Carneros (or Los Carneros) is one of the United States' oldest and most celebrated viticultural areas. The area, which covers 90 square miles (230 square km) on the low foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, was first planted with wine grapes in the late 1830s. It was awarded AVA status in 1983, and has maintained an enviable reputation since then.
Situated at the southern tip of the Sonoma Mountains, at the meeting point of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the AVA is divided between America's two most famous wine-producing regions. The western half of the AVA lies in Sonoma County (see Los Carneros), the eastern half in Napa County. In addition to their own Carneros AVA, Carneros vineyards may claim either the Sonoma Valley or Napa Valley appellations depending on which side of the county line they are located.
The Sonoma Mountains sink into the valley floor at the western edge of Sonoma township, depriving Carneros of any shelter from the winds which blow in from the Pacific coast. This, and the afternoon fog from San Pablo Bay (a northern extension of San Francisco Bay), makes the Carneros terroir decidedly cooler than its northern neighbors. Rainfall here is low, however, and only the slow-moving fog provides refreshment on hot summer afternoons.
Thanks to the cool conditions, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive on these plains, free from the sweltering haze and sunburn encountered on the valley floor further north. They encounter strong, drying winds, but with good vineyard management this can be turned into a disease-reducing bonus rather than a viticultural challenge. These two noble varieties (famed as the king and queen of Burgundy's vineyards) enjoy equal favor in Carneros. They share their realm only with a small quantity of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, planted mostly in warmer, more sheltered spots on the Napa side of the AVA.
Carneros' winemakers were quick to realize the potential of their terroir for cooler-climate wine styles. Besides varietal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also make high-quality sparkling wines from the two varieties. In the 1980s, Champagne house Taittinger chose Carneros as the location for its Californian presence (Domaine Carneros), at around the same time as Cava magnates Jose and Gloria Ferrer started their sparkling wine production here.
Although the topography within the AVA limits rises as high as 750ft (230m), very few Carneros vineyards are planted at anywhere near this altitude. Those on the Napa side are generally a little more elevated than those in Sonoma, particularly in the northern section where the land rises up into the Mount Veeder AVA. Lean, free-draining, infertile soils with shallow clay are a feature of Carneros, slowing the growth of the vines and resulting in high-quality fruit with concentrated flavors.
Carnero is the Spanish word for ram, a male sheep. Although there is little documentation around this etymology, the Carneros Wine Alliance holds that the name refers back to the days when the area was home to 'sheepherders, dairy farms, fruit orchards and hayfields'.