Continuing our recap of our California trip, we’re now taking a look at the Sonoma County wine country. Sonoma County, the largest producer of Northern California’s Wine Country, stretches from the Pacific Coast in the west to the Mayacamas Mountains in the east. The region is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 400 wineries. Within the borders are 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations) – each with its own distinctive characteristics. The warmth of Sonoma Valley cradles rich Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, while the cool, crisp Carneros gives way to juicy Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines. The Russian River has created a vast valley floor in both the Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley AVAs. Maritime breezes and fog are dominant influences for grape growing with cool-requiring varieties such as Pinot Noir to the south and west, and warm-requiring varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to the north and east. With the sprawling nature of the Sonoma region, it is more challenging to visit numerous wineries per day. Knowing what type of wine you enjoy will assist in selecting the most suitable sub-division of Sonoma to visit. We were able to dedicate a day to the area. A few of our favorites (from this trip and a previous) are Alexander Valley Vineyards, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery, and BR Cohn. A few others that straddle the Napa / Sonoma line include Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros, and Pride Mountain Vineyard.
Location: Southwest canoe-shaped stretch of the Russian River from Cloverdale to Healdsburg Characteristics of the wine: Heavily graveled benchlands to the north, create Cabernet Sauvignon that is innately soft, fluid and welcoming that it rarely requires the softening admixture of Merlot. The lowlands produce Chardonnays that are a flavorful ripeness with rich, long textures. The warmer northern end of the valley favors Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and newcomers like the French Syrah and Italian Sangiovese. Vineyards that scale the hillsides surrounding the valley floor provide rich and complex flavors.
Location: Roughly defined by the Matanzas Creek watershed, three mountains uniquely define the valley: Taylor to the west, Bennett to the east and Sonoma to the south. Characteristics of the wine: The wines produced from the grapes grown in Bennett Valley benefit from extended hang time, thus ensuring the grapes will reach optimal maturity. The long growing season helps maximize flavors, increase concentration and soften green astringent tannins enabling wines to be made which reflect the essence of each individual varietal. A gap in the mountains permits cool coastal fog and wind to pour into Bennett Valley on a regular basis throughout the growing season. This consistent marine influence creates ideal growing conditions for cool weather varieties most notably Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Carneros – Sonoma
Location: Northernmost edge of San Francisco Bay (here called San Pablo Bay) Characteristics of the wine: One of the coolest regions in Sonoma County, the Carneros is prime Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, varieties used both for crisp sparkling wines and for clean, table wines. Pinot Noirs, which clearly demonstrate their Carneros breeding, often show a jammy strawberry character, while Carneros Chardonnays possess delicate floral, white peach and white grapefruit qualities that are subtle and alluring. A third variety has recently been included, Merlot. The area is just warm enough to mature Merlot fruit, producing wines of cassis and black currant fruit and a softness in the mouth.
Location: On the north side of Windsor, extending along a short stretch of the Russian River Characteristics of the wine: Blanched volcanic ash hillsides that offer excellent drainage and sunny exposures. This area creates mineral-filled, tangy fresh-grass Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays of power and substance, and the black currant Cabernet Sauvignon.
Dry Creek Valley
Location: Directly north of the Russian River area Characteristics of the wine: Warm days tempered by morning fogs from the Pacific create varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The severe, stone-strewn soils are ideal for concentrating fruit and flavor characters, and the resulting wines are rock solid.
Fort Ross – Seaview
Location: Western part of Sonoma County and lies close to the Pacific Ocean, approximately 65 miles north-northwest of San Francisco Characteristics of the wine: The most common varietals in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Other varietal are Pinotage, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, Syrah, and small acreage of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Location: On the edge of Sebastopol Characteristics of the wine: Climate is cool enough to bring out the most fully matured fruit flavors that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can produce. Pinot Noirs are velvet-textured and supple with spicy black cherry, and local Chardonnays are crisp and creamy, with nutty spices.
Location: Thousands of years ago, the Russian River traversed Alexander Valley, continued through Knights and Napa Valleys, finally emptying into the sea somewhere near present day Monterey. An ancient eruption of Mt. St. Helena–which continues to have a profound influence on Knights Valley’s vinous sense of place–pushed the course of the Russian River west at Healdsburg, altering the landscape. Protected from direct Pacific influence, Knights Valley is the warmest of the county’s Viticultural Areas. Characteristics of the wine: Sauvignon Blanc in its ripest exposition, showing full fig and melon fruit. The Bordeaux Meritage varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot – are richly-fruited, with plenty of cassis and tobacco, with cedary hints and the rich chocolate notes of perfectly mature warm climate grapes.
Location: In the northwestern most corner of Sonoma County, on stark, hardscrabble ridgelines overlooking manmade Lake Sonoma Characteristics of the wine: Intense, highly defined red wines grown between rugged rock outcroppings. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon evolve dramatically from the spare, demanding soils that are over 800 feet above sea level. Thus, though cooled by coastal breezes, it remains above the evening fog layer; the extra sun exposure ripens red grape varieties to perfection.
Russian River Valley
Location: Middle of Sonoma County, directly below Dry Creek Characteristics of the wine: Chardonnays are more lean than those of Alexander Valley, but still fruit developed enough to sustain months in oak barrels for depth and complexity. This region is where Pinot Noir shines. Where most red wines focus on flavor, Pinot Noir is about texture, that sensual, succulent, juicy, fleshy, slides-down-your-throat mouth feel.
Location: Located closest to the Pacific with vineyards that rise up above the fogline on slopes. Characteristics of the wine: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are unique since the varietal is planted in a region where the end of the growing season coincides with their fullest flavor maturity. Chardonnays are loaded with fresh dairy cream and toasted hazelnut character. Pinot Noirs are sulky and silken with black cherry fruit and sandalwood spice.
Location: Rises above Sonoma Valley to the east and the Santa Rosa Plain to the west Characteristics of the wine: Morning fog line Sonoma Mountain creates powerful, yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignons. The region’s primarily eastern exposure allows full morning sunlight to promote a long, even ripening season, without pushing the process along too quickly. Well-drained soils and steep slopes allow smaller berries to focus on clear, intensely singular fruit flavors, from black currant to cassis, with notes of blackberry and violets that only add to the wines’ inherent complexity. Due to the wide variety of slope and exposure, other varieties are grown as well. They include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and some highly distinctive Zinfandels, whose uneven ripening patterns provide character.
Location: Southeastern part of Sonoma County, directly above Sonoma Mountain Characteristics of the wine: In the coolest locations, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown for both table and crisp sparkling wines. Up valley, sweet apple Chardonnay continues to hold sway, while currant-laden Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wave the flag for red wines. Higher up, near the ridgelines, Zinfandel comes into its own as a wine of peppered spiciness and zingy, raspberry fruitiness.