Thursday, January 5, 2023

Sonoma Series: Carneros & Other Appellations

"Series," a continuous feature highlighting the various appellations in major wine regions, began with Alexander Valley and Knights Valley on October 14 and wraps up here with a look at Sonoma Carneros and the remaining Sonoma appellations.

Sonoma County is flush with American Viticultural Areas (AVA), 19 in all, which is to say that 19 may be enough for Sonoma, or that there are still parts of the county waiting for their own AVA.  Sonoma County is a political entity and not itself an AVA, which is defined by history and geographic and climatic boundaries.  

Promoting an area's AVA brings up a thorny question: Who values from an official AVA, the consumer, the local wine industry or both?  And what about cumbersome names (see Pine Mountain-Cloverdale below) that do not fit comfortably on a wine label?  Volumes have been written about the value of the AVA system, probably solving nothing, but that's a subject for another time.

Los Carneros (AVA 1983). This episode will cover Sonoma Carneros and briefly touch on the seven remaining Sonoma AVAs, namely Fort Ross-Seaview, Petaluma Gap, Fountain Grove, Moon Mountain, Northern Sonoma, Pine Mountain-Cloverdale and West Sonoma Coast.

In the early 1980s, the wineries of Carneros, a region that stretches across the top of San Pablo Bay, from Sonoma to Napa, were confronted with the question of best and better, comparing Carneros Pinot Noir with Pinots from Russian River, Santa Barbara and even Burgundy.  

It was time to make an official statement. 

So, in 1983, winery owners and winemakers provided the justification for a Los Carneros AVA.  Two years later, Carneros Wine Alliance was formed to market the growing list of wines produced in the two-county region. 

Carneros has a long history of grape growing on the gently rolling land, within sight of San Francisco Bay, that once was grazing land for sheep; the word Los Carneros means "the rams" in Spanish. Stanly Ranch and vineyard was established in 1880.  

Los Carneros

 In 1942, the ranch was sold to Louis Martini and it was Martini and fellow winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyard, that brought about the rebirth of Carneros as a wine region.  Later, they were joined by Rene di Rosa and Winery Lake Vineyard and the Sangiacomo family.  In 1972, Carneros Creek opened the first winery in Carneros. 

Today, there are 25 wineries in Carneros, making still and sparkling wine. Cool breezes off the bay, help fashion the ideal climate for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Later, a few growers found Merlot and Syrah suitable for Carneros, but the reputation of Carneros rests comfortably on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

Fort Ross-Seaview (AVA 2012) is a dramatic sub-region, hanging above the fog on the Sonoma coast.  The marine influence and fog that burns off by midday offers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah ideal growing conditions.  Wineries to look for include Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, Flowers Vineyard & Winery. 

Fog bank building over Petaluma Gap


Petaluma Gap (AVA 2017) is a sub-region that spans two counties: the majority is in Sonoma County and the southern end of the AVA is in Marin County.  Fog drawn through the gap in the Coastal Range makes it a cool climate area for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Wineries of note include Kosta Browne, Keller Estate, Adobe Road Winery and Fogline Vineyards.

Fountain Grove (AVA 2015) lies within the Santa Rosa city limits.  Cooler than Alexander Valley, yet warmer than the Russian River Valley, Fountain Grove appears to be just right for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  For now, Fountain Grove Winery is the only winery within the appellation, however Lambert Bridge, Enkidu and Carol Shelton are among the wineries buying grapes from Fountain Grove vineyards.

Moon Mountain (AVA 2013) is in the Mayacamas mountains, above the Sonoma Valley.  Monte Rosso is the most famous vineyard, for Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  At lower elevations, Hanzell is successful with Pinot Noir.

Northern Sonoma (AVA 1985) is the second largest appellation in the county, spanning across Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley and Knights Valley.  The area is noted for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.  Wineries: Gallo Family Vineyards, Rodney Strong, J Vineyards & Winery.

Pine Mountain-Cloverdale (AVA 2011) vineyards are at 2,600 feet above the small northern Sonoma town of Cloverdale.  A mere 230 acres of vineyards is planted mainly in Cabernet Sauvignon, with small parcels of Merlot, Malbec and Sangiovese. Grapes are purchased by Francis Ford Coppola. Imagery, Copain and La Crema.

West Sonoma Coast (AVA 2022) is the newest AVA in Sonoma County.  Stretched along the western edge of the county it has a marginal climate thanks to heavy fog and marine breezes.  Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay are favored by Paul Hobbs Winery, Littorai Wines, Balletto Vineyards and Black Kite Cellars. 

Sonoma County has an impressive number of official AVAs, led by Alexander Valley and Carneros.  The range of growing conditions and grapes is diverse, allowing for an array of red, white and sparkling wines.

Note: France Series, an on-going feature highlighting regions, grapes and wines,  begins January 27, 2023, with an overview of Bordeaux, perhaps the most celebrated wine region in France, if not the world. 

Next blog: Sauvignon Styles

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