Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sonoma Series: Alexander Valley & KnightsValley

For the next several weeks, the 19 AVAs in Sonoma County will be featured in the Sonoma Series. Most of the attention will be focused on Sonoma's major regions like Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Carneros. 

Sonoma is one of California's most important wine counties. In the late 18th century, missionaries build a series of coastal missions along what is now California, ending their work in the town of Sonoma.  

Franciscan friars brought with them a black grape, known in Chile as the Pais that in time became known in California as the Mission grape, an important variety  until Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. 

Following Repeal, the wine industry turned a corner with expanded plantings of Vitis vinifera varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon that were the standard in France. The intent was not to emulate Bordeaux Cabernet-based reds, but to create a unique California style.  

Sonoma Series begins with profiles of Alexander Valley, an early benchmark for Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, and Knights Valley, one of Sonoma's smaller AVAs.



Alexander Valley (AVA 1984)

Looking back at the rise in popularity of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, it's a bit ironic that one of the major forces behind the success, was a Napa Valley icon. And this at a time when he had already established Beaulieu Vineyard as one of the major wineries in the Napa Valley, if not California.

Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born enologist who once claimed that Pinot Noir was one of his favorite red wines, led the Beaulieu team in creating BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In 1976, a couple of years after Tchelistcheff retired from BV, Tom Jordan hired Tchelistcheff as consulting enologist at Jordan Vineyard and, in turn, he  recommended that Jordan hire Rob Davis, as Jordan's first winemaker. Together, Davis and Tchelistcheff developed and fashioned Jordan's first 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Alexander Valley grapes.

The Alexander Valley is a short distance northeast of the gateway city of Healdsburg, a mecca of wine tasting rooms and smart restaurants. Before Prohibition, the area was known more for prunes and hops than it was for grapes, although a few black varieties like Alicante were planted for bulk red wines.  

Not until 1970, with the rebirth of Simi Winery, did Alexander Valley enter the modern age of winemaking.  Chateau Souverain followed and then in 1976, Jordan Winery and Vineyard brought elegance to the winery scene, on a hilltop outside Healdsburg. 

By 2013, there were 50 wineries in the valley and by the 1990s, Kendall-Jackson and Gallo, purchased large tracts of land.  Alexander Valley had arrived as the source of one of California's premiere Cabernet Sauvignons.

Despite the solid reputation for AV Cabernet Sauvignon, some Cab fans still leaned more toward Napa, where Cabernets are more berrylike than herbaceous. The occasional trace of an herbal character in AV Cabernets can still be found, but AV winemakers have worked their way around the problem.  

Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc has had limited success, while AV Chardonnay has taken its place in the lineup of desirable California Chardonnay.

Noteworthy Alexander Valley wineries include Simi, Jordan, Peter Michael, Seghesio, Robert Young, Geyser Peak, Lancaster, Silver Oak.

Knights Valley (AVA 1983)

At the far southern end of Alexander Valley and the far northern end of the Napa Valley is a small enclave known as Knights Valley.  Visitors would be excused if they thought that KV was part of Napa County, because since the 1960s, Napa's  Beringer Vineyards had farmed a large vineyard there and for years were about the only vineyard owners in the valley. 

A tasting of Peter Michael red wines

In 1982, British businessman, Peter Michael, purchased land and planted a vineyard, hired a string of star winemakers (Helen Turley for one) and released a line of highly acclaimed and expensive wines with French names, like Les Pavots, a Bordeaux-variety red blend. 

A varied range of grapes is planted in Knights Valley, although the reputation of the valley rests on Cabernet Sauvignon.  Beringer has had a Knights Valley Cabernet since the 1974 vintage, Peter Michael's red blend and Kendall-Jackson sources a Cabernet Sauvignon from its Knights Valley vineyards. 

Compared to many of the major wine regions in the world, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley are relative newcomers.  But in that time great progress has been made in the vineyards.  So far, Peter Michael is the only winery in Knights Valley. 

Today, both valleys are producing distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends that are considered among the best of California's stellar red wines.  

Next blog: It's Nouveau time!

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