It’s Time for Wine: Sonoma Valley Appellations

By Monty and Sara Preiser

Most oenophiles are aware of the Russian River, Chalk Hill and Carneros districts of Sonoma, but few others. As Sonoma county winemakers continue to refine their decisions as to what varieties grow best in what locations, the designation of the wine’s appellation will become more and more important.

In Sonoma County, as in other wine producing areas of this country, there are grape growing/producing regions that each possess characteristics approved as unique by the government, and, thus, are granted status as an American Viticultural Area (commonly referred to as “AVA” or “Appellation”). While memorizing these AVAs is not necessary, it will enhance your understanding and fun to have at least a general working knowledge of each one, and what you can expect from a wine that bears an Appellation name on its label.

Modern oenology allows the luxury of matching grape varieties with the locations that are best suited to grow them. Individual regions feature distinct meso or microclimates (functions of wind, rain, temperature, and time-in-the-sun) as well as terrain – hill, valley, foothills, type of soil, etc. When all of these factors, which obviously affect the grapes, are put together, they can be said to create a specific “terroir,” or, for lack of a better definition, “sense of place.”

Why is it important to know a wine’s AVA? For many reasons, most of which have to do with predicting how a wine should taste or be paired, before you actually taste or purchase it. Being cognizant of what an AVA brings to the bottle can help you select a wine to go with a particular dish, or decide whether a price is fair. For example, the Russian River AVA is well known for producing cooler climate varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you saw a Zinfandel with a Russian River Appellation, you might have some doubts about ordering it before having the opportunity somewhere to taste it.

But the good thing about drinking wine is that once a bottle is opened and you actually taste the wine yourself, all bets are off. You can then make the call as to whether you like it and what foods you want to accompany it. If you are satisfied, that is all that matters. Let’s discuss the various Appellations below.

Sonoma County

Placing this first since all the other thirteen smaller appellations are a part of it, a winery might use this appellation if a bottle of its wine contained grapes from more than two viticultural areas other than those in the Northern Sonoma (see below) region. If it sounds like “Sonoma County” is a catch-all, it is. There is no unifying description of its characteristics.

Alexander Valley

Located in the northern part of the county, Alexander Valley includes both the flatlands and the hills to the east and west (22 miles long and from 2 to 7 miles wide). The diverse micro-climates support the growing of a number of grape types, though Cabernet Sauvignnon is the star.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, some Chardonnay.

Bennett Valley

This is a small AVA, but rising in stature all the time. It benefits tremendously by being bordered by three mountains which permit the cool early fog and winds to blow from the Pacific down the gap which is Bennett Valley. The extra hang time needed to obtain ripeness allows for very balanced wines.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel.

Carneros (formally “Los Carneros”)

Don’t be confused as this Appellation is partly in Napa as well (one of only 2 places in the U.S. of which we are aware where an Appellation crosses county lines). As Carneros is just off the San Pablo Bay in the county’s southernmost area, it is quite cool.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and recently some excellent Merlot.

Chalk Hill

This name comes from the soil of white, chalky, volcanic ash found in the mountains (actually there is no chalk – it is a mixture of quartzite, sand, and loam). The region, north of Santa Rosa, experiences plenty of sun and heat from a thermal belt that influences the temperatures.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc.

Dry Creek Valley

Named for Dry Creek, a tributary to the Russian River and irrigated by Lake Sonoma, this region is about 16 miles long and 2 miles wide and experiences warm late mornings and afternoons following morning fog from the Pacific. Wines are grown on the valley floor and hillsides above.

Best Varietals: Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, some Chardonnay.

Fort Ross – Seaview

The county’s newest appellation, approved by the TTB in late 2011, its 27,500 acres were carved out of the 480,000 acre Sonoma Coast, the latter of which actually extends somewhat inland. Truly located on the shoreline, this AVA was granted its distinct status because much of it is mountainous and thus above the fog line that often affects the rest of the older, larger appellation.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Green Valley (formally Green Valley of Russian River)

This small, beautiful area near Sebastopol is worth exploring on many levels (redwood forests, llama farms), but from a wine standpoint is is significant that it may be the coolest, foggiest region in Sonoma County – even cooler than the rest of the Russian River Valley.

Best Varietals: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Knights Valley

Located next to Napa Valley and protected from the cool Pacific Ocean influences due to its geography, this region is the warmest in all of Sonoma County. Its warm days and cool nights provide the ideal weather for producing Bordeaux grapes of all kinds.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot.

Northern Sonoma

This region encompasses a half dozen other appellations (Chalk Hill and the Alexander, Dry Creek, Green, Knights, and Russian River Valleys) and was primarily championed by giant Gallo, which wanted a definitive umbrella appellation so it could make an “estate wine” at its winery in Dry Creek using grapes from the other aforementioned areas. Gallo is the only winery using this AVA designation, which is cooled by the Pacific rather than the San Pablo Bay, and has sedimentary rather than volcanic soils.

Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak

This is an interesting new (Fall of 2011) AVA, in that it includes part of northeastern Sonoma County and portions of Mendocino County. Only about 5% of its 4,600 acres are planted with just a bit more under development. The area is relatively fog free, so it has ample sunlight, and is cooler than the Alexander Valley, much of which stretches below.

Best Varietals: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, some Chardonnay.

Rockpile

This appellation’s name is quite descriptive of the hardscrabble soils and actual rocks in and around which the vines here must struggle to grow (survival of the fittest, as they say). Rockpile is also above the fog line, so, while ocean cooled, the evening mist is not a factor and sun is plentiful.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel.

Russian River Valley

Not really including the entire Russian River Valley, this region follows the river from Healdsburg south to Santa Rosa and then west to Occidental. It is remarkable for the fog that rolls down the river banks from the ocean and lasts until late morning, creating the perfect cool climate for world class wines.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, some Syrah.

Sonoma Coast

A huge geographical area abutting the Pacific coast (San Pablo Bay in the south all the way to the Mendocino border) belies the fact that it is sparsely planted. Cooler and wetter than most of Sonoma, the vineyards benefit from being above the fog line, and ultimately achieve great balance due to a long growing season.

Best Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Sonoma Mountain

East of the Sonoma Valley near the town of Glen Ellen, this region allows a number of varietals to be successfully grown because of its diverse micro climates created by mountain crevices and some rolling slopes. Primarily eastern facing and above the fog line, sunshine is abundant.

Best Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel.

Sonoma Valley

Running north/south between the town of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, this is also called “The Valley of the Moon.” The mountains on both sides protect the area from Pacific weather and so the southern part is cooled from the San Pablo Bay while the northern areas can become quite hot.

Best Varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Semillon, Merlot.

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

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