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10 Must-Visit AVAs in Sonoma: Just SOMM Stuff I Think About

Wine Consumer Magazine, Christopher Parks
04/21/2014

Sonoma is big...really big. With so many different microclimates and growing conditions, Sonoma might also be confusing to wine consumers. Should you order a Knights Valley Pinot, or should you order a Sonoma Coast Cabernet? The answer is neither. Some grapes are better suited to different areas. Sonoma Coast is cooler, so it is better suited to Pinot Noir, while Knights Valley is hotter so it’s better suited for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon.

In this article, I have selected the corresponding red wine grape and winery to best exemplify each Sonoma County wine region.

 

Sonoma Wine Region (AVAs overlaid)

 

Los Carneros


 This AVA (American Vitculture Area) is better suited and famous for Pinot. A lot of which is put into Sparkling wine but one of my favorite still versions comes from Rams Gate Winery with its rich and ripe 2012 Carneros Pinot. It’s a version with notes of roses, black cherry, red fruits, forest floor, mint, and cherry cola.

 

Sonoma Coast


Similar to Los Carneros in climate, this is a region that will be dominated by cooler-weather grapes like Pinot Noir, but they tend to be lighter and brighter with higher acid. One of the best around is Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir with notes of cherry, anise, sage and alder wood, it’s sleek and racy.

 

Sonoma Mountain 


 The great thing about this area is that its very versatile to many grapes, I like the hotter weather varieties here like Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet. A winery that exemplifies this is Benziger Winery. It is completely biodynamic and quite beautiful; this place is definitely worth a visit next time you are in Sonoma. All of the wines are really well made and inviting, but the standout is the Cabernet. I like the subtle black olives and dark fruits on the nose, and the palate is complex for a young wine with plum, cassis, cocoa, tea and a chalk-like minerality and texture. At $20, it’s a wine consumer favorite!

 

Bennett Valley 


 With only three bonded wineries actually in the valley and only one with a tasting room open to the public, I have a choice: Do I pick a winery that makes wine from grapes grown in the Valley or do I write about the winery that you can visit while in Bennett Valley? It’s an easy decision. Based on the beauty of the property and the wines, Matanzas Creek is definitely worth seeking out. All of their wines are really well made and worth tasting—I enjoy them all. But, perhaps the best part is taking a stroll through their property and enjoying the natural setting they have created, especially the famous lavender fields!

 

Russian River 


 This is the land of the Pinot Noir grape. The wines produced are rich and opulent, sometimes with great power, yet containing finesse. These wines are beautiful and quintessential California. One of the best examples is Balletto. A family-owned wine estate that produces a baseline Pinot with a nose full of cherry, rhubarb, and violets with a touch of that unmistakable earthiness. The palate is rich and round, yet light and well-balanced for higher alcohol wine. Cardamom, cinnamon, and cocoa integrate well with the fresh bramble fruits and a touch of cherry cola.

 

Green Valley 


 This AVA is actually in the Russian River Valley and one of the smallest AVAs in Sonoma. If you visit, make sure to bring a sweater, as it is one of the coldest and foggiest areas in the region. DeLoach is my favorite winery to visit for reds. The Zinfandels and Pinots are really worth the trip and for the area they are the best values. Green Valley is famous, however, for something completely different and that is Iron Horse Vineyards. They have still wines that you can purchase on-site, and for a real experience you can taste their sparkling wines, which are made just as well, if not better than Champagne; including the cuvee made for the White House.

 

Chalk Hill 


 Tucked in the northeast corner of the Russian River Valley, is the Chalk Hill AVA and Chalk Hill estate. This winery produces a variety of everything—including botrytized dessert wines—and is definitely not for the bargain hunter. However, the experience is what you make of it. The estate tour is highly recommended and at $30 per person it is one of the most educational tours in Sonoma. Reservations are required for the 11am daily tour, which lasts 1.5 hours and includes a tasting.

 

Knights Valley 


 This is the land of Cabernet and other hot climate varieties. It is in fact the warmest AVA in Sonoma, and over 30 growers operate the 2,000 acres planted under vine, yet only three wineries call it home. The best representations usually come from outside the Valley and the most famous producers are Beringer and Kendall Jackson. However, for a more discerning palate and not much more money, I highly recommend Ehret Family Vineyards. Two wines stand out: the 2006 Cabernet with cassis, tobacco, leather and vanilla as well as the 2010 Ballerina Merlot with blueberries, strawberries, herbs, green tea and vanilla.

 

Dry Creek Valley 


 You can find a bit of everything grown in the Dry Creek Valley and most producers have more than a few good wines to choose from. If you love deep, dark, concentrated wines, this is your El Dorado. Zinfandel seems to be the overall favorite though and for that, you should check out F. Teldeschi.  My wife took me here for the first time some years ago and I was blown away. We were greeted in an understated tasting room by a kind smile coming from a man in rain boots, dirty jeans, and a stained sweater. As it turned out, it was Dan Teldeschi, the winemaker himself! He guided us through over 10 years of his family’s wines and each vintage was better than the last. They still have 2001 available through the current vintage. The 2002 Reserve Zinfandel for $40 is my favorite. It’s massive, well textured, complex and bright with warm black fruits and herbs.

 

Alexander Valley 


 This is the AVA of opulence in this writer’s opinion. My favorite grape grown here is Cabernet Sauvignon and I prefer Cab from the Alexander Valley than anywhere else. Over 30 wineries dot the landscape and make a variety of wines. My favorite, year-after-year, is Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 release is just as good as any others and will hold in a cellar for over 15 years. It’s a delicious blend of Cab, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec. The wine is full of blackberries, blueberries, cassis and chocolate with an everlasting finish.

 

Honorable Consideration

Moon Mountain


Moon Mountain is the newest source for high quality California Cabernets, as good as anything in Napa at a fraction of the cost.  MM is also home to phenomenal Syrah, Zinfandel and even Sangiovese too. This region is unique for it's Terra Rosa soil, which is saturated with ancient marine soils, fractured shale, sandstone, and volcanic ash from a humongous neighboring eruption, over a million years ago, that combined with extreme hill-side terraces, steep aspect, elevation and exposure. OG organic Viticulturists like Philip Coturri and winemakers like Erich Bradley of Repris Wines, Mark Herold of Kamen Estate Wines and Jeff Baker of Stone Edge Farms are producing some exceptionally expressive and delicious wines from this exciting new AVA.

Credit: Jim Anderson.

 

Honorable Mention 

 Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir. Without a tasting room, I couldn’t list it for Carneros or Sonoma Coast AVA but seek out their Pinot and you will know why they work so hard to make such great wine.

Cheers,

Chris.

 

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