Sonoma – U.S. Comparison

Central Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Compared to the Burgundian grape varieties from the Central Coast, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma have resiliency. They’re reliable. The long hang-time of the Central Coast gives those wines a luxuriant softness, like velvet. Sonoma makes a more mannerly wine, respectful, good posture. Like denim. One would never say of a Sonoma Chardonnay, “too fruity”.  Sonomans know fruit belongs in a proper structure, you see the fruit more clearly by defining its edges. Central Coast Chardonnays are so fruity you build up tolerance. Soon you can’t get enough fruit. There is no satisfaction.  I’m just sayin’…

The Central Coast has 13,800 acres of Pinot Noir, about 2,000 more than either Sonoma or Oregon. Sonoma has 15,000 acres of Chardonnay, twice as much as Napa, but only 60% as much as the Central Coast.

Oregon Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir in Sonoma County can pretty much run the gamut of weight and color. In the Carneros district abutting San Pablo Bay, Pinot Noirs are lighter colored, lighter-bodied, a touch more acid forward, and full of red fruit aromas (strawberries by scientific survey). These are Pinots of the wind. They snap to attention whenever an undressed salmon comes around. Further west, in the Santa Rosa Plain, especially where the Russian River winds through low hills to terminate at the Pacific Ocean, Pinot Noirs are more about black fruit aromas and denser flavors. Those are Pinots of the fog. Pinot Noir grapes grown on ridge tops in the mountains north of the Russian River (and within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean ~ as the crow flies) push buds by the end of February. That area is the Fort Ross AVA. The grapes get very ripe early. Those wines are jammy with intense black fruit aromas, thick with extract, and higher in alcohol. They are to Pinot Noirs world-wide as J.J. Watt is to the cohort of white, male, high school debate champions.

Oregon Pinot Noirs range in weight from the Carneros version to the Russian River version, depending on how much rain falls at harvest, but Oregon Pinot Noir aromas tend more in the direction of cranberries than either blackberries or strawberries. Anderson Valley in Mendocino produces Pinot Noirs with blueberry weight in the nose, but lighter body and crisp, refreshing acidity prolonging the finish. Sonoma’s Russian River Pinot Noirs are the 17-year-old boys with good musculature, and buzz-cut hair. Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs are skinny 15-year-old boys with thick, slightly curly manes.

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Zinfandel

Sonoma has a wonderful Zinfandel legacy dating to Italian immigration at the end of the 1880’s and continuing through several generations. There are old vines in the Sonoma Valley, in Alexander Valley, and throughout the Santa Rosa Plain. However, Dry Creek Valley (north of Healdsburg) is perhaps the centerpiece of Zinfandel production world-wide. There are 50,000 acres of Zin in California, and 40% of those are the volume (read jug wine) producers in just one Central Valley county (San Joaquin). Sonoma has 5,325 acres, which is more than double the acres that can be found in other islands of quality Zin production, such as Paso Robles, Amador County, and Mendocino. Napa only has 1,450 acres, and those are steadily declining because you can’t sell a bottle of superior Napa Zinfandel for anywhere near as much as a bottle of average Napa Cabernet.

Zinfandel-style in the Sierra Foothills is defined by elevation. There is an herbal spiciness to Zin-style from Paso Robles. Sonoma is more consistent, more mainstream, and in some ways profound. Great Zinfandel has enormous fruit, often described as a boysenberry robe, but it is never simple. It always lacks the lengthy finish of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I never notice. I’m usually in a state of recovery from the explosive aroma. I’m picking pieces of fruit shrapnel out of my face, while stumbling over all sorts of nibs hidden in the rubble: chocolate, black pepper, citrus zest, cloves. Then it’s done. I’m ready to go again. It’s a feeling as much as it is a wine. Similar to the blues. I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I swirl it around in a glass.

Napa Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot

Napa and Sonoma have about the same number of acres of Sauvignon Blanc (2,500 each). Together they account for a third of the acreage in California. Napa Sauv Blanc is generally riper, fruitier (in the melon sense), and bigger-bodied than those from the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma County. This critique is complicated because Ferrari-Carano winery makes 40,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc every year from fairly warm areas of Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma. Those wines are riper and fruitier still, and obviously much enjoyed by American consumers. But SB grown from Healdsburg west along the Russian River usually has more stony, mineral character. It is classic in the sense of Sancerre, and on occasion exceptionally good quality. There are also new vineyards north of Jenner along the Gualala River almost to the Sonoma / Mendocino border. Those wines are distinctly more acidic, and grassy to green pepper-flavored.

Napa and Sonoma each have about 6,000 acres of Merlot, which in total is slightly more than the Central Coast. All three districts in aggregate make up about half the Merlot acreage in California. Most of the Central Coast Merlot acreage is in southern Monterey (San Bernabe, Lockwood, and Hames Valley) and in Paso Robles. Those are both warm districts producing inexpensive wines with soft texture and a relaxed attitude toward varietal character. Napa produces a wide range of Merlot styles dependent on the north to south location of the vineyards, and upon the inclination of the winemaker. In general, Sonoma Merlots also show a wide range of characteristics, albeit with more of the mulberry varietal signature than found in the Central Coast. It is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect Sonoma Merlot will make a bigger impact on the marketplace in a blend than it will as a varietal wine. That blend will not necessarily be a meritage. It could end up utilizing Sangiovese, Syrah, Zinfandel, or Grenache.

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Sparklers

Napa (Taittinger, Moet, Mumm) and Mendocino (Roederer, Pommery) have the bigger names amongst French Champagne houses. Oregon has the biggest name winemaker (Brian Croser of Australia owns Argyle). San Luis Obispo (Laetitia) has the coldest growing conditions. Nevertheless, Sonoma is a significant competitor in the sweepstakes for America’s best sparkling wine. A Spanish Cava house owns Gloria Ferrer in the Carneros district. They have done considerable research on clones of Pinot Noir, and are reaping just rewards in their wines. Also there, the German Schug family produces a really top drawer Brut Rosé, much sought after on Valentine’s Day. Tom Jordan’s daughter Judy has produced her ‘J’ brand sparkler from cool climate Russian River grapes, and won many prizes for 25 years. Always in the running, Iron Horse winery from the cool Green Valley, is also now well into their third generation. That implies the ability to make sparklers aged on their lees for lengthy periods to gain texture, toasty development, and great complexity. Exactly what ‘J’ and Iron Horse have done.

The Dom. Carneros Le Reve (by Taittinger) is a superior sparkler, made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes in the Napa half of Carneros. Le Reve is focused and extremely elegant. It also now costs nearly $100 per bottle. Not exactly an everyday ‘palate cleanser.’ Both ‘J’ and Iron Horse have Sonoma sparklers that compete at that price level, although their style is at the other end of the sparkling spectrum, i.e. big-bodied, robust in the nose, “party in a bottle” is how Jon Bonne, wine writer for San Francisco’s newspaper, puts it. ‘J” and Iron Horse compete with Roederer Estate from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, whose top of the line entry is called L’Ermitage. All these wines routinely sell for $60 to $90 per bottle. ‘J’ and Iron Horse only disgorge the lees from bottles in this category as the wine is sold ~ which often gives these specialty wines 10 to 15 years on the lees. This is a new, very exciting category for America ~ far outstripping the artisan ambitions of any upstate New York sparklers (early industry leaders) or of the very successful Gruet family operating at some elevation in New Mexico.

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