresh. Power and beauty, spice and balance. This is just absolutely fantastic, and brings loud Pinot thunder, followed by a lovely touch of a velvet glove.