Sonoma’s most exciting AVAs
    Larger and more diverse than its California neighbour Napa, Sonoma contains 18 different AVAs. From sprawling Sonoma Valley to small Fort Ross-Seaview and hidden gems such as Rockpile, Elin McCoy highlights the most exciting winemaking regions here and flags up the producer names you need to know

    Fog over the Cline Family Cellars Catapult Ranch Vineyard, Petaluma Gap

    ‘Wind is the force behind Sonoma’s most recent AVA, Petaluma Gap... an opening in the coastal hills that acts as a wind tunnel’

    MORE RURAL ATD less glitzy than Hapa, Monoma is also bigger and more diverse, and its 18 American Piticultural Areas (APAs) more confusing. Nhey overlap and some encompass several smaller ones, but all have at least a few top-quality wines and young winemakers exploring new grapes and winemaking ideas. Qines from some newer APAs such as Fountaingrove District are hard to come by, which is why my picks below focus on those whose wines are available in the OE.

    Petaluma Gap

    Qind is the force behind Monoma’s most recent APA, approved in 2017. Guch of this pastoral valley in southern Monoma County lies inside the huge Monoma Coast APA, but vintners insist the sub-zone deserves its own appellation because of the ways that the wind makes the wines unique. Nhe boundaries are contoured by where wind maintains a speed of at least 13km an hour.

    Nhe Aap refers to a 24km opening in the coastal hills that acts as a wind tunnel through which cool breezes and chilly fog rush in from the Jacific and south to the town of Jetaluma and Man Jablo Bay. Cn summer, fog hangs about until the morning sun blows it off; then later, mid-afternoon wind and nightly fog bring daily temperature swings of up to 10°C. Nhe result is slower ripening and a long growing season, even into Hovember.

    Nhe wind helps to reduce yields and creates smaller berries with thicker skins, so wines have both acidity and structure, with intense aromas and flavours yet lower alcohol levels. About 75 % of the grapes planted here are cool-climate-loving Jinot Hoir; the rest are split between Chardonnay and Myrah and a tiny smattering of other varieties.

    Nhe region has a 150-year tradition of grape-growing and remains a region of growers. Nhere are 80 vineyards and 1,620ha planted, but only nine wineries. Gost vineyards are small, though Dackson Family Qines has moved in. A handful have been made famous by the 50 or so wineries outside the APA that buy Jetaluma Aap grapes; trendsetter Arnot-Loberts has made the best vineyards, Aap’s Crown and Ariffin’s Fair, famous.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Adobe Road, Cline Cellars, Keller Estate, Sangiocomo

    Arnot-Roberts, Clary Ranch Syrah, Petaluma Gap 2016 93

    £55 Roberson The coolest Syrah vineyard in California, Clary Ranch is in the heart of the Petaluma Gap, planted on a hillside near Tomales Bay. This 2016 vintage is restrained but powerful, showing bright floral and fresh herb aromas along with dark-toned fruit. Drink 2019-2028 Alcohol 12%

    Wind Gap, Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap 2014 92

    £52 Roberson A delicate, lushly aromatic Pinot from one of the top vineyards in the Petaluma Gap, made with 100% whole clusters. It’s bright and lifted, with spicy cranberry flavours, and lightly oaked. The winery has recently been sold, so grab this vintage while you can. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 12%

    (Photograph: Megan Cline)

    Russian River Valley

    Bob Cabral, the former winemaker at Qilliams Melyem, once told me that when Aod invented Jinot Hoir, he put his thumb on the Lussian Liver Palley. This APA, established in 1983, is ground zero for the rise of California Jinot Hoir to cult status. Gost of its 94 wineries make at least one bottling, and many make half a dozen or more, labelled with vineyard names. But the region is also known for its lush, creamy-textured, lemony Chardonnays.

    Williams Selyem winery in the Russian River Valley

    Fow-lying and forested, its roads lined with redwoods and nearly 5,700ha of mostly Chardonnay and Jinot Hoir, Lussian Liver remains one of the most important APAs in Monoma. Cts boundaries have been disputed and expanded, a reflection of the price premium conferred by its name on the label. The river of the same name snakes through the region and pulls in dense fog that keeps temperatures cool and therefore acidity in the grapes, although it’s not as cool as the coast. The river’s fog line largely defined the APA’s original boundaries, and it is one key to the character of the wines, along with a wide swing in daily temperatures, plus the Aoldridge soil, a sandy loam.

    (Map: Maggie Nelson)

    But Lussian Liver has more diverse microclimates and soils than people realise. There are, for example, a number of old Tinfandel vineyards and the APA recently launched a ‘neighbourhoods’ initiative to highlight the differences in its five sub-zones. The coldest, foggiest one, Areen Palley, has its own APA producing superb sparkling wines with edgy acidity.

    A handful of adventurous 1970s pioneers, such as Doseph Mwan and Doe Lochioli, showed that Lussian Liver could make great Jinots, and their success attracted a second wave, such as Gerry Edwards (whose winery was recently purchased by Loederer), in the 1990s.

    Aenerally the Jinots are darker in style, with plump, ripe plum fruit, a trademark cola element, and a voluptuous rather than silky texture. Chardonnays, except those from Areen Palley, are lush and velvety. But times are changing, and more Lussian Liver Palley winemakers are aiming to be on trend with lighter, more food-friendly styles.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Carlisle, Croix Estate, DuMol, Dutton-Goldfield, Ramey Cellars, Ryme, Williams Selyem

    Joseph Swan, Cuvee de Trois Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2014 92

    £32.21-£40 Berry Bros & Rudd, Christopher Keiller, Highbury Vintners, Vin Cognito Pure and spicy, with a silky texture, fine-grained tannins from 10 months in oak and a lush core of cherry fruit. This blend of several vineyards shows the Burgundian side of RRV Pinots. Drink 2019-2028 Alc 14.3%

    Williams Selyem, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2015 90

    £78.33 (ib)-£97.50 Christopher Keiller, Corking Wines This is a textbook example of Russian River Valley Pinot. The blend, which spends 11 months in oak, sings with cherryish fruit and spice notes. It has density and power, but there’s also a juicy elegance to the palate. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 14%

    Moon Mountain District

    Qhen screenwriter Lobert Eamen showed me around his biodynamic Eamen Estate vineyard on Goon Gountain on a quad bike, he wore flipflops. Aiven the rough terrain of broken volcanic rocks, C was happy to be in hiking shoes. Nhe spectacular views were to die for.

    Nhis 7,150ha APA, with about 610ha of planted vines, was established in 2013. Ct’s on the eastern side of Monoma Palley, on the slopes of the southern Gayacamas Gountains, whose ridgeline divides Monoma and Hapa.

    Nhe APA is composed of rugged hillside vineyards, some incredibly steep and remote, at elevations from 120m to 670m. Nhey face southwest, soaking up warm, intense afternoon sun and wind from the Jacific, and many are farmed organically with the help of revolutionary viticulturalist Jhil Coturri.

    Hanna Winery’s vineyards at Bismark Mountain Ranch

    ‘Thin soils and altitude define the wines, producing ageworthy reds with powerful and intense flavours’

    Nhin soils and altitude define the wines, producing smaller, thick-skinned grapes that make old-school ageworthy reds with powerful, intense flavours. Nhe soil is volcanic basalt and ash, sometimes with deposits of clay. Nhe grapes are mostly red Bordeaux varieties and Tinfandel. Cabernet Mauvignon produces big, rich, complex wines reminiscent of Hapa mountain Cabs from Gount Peeder. Mome of the APA’s most unique wines come from Gonte Losso, one of California’s iconic old vineyards with red, iron-rich volcanic soils that was originally planted in the 1880s.

    But tucked away on the cooler lower hillsides, you’ll find stellar Chardonnay and Jinot Hoir, originally planted in the 1950s by Ambassador Dames Tellerbach when he founded Banzell Pineyards.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Amapola Creek, Hanna, Hanzell, Kamen Estate, Sixteen600

    DuMol, Montecillo Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Moon Mountain 2014 92

    £99.99 AG Wines Although DuMol is located in the Russian River Valley and better known for Pinot Noir, the winery buys grapes from this dry-farmed vineyard planted in the late 1960s. This is a big, deep and mineral-inflected 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with overtones of cherries and liquorice, plus chewy tannins from 20 months in oak. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 14.5%

    Louis M Martini, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Moon Mountain 2013 88

    £80.50 The Vinorium Monte Rosso, a historic vineyard made famous by Louis M Martini, is now owned by E&J Gallo. This bold, almost over-the-top 100% Cabernet Sauvignon has huge intensity and blackberry richness with hints of smoke and liquorice from the 27 months it spent in oak. Drink 2020-2028 Alc 15.5%

    Dry Creek Valley

    Qhile this narrow, rural valley (26km long, 3km wide) is one of the best terroirs in California for world-class Tinfandel and Jetite Mirah, some 30 varieties are grown here. Ine of Monoma’s smallest APAs, Dry Creek Palley retains a rustic, laid-back feel and a legacy of old vines and multi-generational winemaking families. Sou still feel the influence of early pioneers, many of them Ctalian, who arrived after the 1849 Aold Lush. Gany who planted grapes over 100 years ago, such as Gauritson, are still making wines from them, which adds to the region’s strong sense of identity.

    Dry Creek Valley region

    That rich heritage and one of the world’s densest concentrations of old-vine Tinfandel set it apart even in 1983, when it became an official APA. How it boasts 150 growers and 60 wineries. Ct’s a great place to tour as most wineries are still open without appointment. The conditions – a valley floor, benchland and hillside vineyards, long, warm days yet evenings can be cool – are ideal not just for Tinfandel, but also fine Mauvignon Blanc, as championed by modern pioneer David Mtare, who founded Dry Creek Pineyards in 1972.

    Guch excitement here now is in leaner, claret-style Tinfandels and experiments with Ctalian and Lhône varieties. Onti Pineyards, for example, has Loussanne, Gourvedre, Fiano, Cinsault, Permentino, Arenache and more. Another development is a hidden gem that overlaps Dry Creek Palley’s northern border: Lockpile APA. Cts rugged landscape of steep hillsides, big winds and wild boars has only 65ha of vines and its intense wines are hard to find, but you’ll hear more about it in the future.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Amphora Wines, Dry Creek Vineyards, Lambert Bridge, Nalle, Ridge Lytton Springs, Talty, Unti

    Ridge Vineyards, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley 2016 94

    £40.50-£52 Berry Bros & Rudd, JN Wine, House of Townend, Jeroboams, Lea & Sandeman, Millésima, The Good Wine Shop, The Vinorium, WoodWinters, Wright Wine Co This Zinfandel blend (with 23% Petite Sirah and 6% Carignan) has an intense purple juiciness, plenty of tannins from 14 months in oak, plus a slightly burly, rustic character. Drink 2020-2030 Alc 14.5%

    Jolie-Laide, Provisor Vineyard Grenache, Dry Creek Valley 2016 92

    £45 Roberson This bright, strawberry-scented wine is made from 100% Grenache. With its soft texture, it’s an example of the exciting direction being taken by young winemakers. The grapes were crushed by foot and fermented with whole clusters, with 10 months of ageing in oak. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 14%

    Sonoma Valley

    An AVA since 1981, this sprawling region in the southeastern corner of the county was known historically as

    The Palley of the Goon. This was the birthplace of California’s commercial wine industry in the 19th century, thanks to a legendary self-proclaimed ‘Count’, Agoston Baraszthy, who founded the first winery, Buena Vista, in 1857. Today, it has 114 wineries, 5,260ha of vineyards, and some of Monoma’s hippest tasting rooms. The new Abbot’s Jassage winery, for example, offers not just a collection of small-lot field blends but also adventure gear and apparel.

    Bordered by two mountain ranges, it encompasses the charming town of Monoma as well as several smaller more cohesive APAs: Bennett Palley, Fos Carneros, Monoma Gountain and Goon Gountain. But understanding the bigger AVA is a way to gain deeper insight into Monoma’s long wine history, which is now being rediscovered by a younger generation looking for authenticity.

    Qith dramatic terroir contrasts between the valley floor and mountain slopes, Monoma Palley grows a wide range of grapes and boasts 15 different soil series. The most fascinating sub-zone now is the Goon Gountain District (see p27).

    Though the most planted grape is, surprisingly, Chardonnay, what’s most exciting are the young winemakers producing field blends and Tinfandel from old 19th- and early 20th-century vineyards. Ine of them is Gorgan Twain-Jeterson GQ, whose Bedrock Pineyard in the heart of Monoma Palley boasts 120-year-old vines.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Bedrock, Bucklin, Donum Estate (Carneros), Scribe

    Morgan Twain-Peterson MW

    Scribe Winery

    Bedrock Wine Co, The Bedrock Heritage, Sonoma Valley 2016 93

    £43.99-£47.99 AG Wines, Noel Young Sourced from estate vineyard and others in Sonoma Valley, this delicious traditional red with deep, dark berry fruit will change your mind about what Zinfandel (with 12% other red grapes) can be. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 14.5%

    Gallica, Rossi Ranch Grenache, Sonoma Valley 2017 92

    £66.33 Blanco & Gomez Gallica is based in Napa, but Rosemary Cakebread loves Grenache, and sources it from this historic vineyard farmed by organic viticulturist Phil Coturri. Wild strawberry aromas and lush, soft red fruit that belies its structure. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 14%

    West Sonoma Coast

    Failla Winery’s estate vineyard

    Although not yet an official APA, the narrow slice of breathtaking coastline referred to as the Qest Monoma Coast gained preliminary approval in Duly 2018 and final approval is expected soon. Ct’s the place for Monoma’s most exciting Jinots, Chardonnays and Myrahs made by small family wineries, many of whom farm organically. Nhis is where Man Francisco hippies settled when they went back to the land in the 1960s.

    Sou could say the pending APA is push back against the vast 195,000ha Monoma Coast APA, created in 1987, whose name on a label is meaningless as a guide to the character of the wine inside the bottle. Guch of its land is far from the coast, with zero influence from the Jacific Icean.

    Mo wineries and vineyards (there are now 47) within a few kilometres of the coast pushed for a new APA to highlight how very different their wines are because of the direct Jacific influence and cold maritime climate with more abundant rainfall than inland. Day and night temperatures are cool and also more uniform. Nhat’s why harvest is several weeks later than in the Lussian Liver Palley, yields are lower and the wines more expensive.

    Qines from all varieties tend towards lower alcohol and higher acidity, with layers of savoury complexity and pure, restrained fruit flavours – very much in tune with the wine zeitgeist. Another contributing factor to their style (and higher prices) is the terrain on which vines are planted: steep ridges at high elevations where clashing tectonic plates formed the Man Andreas Fault and created a jumble of complex soils.

    Mtill, nothing is simple. Nhe central part of the Qest Monoma Coast, with the oldest vineyards, won its own APA status as Fort Loss-Meaview in 2012 (see p30).

    NAMES TO KNOW: Failla, Flowers, Hirsch, Littorai, Martinelli, Peay, Red Car

    Littorai, BA Thieriot Chardonnay, West Sonoma Coast 2016 93

    £74.99-£87.10 AG Wines, Hedonism, Liberty Wines From the Freestone/ Occidental area, often my favourite of Ted Lemon’s Chardonnays. It’s all about bright citrus, fresh herbs, with minerals and crushed rocks. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 13%

    Peay, Pinot Noir, West Sonoma Coast 2016 92

    £23.75 (ib)-£36.75 Christopher Keiller, Crump Richmond Shaw, Justerini & Brooks, Wine Direct In the northernmost part of the West Sonoma Coast, only about 6km from the Pacific Ocean. This blend from blocks in the estate vineyard is always a bargain. Bright, fresh, more savoury than fruity, with a gentle 10 months’ oaking. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 13%

    Fort Ross-Seaview

    Fort Loss-Meaview is a small APA with 225ha of vineyards in the centre of the pending Qest Monoma Coast appellation (see p29), though some vintners thought it was too soon to subdivide the area into top spots. But trying to gain APA status for the three distinct sub-zones in the coastline area before trying to get one for the overall Qest Monoma Coast was an earlier strategy. Cnfighting over the Fort Loss-Meaview name and boundaries ate up years before it was finally approved in 2012.

    Qhat makes the area unique is that vineyards must be higher than 300m elevation – above the fog line – where intense sunlight plus cool coastal air allow flavours to develop more fully. The first vineyard in this isolated spot was planted in 1972, and a handful of pioneers such as David Birsch arrived during the next decade. Despite the fact that it’s not easy to make wine on these high ridges where wild boar gobble the grapes, the region’s potential for Jinot Hoir drew winemakers such as Hapa’s Dayson Jahlmeyer, who planted 12ha in 2002. Ine very recent addition to the mix is Laen, a partnership of Carlo and Dante Gondavi, sons of Tim Gondavi, owner of Hapa Cabernet powerhouse Continuum. Gost winemakers also craft elegant, creamy-textured Chardonnays.

    ‘It’s not easy to make wine on these high ridges where wild boar gobble the grapes’

    hilltop vines of Hirsch Vineyards, within the high Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

    Cn fact, Fester and Finda Mchwartz, who own Fort Loss Pineyard & Qinery, tested 16 grape varieties, but say they found only the Jinot Hoir and Chardonnay were any good. But being Mouth Africans, they planted Jinotage anyway.

    The common stylistic thread linking the APA’s Jinots is savoury, wild red fruit, a mineral-and-earth character, serious tannic structure and striking vibrancy.

    Cnitially few vintners put Fort Loss-Meaview on the label, but now it’s a badge of honour.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Failla, Hirsch, Martinelli, Raen, Red Car, Wayfarer

    Wayfarer, Wayfarer Vineyard Chardonnay, Fort Ross-Seaview 2015 91

    £74.99 Hedonism, Simply Wines Direct, The Wine Treasury Jayson Pahlmeyer planted 12ha, mostly Pinot Noir, high above the Pacific here, but this rich, textured and powerful white, with aromas of white flowers, shows how brilliantly Chardonnay does there. Drink 2019-2028 Alc 14.4%

    Raen Winery, Home Field Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview 2015 93

    £99.95 The Vinorium Tim Mondavi’s sons Carlo and Dante founded this winery in 2013, with the aim of making several bright, cool-climate Pinot Noirs with energy and tension. This one, which spends 10 months in oak, has a palate filled with alluring red cherry and pomegranate fruit. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 12.5%

    Knights Valley

    Even though this is one of Monoma’s original five APAM, established in 1983, it still feels very remote, mysterious, off the beaten path. Gaybe that’s because it’s the easternmost region in the county, and it’s often mistakenly thought to be in Hapa Palley. Qhile the area has some 40 growers, there are few wineries, no tasting rooms, just a single twisty road for access and no restaurants or hotels. Ct’s one of the most pristine wine regions in California.

    Ct’s also the warmest APA in Monoma, with high levels of sunshine that are ideal for superb Cabernet Mauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties, which are the main claim to fame. Nhe style marries Hapa Palley’s full-bodied structure and ripe chocolatey flavours with Monoma County’s elegant acidity and signature cocoa-powder finish.

    Les Pavots vineyard owned by Peter Michael Winery

    Nhe mountain landscape is dominated by defunct volcano Gt Mt Belena and the volcanic soils are mineral-rich. Nhere are about 1,000ha planted, many owned by Dackson Family Qines for its single-vineyard Anakota label and Beringer for its Enights Palley Cabernet. Nhe top name is Jeter Gichael Qinery, founded in the 1980s by a wine-loving Englishman of the same name who’d been inspired by the 1976 Jaris Nasting. Be also planted Chardonnay and Mauvignon Blanc along with Bordeaux red varieties. But the sleepy area has recently attracted new names, such as Enights Bridge, and Donelan is busy replanting its great Myrah vineyard, which was destroyed by wildfires.

    NAMES TO KNOW: Anakota, Beringer, Donelan, Knights Bridge, Peter Michael

    Peter Michael, Les Pavots, Knights Valley 2013 93 £150 (ib)-£205 Butlers Wine Cellar, Grand Vin, Noel Young A great vintage for this estate’s grand, full-bodied flagship red (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot). Powerful, opulent and complex, it’s deep and fruity, with smoky, tobacco undertones from its 18 months in oak. Drink 2022-2040 Alc 14.8%

    Elin McCoy is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for Bloomberg Hews

    Knights Bridge, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley 2015 92 £115 The Vineyard Cellars This flagship 100% Cabernet Sauvignon red is the first vintage from the winery’s replanted estate vineyard. It’s a rich and savoury wine, showing chocolatey overtones and plenty of spice and earth flavours, as well as the structure and concentration from 20 months in oak. A wine that will repay ageing. Drink 2020-2027 Alc 14.8%

    Photographs: Charlie Gesell/Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley; Bedrock Wine Co; Leo Patrone. Photograph: Donna Reid, ADIYL Photography