Saintsbury, Carneros  
Visiting California's Napa Valley, part 4


For my next visit I was off to Carneros, the cooler-climate bit of Napa at the south of the valley, where the influence of breezes from the San Francisco bay are more keenly felt. This is where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive, and Saintsbury was my destination.

David Graves (above) was waiting for me when I arrived, and we had a broad-ranging discussion and tasted some nice wines. David and his business partner Dick Ward have been making wine here since 1981, and have established a deservedly good reputation for their wines.


Carneros wasn’t an AVA when they started working here, although the region has made wine since the 1870s. Prohibition and the depression shriveled the region, but then followed a slow renaissance. The Martini family bought the northern part of Carneros and did some of the earliest clonal trial work on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. One of the widespread clones of the pre-clonal era was the Martini clone. This was in the 1940s and 195os. Then the great pioneer Andre Tchelistcheff bought land down here in 1961, recognizing the differences between this spot for Pinot Noir compared with Rutheford where Beaulieu Vineyards were based.


Their vineyard is planted in a lyre system, which works well for Pinot Noir. 'It's like a giant bonsai project', quips David. They've stopped tilling the vineyards because they want to avoid compaction, and they use straw and compost, too. Irrigation is now managed much more carefully using pressure bombs to look at water stress in the vines. The vineyard was previously a dry-farmed Bartlett pear orchard, which David describes as a good way to go broke slowly.


There's a huge solar panel array (above) next to the vineyard that generates 85 kw/h. It cost $991 000, but with subsidies from the state and a complex sale leaseback financial arrangement, it's not that much more expensive than the original electricity costs. And it powers the winery completely. 'I obsess about sustainability as it relates to climate change,' reveals David.


The winery has been added to incrementally, but with a fairly sizeable recent expansion,  and now has a big focus on open top fermenters for Pinot Noir. 2007 is the first vintage made since the winery was expanded, with 12 new open-top fermentors adding to the capacity for making small lots. Current production is around 65 000 cases.


Saintsbury is best known for Pinot Noir, but also makes some fantastic Chardonnay. The Brown Ranch 2006 is particularly impressive, showing restraint, complexity and minerality. Beautifully expressive, this will age well.

The Garnet Pinot Noir 2008 is one of the wine world's great bargains at $20. Made since 1983, it is a selection of the lighter, fresher lots that enter the winery, and shows lovely fruit. The Carneros Pinot Noir is a bit more meaty and dense. All the Pinots here show a family resemblance, but the single vineyard lots also show some site differences. They're rich and fruit-forward, but elegant with it. I found it hard to choose between the Lee Vineyard, Toyon Farm and Stanly Ranch, but they are all superb wines. I was less taken by the outlier: the Anderson Valley (Mendocino) 'Cerise', which is fresher with bright herby cherry fruit, but lacks the smooth elegance of the Carneros wines. Perhaps my favourite wine is the expressive yet powerful Brown Ranch Pinot Noir 2007.

David's theme is that while terroir is important winemakers should have a point of view. 'Any winemaker worth their salt is trying to construct a point of view and present it to the drinker,' he argues. 'Winemaking is an amazingly human enterprise.' I agree with him.


Saintsbury Chardonnay 2007
Deep yellow colour. Lovely intense nose of herbs, figs, pineapple and lemon fruit. The palate is bold and intense with lovely concentration and richness, yet also focus and freshness. Rich but lovely, 92/100

Saintsbury Brown Ranch Chardonnay 2006 Carneros
Taut, focused and mineral on the nose with some fine herbal notes. The palate is elegant with lively, taut, citrus fruit, showing restraint yet also massive potential for development. Not lacking in concentration but with great focus. 93/100

Saintsbury Garnet 2008
This is Saintsbury’s name for a lighter Pinot Noir, and they have been making this wine since 1983. It’s $20 and is 13.5% alcohol. They found that two types of Pinot Noir were emerging in the cellars: the first was lighter, fresher lots with charm but not classically structured, and the second was more classically styled wines. The first of these lots would go to Garnet. When lots come in, what tastes like Garnet goes to Garnet. Beautifully perfumed nose of bright cherries with hints of cloves, spice and ripe raspberries. The palate is simple and expressive with elegant sweet bright cherry fruit. Very pure. 90/100

Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir 2007
$30, 13.5% alcohol. Brooding, pure, rich, spicy, slightly meaty raspberry, plum and dark cherry nose. Smooth and sweet but well defined. The palate has lovely concentration and focus with nice structure sitting under the pure, sweet, rich yet elegant fruit. Nicely savoury, too. 93/100

Saintsbury Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 Carneros
14.5% alcohol. Elegant, smooth, sweet pure nose of cherry and stewed plums. The palate is pure and focused with smooth red fruit character. Taut and precise despite the sweetness of the fruit. Minerally finish. 93/100

Saintsbury Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 Carneros
14.5% alcohol. Opens up after a while to show lovely perfumed, meaty, spicy dark cherry fruit nose. The palate is quite rich with a spicy edge to the pure, sweet fruit and a savoury dimension. Finishes spicy. 93/100

Saintsbury Toyon Farm Pinot Noir 2007 Carneros
14.5% alcohol. Seductive, sweet smooth cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose. The palate is smooth, concentrated and really elegant with lovely focus and depth. A rich style with rounded ripe fruit. 94/100

Saintsbury ‘Cerise’ Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007 Mendocino
Very fresh open, supple cherry and herb nose. Bright and quite aromatic. The palate is focused and fruity with a spicy edge to the juicy berry and cherry fruit. Light and expressive: a lovely wine. 91/100

Saintsbury Brown Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 Carneros
14.5% alcohol. Made from four clones; 3 acres out of the 21 selected for the final blend. Beautifully perfumed nose: dark cherries, raspberries and some warm spiciness. The palate is rich and deep with nice mineral spicy notes under the rich fruit. Very attractive with lovely concentration. Fantastic effort: expressive but powerful. 94/100


Photos from Napa Valley
Part 1, Cain
Part 2, Schramsberg

Part 3, Corison

Part 4, Saintsbury
Part 5, Lagier Meredith
Part 6, Trefethen
Part 7, Trinchero
Part 8, Grgich Hills
Part 9, Cakebread

Wines tasted as 11/09  
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