Sonoma – International Comparison

White Burgundy

Chardonnay in Sonoma County doesn’t have trouble ripening. So, relative to white Burgundy, one can assert the fruitiness argument. That argument sort of misses the point, however, about Russian River Chardonnay.  Relative to other New World Chardonnays, those from the Santa Rosa Plain are like Corton-Charlemagne is to other white Burgundies: they have an I-beam for a backbone. At the northern end of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy is a south-facing, 1,200-foot hill topped with forest. The hill at Corton produces more than a hundred steely, crisp, long, very butch Chardonnays every year. They are not under-ripe, like Chablis, which actually tastes metallic when it is young. Corton-Charlemagne has pear-like fruit characteristics, but you would only mention them as a way to tell apart 15 different Corton-Charlemagnes sitting in front of you at a blind tasting. In the same manner there is a refreshing citrus zest overtone in the Sonoma Chardonnays, but you probably wouldn’t remark on it, at least compared to the structural integrity and to the length of the wine. Russian River Chardonnays are excellent foils for negiri sushi. Not elaborate maki rolls with several sauces. Just the rice with a generous slice of immaculate tuna, salmon, or grilled eel.

Matanzas Creek Winery
Matanzas Creek Winery

There is a story which casts light on the mindset in Sonoma juxtaposed to Burgundy. It will be reflected in the respective wines. We’ve discussed this philosophical situation elsewhere. It is a cultural issue; not a matter of intelligence, nor climate, nor topography. Merry Edwards was Dr. Maynard Amerine’s star pupil at UC Davis. Merry eventually came to work at Matanzas Creek Winery in the Bennett Valley south of Santa Rosa. The winery was just starting up, and wine was being made in an abandoned cow milking shed with a concrete floor. Merry noticed that her Chardonnays always went through malolactic fermentation (MLF), even when the wine had a pH below 3.2 (a level considered biologically stable by wine academicians). Recognizing the value of a robust MLF bacteria tolerant of low pH in wines, Merry cultured her resident malo-lactic bacteria out of the shed’s concrete! Today MCW (Matanzas Creek Winery) MLF Starter is an important tool in the adroit winemaker’s arsenal worldwide, although some Burgundians might consider it intrusive.  “I think they are Luddites,” he said patriotically.  Merry’s MCW Chardonnays subsequently won back-to-back sweepstakes awards at the San Francisco Intl. Wine Competition.


Top end sparklers from Sonoma County are more full-bodied than Champagne, without the Old World’s characteristic minerality, and with a softer acid bite. As such, the Sonoma wines are more satiating, and less of a specialty item. The Sonoma sparklers are wonderful with food, as opposed to something you only pull out for celebrations. There is also more vinosity in Sonoma sparklers than in Champagne. We can debate whether or not that characteristic is appropriate. It’s not varietal aroma, but it is a strong impression of drinking wine rather than sparkling mineral water. It surely derives from warmer growing conditions, but it also comes from more interesting clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It should not be lost on observers that all the top California sparkling wine producers also offer still table wines, something that is uncommon in the four Champagne-Ardennes departments of northern France.

Sonoma does not do the pristine, en point, supremely elegant styles found in Champagne (e.g. Perrier-Jouet, Taittinger, or the sparklers of Australia’s southern island, Tasmania), but they do offer some excellent competition for the more robust, fuller-bodied, leesy styles (e.g. Bollinger, Pol Roger). This toasty feature is new for California, and it adds an extra dimension for the most useful function to which Sonoma sparklers can be put: dining in Chinese restaurants. This may not be a worldwide occupation, but it’s very popular on the Left coast of America. The wide range of flavors encountered at a large Chinese banquet (shared dishes) make wine selection, either a great deal of fun, or a very complicated task, depending on your attitude. If you vote for the latter interpretation, Sonoma sparklers are a really good answer ~ way better than beer (the universal solvent). Even if you do enjoy making wine choices with 10 family members at a big table in a Chinese restaurant, get a couple Sonoma sparklers. They enhance the cuisine.

New Zealand & Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand is unique, even in New Zealand. Regions other than Marlborough (such as Hawkes Bay) do not get the crisp structure, nor the pyrazine note combined with mango that is Marlborough’s signature. Sonoma doesn’t get that unusual combination of aromatic properties either, but it does get the structural integrity (crisp acid buttressed by strong gravelly flavor) which is so useful in supporting great food matches. We’re talking here about Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River section west of Healdsburg. In the 1990’s Rochioli (two times Sweepstakes award as Best Wine at State Fair) would have been the premier example. Those wines had a minty lift and fabulous complexity. You could not find a more seductive match for the Pacific oysters (Ostrea gigas) aqua-cultured in Tomales Bay. Stylistically those wines have more in common with Sancerre, i.e. Sauvignon Blanc from the middle Loire Valley in France, than they do with Marlborough, NZ. I would venture that recently Russian River Sauv Blanc has been much more reliable that Sancerre or Pouilly Fume.

Interestingly, there is a new district in Sonoma which could end up going much more in the direction of Marlborough. That is the Gualala River near the Pacific Ocean and the Mendocino border 30 miles north of

Jenner. Although controversial for environmental reasons, there have been multiple proposals there for many hundreds of acres of grape vines. The Sauvignon Blanc grown there over the last ten years (e.g. Annapolis Winery) produces a very pyrazine-driven wine. The maneuver which would perhaps move those wines in the direction of Marlborough is the availability of a Sauvignon Blanc clone called ‘Musque.’ It was a sport (i.e. mutation) originally discovered twenty years ago by Doug Meador at Ventana Vyds in the Salinas Valley. It displays exotic Muscat-like smells.

New Zealand Pinot Noir and red Burgundy

Pinot Noir has expanded quite a bit in New Zealand since 2000, in large part because there is little ceiling on the price of Pinot Noir the way there is on the price of Sauvignon Blanc. So today there is a regional style distinction within New Zealand Pinot Noir comparing Martinborough (south end of the North Island at 41º of latitude) and Central Otago (middle of the South Island near Queenstown). Central Otago is arguably the most extreme latitude fine wines are made in the Southern Hemisphere (around 49º, which is about the same as Seattle). Central Otago Pinot Noirs are not like Sonoma Pinot Noirs at all. Across the board, and that includes Carneros, Sonoma Pinot Noirs are bigger-bodied, riper, and more full-flavored than Central Otago Pinot Noirs. Martinsborough PN’s (Ata Rangi is a good, reliable example) would be a much better structural comparison. At which point, Pinot Noir’s natural diversity takes over. The Santa Rosa Plain seems to produce deeper fruit models; Martinborough the softer tannin structure. I’d also say Martinborough wines are the more likely to have noticeable micro-biological personalities.


Comparison to red Burgundy is difficult because Santa Rosa Plain Pinot Noirs definitely get ripe more easily, even at higher yields. I’m inclined for illustration purposes to choose Burgundy examples from Morey St. Denis. The French wines and the Sonoma wines share black fruit characteristics, full mouth-feel, and certain spice notes. The tannins tend to be round, non-abrasive. Morey St. Denis distinguishes itself from Chambolle, the commune next door in France, on the basis of perfumy aroma and extract: Chambolle has the perfume; Morey St. Denis has the extract. (Good luck with Bonnes Mares, a Grand Cru vineyard split between the two communes. Like I said, this is cocktail party opinion, not settled law.) I’m going to say Russian River Pinot Noirs can achieve an oolong tea leaves nose, but it is not as ethereal as the perfume of Chambolle. Santa Rosa Plain wines are more dense in the mid-palate than Burgundy in general, but they do not as yet show the textural qualities of Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey’s neighboring commune to the north. That characteristic has to do with tannin maturity, and we’ll see what crackerjack winemakers like Merry Edwards are eventually able to accomplish in Sonoma. Meanwhile serve Russian River Pinot Noirs with a strong tasting, soft-ripening cheese. Epoisses (pronounced eh PWAH zuh) would be about the strongest one you could find.

Grenache from Southern Rhône

Grenache is the third most widely planted premium red varietal worldwide, but there were barely a hundred acres in Sonoma County in 2011. That was down a third in five years. Surprising, considering that Grenache grapes in Sonoma sold for $2,660 per ton in 2007, or 20% more than Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon that same year. Go figure. There were over 11,000 acres of Cab in Sonoma in 2011.

The best Grenache wines come from old vines in North Sonoma County. Yield is held down by severe pruning. The wines are aged in older (neutral) barrels, and blended with 20% of another variety, usually Mourvèdre or Syrah. The wines have less than 14% alcohol, and have a percentage of the must (fermenting juice) bled off the skins early in the fermentation to concentrate flavor and color in the remaining red wine. That technique is called saignée, and it makes extremely good sense for Grenache.

Stylistically these wines are like Pignan the 100% Grenache Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Ch. Rayas (younger vines). The style has lots of color, and a clarity of aroma (cranberry and plum), with sun-warmed stones in the background. Most importantly these wines are well balanced for acid. The purity of the fruit in the nose carries over to a very clean, and expansive flavor in the mouth. They have fabulous structure: long and only mildly grippy. Serve with quail and eggplant, both grilled. That’s slices of eggplant with Gruyere cheese melted on top. Note poultry shears are a big help when preparing the CA State Bird.

Argentine Malbec

Arrowood Winery in Sonoma Valley has been doing Malbec since the late 1990’s, initiating a hobbyist-level interest which seems to have great potential.  There were something on the order of ten Malbecs made in California in 2010. Arrowood’s Malbecs are very jammy, but still develop wonderful bouquet over ten years in the bottle. The CA wines are more like Argentine Malbecs than they are like Cahors (Malbec from a region of France near Bordeaux). That’s not pinning things down very much ~ Malbec is as ubiquitous in Argentina as Shiraz is in Australia. In the CA – Argentina – Cahors comparison, Cahors is the most rough, tannic, and under ripe. It is also the most likely to suffer from microbiological problems. In Cahors they often blend with Tannat, which increases color, weight, and tannic abrasion. Argentina would sit in the middle ~ lots of very drinkable, but not too memorable wine at a good price. Smaller amounts of brilliant wine from old vines at altitude. These classic Argentine Malbecs have much leaner structures than those from Sonoma. Serve practically any California Malbec with a very juicy hamburger. Grill the buns.

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