Sonoma is the largest producer of Northern California’s Wine Country and situated in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sonoma County wines enjoy global recognition and have won countless national and international wine awards.
Sonoma needed only a few decades to develop into one of the most important wine regions of California. It is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 400 wineries. Sonoma has a large number of smaller wine regions each with specific circumstances. This explains the diversity of grapes in Sonoma County. Successful wineries like Gallo and Ravenswood used Sonoma’s cool maritime climate as a base for leading Californian wines from Chardonnay, Zinfandel to Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay takes the lead as the most planted wine variety with 15,400 acres.
This region is named after the town of Sonoma. In contrast to the smaller Napa Valley, Sonoma County is a great and vast area in which the vineyards are spread. In the north Sonoma borders on Mendocino, in the south on the Bay of San Francisco. Here are the important Sonoma county wine regions, with emphasis on Chardonnays.
Within its borders there are 17 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations) – each with its own distinctive characteristics. They are: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Carneros – Sonoma, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Fort Ross – Seaview, Fountaingrove District, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Knights Valley, Moon Mountain, Northern Sonoma, Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak, Rockpile, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Valley. I will furnish more details on the Chardonnay producing areas.
The Alexander Valley is one of the most densely planted of all of Sonoma County’s AVAs. Viticulture has existed in the area since the 1850s but the wine industry has only fairly recently experienced success beginning in the 1960’s with Simi Winery. Significant purchases of vineyard land by E & J Gallo Winery in 1988 and Kendall-Jackson in 1996 also raised the profile of the Alexander Valley. The profile of Alexander Valley wines has historically centred around the approachability and richness of the wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the leading varietal plantings followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
The Bennett Valley is one of Sonoma County’s newest AVAs and is a principal grape supplier to Kendall-Jackson. While Syrah and the Rhône varietals are taking centre stage in Bennett Valley, it is the white wines that perhaps best demonstrate the impact of a cool climate and a commitment to the “sense of place.” Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have developed pure, crisp flavours and retain their natural acidity during the long, cool season.
The Chalk Hill is a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley located near the town of Windsor. The name Chalk Hill comes from the unique volcanic soil of chalky white ash, which has shown itself to perform well with planting of white wine varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the region’s wineries are located on the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Dry Creek Valley
The Dry Creek Valley in the Russian River Valley centres on the Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian River. Dry Creek Valley is home to over 9,000 acres of vineyards that stretch the intimate 16-mile long x 2-mile wide valley, floor to hillside. With a grape growing history going back 140 years – one of the longest in California – producing premium wine grapes is core to this region. More than 70 wineries are located throughout the valley, nearly all of which remain family-owned with limited-production, premium wines. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are widely grown here.
Fort Ross – Seaview
The 27,500-acre Fort Ross-Seaview wine area is located in the western part of Sonoma County and contains 18 commercial vineyards on 506 acres. The region is situated between 900-1800 feet in elevation. Consequently it rises above the fog line to occupy a completely unique ecosystem—one that’s dryer, sunnier and warmer than most surrounded areas. This elevated, “coastal cool” maritime climate is ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
The Green Valley of Russian Vally is located at the south-western corner of the Russian River Valley, its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes it one of the coolest appellations within Sonoma County. The climate in the Green Valley is even cooler than other parts of the Russian River Valley, and favours the cultivation of cool climate grape varietals. In this cool-climate region, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are expected to dominate, and indeed, those varietals do.
The Knights Valley occupies the boundaries between the southern end of the Alexander Valley and the northern end of Napa Valley. Some of the earliest vineyards in the area were owned by Beringer Vineyards. The area is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but produces also a small quantity of Chardonnay.
The Los Carneros wine area spans the last, low hills of the Mayacamas Mountains dividing both Napa and Sonoma Valleys just north of San Pablo Bay. The area’s close proximity to the Bay has made it an ideal location for Pinot noir and Chardonnay production.
Moon Mountain District Sonoma County
The Moon Mountain District Sonoma County is Sonoma County’s newest AVA. A small amount of Chardonnays is produced here.
Russian River Valley
Russian River Valley lies adjacent to and west of the city of Santa Rosa and incorporates the southern reach of the Russian River. This AVA is characterized by the regular intrusion of cooling fog from the coast. The fog generally arrives in the evening or early morning and retreats before noon in the day. The appellation was granted AVA status in 1983 and accounts for about one-sixth of the total planted vineyard acreage in Sonoma County. Presently the Russian River AVA includes more than 15,000 acres (61 km2) planted to wine grapes. At last count, 79 wineries were listed in the Russian River Valley Winegrowers website. The area is known for its success with cool climate varietals, notably Pinot noir and Chardonnay.
Sonoma Coast contains more than 500,000 acres (2,000 km2), mostly along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. It extends from San Pablo Bay to the border with Mendocino County. The appellation is known for its cool climate and high rainfall relative to other parts of Sonoma County. Burgundy varietals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay star in this cool-climate appellation.
Sonoma Valley is known for its unique terroir with Sonoma Mountain protecting the area from the wet and cool influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Mountains to the west help protect the valley from excessive rainfall. Sonoma Valley has played a significant role in the history of California wine. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripen very well in the cooler climate areas close to the San Francisco Bay region.
The Sonoma Mountains wine area, including the town of Glen Ellen, is bordered on the west by the Sonoma Valley. The area is known for the diverse micro climates that occur within the crevices and folds of the hillside terrain and as such is home to production for a wide range of varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Zinfandel.
Sonoma County is blessed with a number of the best of wine growing factors, presented in such a variety of combinations as to create a welcome, wholesome diversity of growing regions where, curiously, north is “hot” and south is “cool.” Nearly every type of wine grape can be splendidly grown in one or more of Sonoma County’s regions, from the cool weather loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines to the warm weather Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes.
Click here to see my review of some of the fine Sonoma County Chardonnay wines. Feel free to leave a question or comment and I will get back to you within 24 hours.