Carmel Valley, we’re told, boasts a climate, soils and consequently grape varieties in common with Bordeaux. It is also a tourist hot-spot – an attractive forested nook topped by vineyards. SUSAN KEEVIL reveals a few of the many reasons to visit this part of California and finds out why the wines are as illustrious as the location

Decanter Magazine, March 1998

  • At Bernardus, Blackburn makes wines to music: the winery’s 26 speakers blare out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
  • The tops of Carmel’s hills have been grazed away by Belted Galloway cattle to give a landscape in tremendous contrast to the lush coast and valley.
  • The soil and climate are so similar to the much hallowed terroir of Bordeaux, that, for many growers, only classic grape varieties will do.
  • There are comparisons to be made with the Loire Valley – specifically Vouvray.
  • What would it take for Carmel’s wine not to be outshone by a local history charted in the novels of Steinbeck? Or media prose surrounding a glitzy Hollywood/Wild West patronage by Clint Eastwood? The answer could involve ‘synaesthesia’ – the stimulation of one sense by another. A method Don Blackburn, winemaker at Bernardus Winery, uses when he’s creating and describing his wines, by way of that other creative pathway: music.

    At Bernardus, high up in the hills above coastal Carmel and the neat settlement of Carmel Valley, 20 miles inland, Blackburn makes wines to tunes more time-evolved than local literature or film: for his Sauvignon Blanc, the winery’s 26 speakers blare out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to accompany the cold fermentation – inspiring the cellar workers to do all that will bring out the crispness of its grass, gooseberry and green apple flavours. For the Chardonnay, Haydn’s 60th Symphony plays to encourage bolder, sappier tones and barrel flavours, and – as might be expected – Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is played to inspire the tempo of the Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps enhancing big black cherries and brambles on the palate.

    And whether one agrees or disagrees with the choice of music for each grape, the concept is certainly interesting, too, for dispensing with the chore of finding appropriate (and Davis-approved) adjectives. ‘Words are a pitiful representation of an idea,’ says Blackburn. His method of describing wine by means of melody works, it is true. But, wine being as complex as it is, one’s reserves of symphony numbers are equally as prone to escape the memory as words.

    Blackburn is keen to test the boundaries with his wines. They are primarily based on the classic Bordeaux varieties which are the centrepiece of owner Ben Pon’s dream for the property. Bernardus Winery, 5 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel: +1 408 659 1900, Fax: +1 408 659 1676).

    Wineries in Carmel Valley are scattered: Château Julien sits prettily on the valley floor, pertaining to Frenchness and certainly achieving the elegance of the synonymous French appellation. Yet its talents may be spread too thinly, with northern Italian, Alsace and Mediterranean French wine styles among its porfolio too. Château Julien, 8940 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel/Fax: +1 408 624 2600).

    Explorers may prefer to head up into the hills, through rugged canyons and manzanita woods – full (apparently) of lurking skunks, racoons, deer, wild boar and mountain lions – until they reach… the tree line? The tops of Carmel’s hills, the Santa Lucia highlands, 300–500 metres above sea level, have been grazed away by Belted Galloway cattle to give a landscape in tremendous contrast to the lush coast and valley – you could almost be in the Adelaide Hills or Barossa Valley, Australia. Special nooks are given over to vines, whose roots dig deep to reach ‘hidden’ water reserves. Indeed, these plots are so special, their soil and climate so similar to the much hallowed terroir of Bordeaux, that, for many growers, only classic grape varieties will do. Durney Vineyards is no exception.

    That Durney excels at Cabernet Sauvignon is well documented, not only here in Decanter but globally – owner Gilbert Heller proudly tells of its recent acknowledgement among the top 100 wines of California. The 1992 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is inky black with the narrowest of raspberry pink edges betraying retained youth. There’s cedarwood and spice on the nose, and on the palate the fruit is soft, berryish and smooth, with plenty of extract and lingering length.

    What is surprising is that there are also comparisons to be made with the Loire Valley – specifically Vouvray. Chenin Blanc is set to be another of Durney’s specialities. The 1994 is one to watch for. On the nose it is crisp and grapefruity; on the palate there are pears and honeyed apricots, tinglingly crisp and balanced with an off-dry sweetness and terrific length. More than a match for spicy food or even hard cheese or desserts. Durney Vineyards, Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel: +1 408 625 8466; Fax: +1 408 624 8529).

    Other vineyards to visit in Carmel Valley include: Galante Vineyards, 18181 Cachagua Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel: +1 408 659 2649); Joullian Vineyards, 20300 Cachagua Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel: +1 408 659 2800); River Ranch Vineyards 19E Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley, (Tel: +1 408 659 1525); and Ventana Vineyards, 2999 Monterey-Salinas Highway, Monterey, (Tel: +1 408 372 7415).

    Visits complete, and well stocked up with bottle purchases, you are ideally situated to do as William Randolf Hearst may have done after an excursion in pursuit of treasure: take a drive down the dramatic coastal highway, Big Sur….

    Written by SUSAN KEEVIL