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North America

Sonoma


  • According to the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, there are nearly 40,000 acres under vine out of more than a million total acres in the County. Approximately 190 wineries and 1,100 individual growers work in the county.

    The wine industry here is more recent than in Napa and most of the wineries are smaller in scale. The most common grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Merlot among the black varieties, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc along with French Colombard and Gewurztraminer for the whites.

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  • Some AVAs group production from several regions. One such area is Northern Sonoma is an umbrella AVA, including Chalk Hill, and the Alexander, Knight's, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys, with parts of Green Valley and Sonoma Coast. This AVA was created mainly as a labeling construct and describes little about the region.


    Alexander Valley
    Sonoma is subdivided into a number of sub appellations. One of the largest is Alexander Valley, located in the north of Sonoma County. This region starts south of Healdsburg and follows the Russian River to Mendocino County. 13,000 acres of vines are planted from a total of 75,000 available acres. Some sites have rich, fertile loam, while others are planted on good benchland sites with good drainage and lower yields.

    Alexander Valley is a long, skinny region; the northern end hotter than the southern end. Geyserville is at the heart of region, with a big reputation for Zinfandel production and white wine is also successful. The wines are soft, generous, and drink well in their youth.


    Knights Valley
    Knights Valley is located to the east of the Alexander Valley and links Sonoma and Napa. It is a fairly warm sub-region and has less maritime influence, but the elevation helps moderate the climate. 1,000 acres are planted in mainly volcanic soils.


    Dry Creek and Rockpile
    On the other side of the Alexander Valley lays Dry Creek Valley. The first vineyards in this region were planted in 1870. It is a fairly narrow valley with 6,000 acres planted out of approximately 80,000 total. Soil types include the particular Dry Creek Conglomerate, a type of gravel compound, over the benchland and sandier soils in the center of the valley. For climate, Dry Creek is fairly warm and dry, since it is protected from maritime influence by coastal mountains, and is warmer in the north than in the south.

    Cabernet is the most widely planted red grape, but the region is also known for Zinfandel and Rhone blends. A smaller offshoot of Dry Creek is the Rockpile AVA, with 200 acres planted out of a possible 1,300 at high elevations. With extremely rocky soils and situated above the fog line, this area receives more sunshine paired with cooler temperatures, giving wines with ripeness and structure. This new AVA was created in 2002 and many winemakers feel it is on the short list as one of the best places to grow Zinfandel in California.



    Russian River
    To the south of the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys lays the Russian River valley. Here, 50 wineries and 200 growers have planted 10,000 acres near the river from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol. In terms of climate, this is mostly a cool Region I with morning fog, heavy maritime influence and high rainfall.

    As with many California regions, the vineyards at the foot of the east-facing slopes are planted on well drained benchland, while those planted near the river have finer textured soils that hold more water. This is not as problematic here as it would be in Napa and the Russian River is known as a place of fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


    Chalk Hill
    Contained within the boundaries of the Russian River AVA, Chalk Hill is actually located on the opposite side of the Russian River on west-facing hills. Distinct from the rest of the AVA, it is warmer (Region II), has no fog and receives only a slight influence from the ocean. In spite of this warmer climate, it is still cooler than Alexander and Knight's Valleys, according to Stephen Brook.

    1,000 acres are planted, mainly to Chardonnay with some Merlot. The name Chalk Hill is somewhat of a misnomer since the soil contains no chalk, but rather volcanic ash, which gives the soil its white color.


    Green Valley
    Another subregion of the Russian River Valley is Green Valley, with 1,000 acres planted close to the Pacific. This area has a fairly cool Region I climate with large diurnal swings in temperature. Chardonnay predominates and the wines are marked by high acidity and a fresh, Chablis-like character.

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  • Sonoma Valley
    The traditional center of Sonoma County vineyards is known as Sonoma Valley, known in the early 19th century as the Valley of the Moons. The region stretches from north from Carneros between the Sonoma Mountains to the west and the Mayacamas to the east. The cooler southern part of Sonoma Valley is influenced by the San Pablo Bay. Like the floor of the Napa Valley, the soils are deep and fertile, and much of the production was devoted to jug wines in years past. Today, many well-known Sonoma producers are based here.


    Carneros
    Carneros, Spanish for ram, is the name of the region that lies just north of the San Pablo Bay at the southern tip of both the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The determining feature of Carneros is the cool maritime influence from the San Pablo Bay, which makes this a Region I or cool Region II. Once the fog burns off, however, this cool region receives a lot of sunshine, helping to ripen the Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to perfection.

    Another climactic influence from the bay is the steady wind that blows through the vines. Although this has a beneficial influence by reducing rot and mildew, it can also disrupt flowering, leading to uneven fertilization, a condition to which Merlot is especially susceptible. In spite of its cool temperature, Carneros is drier than Sonoma or Napa. The vines are planted in shallow clay soils that restrict the vigor of the vines.

    The area is planted mostly to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot and is known for both table wines and sparkling wines. Carneros Chardonnay is typically marked by citrus/apple flavors, and the Pinots are very ripe and clean, without the funky undertones found in Burgundy. Merlot ripens well in this region and retains firm tannins because of the cool weather and the shallow clay soils.

    One of the pioneers of the area was Andy Beckstoffer, whose Beckstoffer vineyard for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir remains a classic source, as is the Durrell vineyard for Chardonnay. Newton has vineyard holdings in this area, providing finely balanced fruit for its Chardonnay.


    Sonoma Mountain and Bennett Valley
    Sonoma Mountain is a fairly high-altitude region located in the hills above Glen Ellen. Although it is above the fog line, the weather is fairly cool, and the climate is classed as a Region II. Primarily black grapes are produced.

    Next to Sonoma Mountain is the very small Bennett Valley, with cooler temperatures and an emphasis on Chardonnay, Pinot and other cool climate varieties. This small area has less than 900 acres planted.

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  • Mendocino County is located north of Sonoma. Slightly over 15,000 acres are planted, and the climate is generally warm, Region III in most places, although there are definitely Region II vineyards, particularly in the Anderson Valley. Soils vary widely between the different AVAs. One thing that ties the regions together is a tradition of experimentation; 25% of the grapes produced are organically grown. Chardonnay is widely planted, followed by Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Merlot. Many distinguished wineries source fruit in Mendocino.

    There are several smaller Mendocino AVAs in addition to the Anderson Valley. The Mendocino Ridge AVA is an umbrella appellation for those vineyards planted above the fog line that are cool but sunny. Another high altitude AVA is the Potter Valley, although here soils are richer. Redwood valley is a warmer, Region II area. It is somewhat cooler than the McDowell Valley, also in Mendocino, located further inland. The Cole Ranch is California's smallest AVA (a quarter mile square), located to the east of the Anderson Valley. Yorkville Highland is an area near the south of the County with a warm weather climate and a preponderance of black grapes. Ukiah and Sanel are warmer regions that have not yet been certified as AVAs.


    Lake County
    Lake County, formerly a part of Napa Valley for wine growing, lies to the east of Mendocino. It is characterized by high elevation vineyards with little maritime influence. Hot summers and rich soils tend to produce vigorous vines.

    90% of the area's vineyards are planted in the Clear Lake AVA. Other AVAs include the Guenoc Valley and the tiny Benmore AVA on the Mayacamas near Mendocino, with elevations of 2400 feet, and a very cool climate.

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  • Sonoma Coast is another umbrella AVA, and it includes over 500,000 acres, but only 7,000 of these are planted. It stretches from Marin County in the south all the way to Mendocino County, and is intended to describe vineyards with a cool Region I climate, and the high elevation vineyards (800 - 1,800 ft.) along the ridges are known for high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Sites include Camp Meeting Ridge and the Hirsch Vineyard. Many well-regarded wineries source fruit from this area.

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