Monday, November 22, 2010

Sonoma Decanted

When people talk about Sonoma as a wine region, most often they are referring to the entire, sprawling, Northern California county, which consists of 13 American Viticultural Areas spreading out across one million acres of land (Note: That’s twice the size of neighboring Napa).

In wine terms, Sonoma County starts with the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys in the north, follows the Russian River into the Russian River Valley to the east and ends in the south with Sonoma Valley and Carneros, the latter of which rests partly in Sonoma County and partly in Napa Valley. Tucked within these key Valleys are smaller AVA’s (including a Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and a Sonoma Mountain AVA), all of which seem to have their own unique microclimates perfectly suited for very specific grape varieties.

Because Sonoma County runs along the Pacific Coast, the entire region is heavily influenced by the cool fogs rolling in from the sea. In the morning, these fogs come in thick and wrap themselves around the mountains, snaking into the valleys. Inland regions, like Alexander Valley, only experience light mists of these fogs, while more western-lying regions, like the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast are often blanketed in dense, low-lying clouds.

Such climactic variation, coupled with its potpourri of ancient bedrock, volcanic ash, chalk and sandstone soils, means a host of grapes do well in Sonoma County. The tiny, 16-mile long, two-mile wide Dry Creek Valley is home to some of the most compelling Zinfandels in the state, while its eastern neighbor, Alexander Valley, turns out complex Cabernet Sauvignons to rival nearby Napa Valley. The more coastal influenced Russian River Valley, Green Valley and (further south) Carneros AVAs are known for their richly elegant Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines. Rising above the fog line high above the Pacific Ocean, the Sonoma Coast AVA is praised for its fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, as well as some incredibly nuanced cool-climate Syrahs.

And what about the Sonoma Valley? Bordered by the Mayacamas to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west, the city of Sonoma stands on the southern end of the valley. It was here, in 1845, that the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolt took over Mission San Francisco Solano and claimed California for America. It was also here that Spanish monks planted some of the first vineyards in Northern California. Today, no one grape dominates the region often referred to as the Valley of the Moon. It’s a fertile valley rich with winemaking history and short on pretension. Just real farmers, making some really good wines.

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