The Wines of Sonoma County


(gentle guitar music)>>(narrator)
Stretching from the
cool Pacific Coast to warmer
inland valleys, Sonoma County is one of the most
climatically diverse regions in California.>>Sonoma’s one of the rare
places in the world where you can grow varieties
as diverse as Zinfandel or Mouvèdre or Cabernet
or Pinot Noir. There is no “there,”
in a sense, in Sonoma.>>That’s one of the
beauties of Sonoma– there aren’t laws dictating
what we can plant here.>>Sonoma is without a
doubt a very cool part– cool weather-wise–
part of California. We do see benefits from
the cooling effect. Benefits for certain varietals,
varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. The cool air
that comes in every afternoon really helps the grapes
retain acidity.>>(with accent)
According to the top geologists, there is probably more
diversity of soil in Sonoma than all of
California.>>Soils run from
decomposed sandstone to granite on
the coast to lots of volcanic
activity farther east.>>(narrator)
The valley’s viticultural story often begins with
Agoston Haraszthy, who followed the trail of
gold to California in 1849 and founded Buena Vista Winery
in Sonoma in 1857.>>There were fruit trees, and
fruit trees gave way to grapes, with the inclusion
of French oak and some traditional
Bordeaux methods, they started making
world-class wines right at the get-go
in the ’60s.>>(narrator)
While Sonoma can claim a diverse heritage and a
spirit of experimentation, the viticultural landscape
is dominated by a few
classic grapes.>>Zinfandel is actually
grown in all the AVAs of Sonoma County.>>Many people assumed
for a long time that Zinfandel was a
native California grape. And that became
a point of pride, that this was
California’s own grape.>>It was just here
as a table grape, and then someone
said, “Hey, let’s try making
wine out of it.” And then, all the way
through the 1880s, 1890s, Zinfandel
just exploded.>>The problem with
Zinfandel is that it just doesn’t go by
that name in Europe.>>(narrator)
Through DNA analysis, a UC Davis team led
by Carol Meredith discovered that Zinfandel was
actually Croatian in origin.>>”Tribidrag” was not
just an obscure name for a grape that we
today call “Zinfandel.” It was the name of one of the
most important wine grapes in the whole Adriatic
wine trade. And I think that lends it
a great deal of nobility.>>Zinfandel does what is
called differential ripening, where on a single
cluster you can have a perfectly ripe berry,
you can have a raisin, and you can actually
have a green berry. And it makes it very, very
challenging to determine when to pick it. For a while, the envelope
was getting pushed in the upper end of
the ripeness range, and now, people are
taking it and pushing kind of the lower end
of the ripeness range. And there’s people
in between that. So for consumers,
it’s great. There’s really a great diversity
of styles out there now.>>(narrator)
Today, Zinfandel is considered a local specialty. But classic French grapes
provide some of the country’s most impressive wines.>>The beginning of Pinot
in Sonoma County goes back
quite a ways– Hanzell in the mid-’50s
and their exploration of Pinot and
Chardonnay. In general, I think
you can say what happens to Pinot
as you move inland to the warmer areas, which is it becomes
a little plummier, the fruits are riper, the
mid-palate is richer, the acidities are
a little lower. The same would hold
true for Chardonnay, but of course Chardonnay
is the ultimate chameleon as a grape variety. (calm piano music)>>I’m really fortunate that
Syrah grows so well here. Ample sunshine, well-drained
soils, great expositions. The cooler coastal
sites grow Syrah with a lot more
spice and pepper. (calm piano music)>>(narrator)
On the coast,
temperature and fog allow growers to cultivate
cool climate grapes, while inland areas east
of the coastal hills can produce excellent
examples of later ripening Bordeaux varieties.>>The best part
in Sonoma for the Bordeaux varietal–
Merlot, Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon,
even Petit Verdot and Malbec– they grow the best in the
hillside, on the Knights Valley, by Mount
St. Helena. (smooth orchestral music) In terms of the
soil difference, in Alexander Mountain Estate,
in Alexander Valley.>>(narrator)
There are now over
a dozen AVAs, presenting a range of climates
with diverse potential. At its southern end,
Sonoma County touches the San Pablo Bay, and Carneros connects
it to Napa County. The town of Sonoma itself
and Sonoma Valley are located west of the
Mayacamas Mountains. A pastoral,
established region, Sonoma Valley
produces everything from full-bodied
Cabernet Sauvignon to sparkling wines. Temperatures drop and the
landscape grows more remote with vineyards extending
toward the Pacific coast.>>So the coastal hills
of western Sonoma County is this extraordinary
witches’ brew of dissimilar
geologic soil types. And as you move into the
Russian River floodplain, you get a little bit
more uniformity. You clearly get more
uniformity in climate. One of the things that’s
fascinating to look at is the fact that much
of the Russian River is one of the warmest Pinot Noir
growing regions in the world, which is why the wines are a
little bit more generous and rich in the
mid-palate. And the Sonoma coast–
parts of the Sonoma coast—- are among the coolest
Pinot Noir growing regions in the world. So, within a very short distance
as you run from the coast, you run this enormous change
in terms of temperature, and therefore
in terms of the type of
wines it produces. (smooth orchestral music)>>(narrator)
The Chalk Hill AVA is located within
the eastern side of the Russian
River Valley. In its slightly warmer climate,
Bordeaux varieties thrive.>>Why they call it “chalk” is
because you have a lot of volcanic ash,
white soil. It’s not a chalk
like in Champagne. But it’s a beautiful white
soil with volcanic ash, which gives a truffle nose
on most of the Merlot. Chalk Hill, we have
three kinds of grapes– Merlot, because the Merlot
likes the volcanic ash. We have Cab Franc, on a
soil which is more gravely. And we have
Cabernet Sauvignon. (gentle piano music)>>(narrator)
The Dry Creek Valley extends north from
the Russian River and makes its reputation
from old-vine Zinfandel. Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet
Sauvignon are also grown. And its eastern border leads
to the Alexander Valley. (mellow folk
fiddle music)>>The renaissance
in Alexander Valley didn’t start until
the mid-’60s. And Rodney Strong was one
of the first to pioneer planting of Cabernet. We’re standing on the
Alexander’s Crown, right in the heart
of Alexander Valley. The Cabernet excels here on
the volcanic, reddish soils. We have valley floor,
we have bench, we have hillsides, we have a lot of different
geologies in the soil. The Russian River cuts right
through the heart of it– the upper part of
the Russian River. And with the Russian River,
we get a little bit of influence from
the Pacific Ocean, only 20 miles away. So we have warm,
sunny days, cool nights. The diversity of the soils
down by the Russian River is a great place
for Sauvignon Blanc. It usually likes
more fertile ground. Cabernet and
Bordeaux varieties are best suited
on the hillsides. Cabernet from
Alexander Valley always elicits a lush,
raspberry, berry quality. Not as heavy in tannins as
some of the other places. Now, that will vary depending
on the soil, the elevation. But Alexander Valley
is typically known for its very generous,
supple, plush Cabernets, early to drink,
and just, you want to have
them with a steak. (mellow folk
fiddle music)>>Knights Valley is east of
the appellation of Sonoma, close to the
border of Napa. Our vineyard is
on the foothill of the beautiful mountain, ex-volcano called
Mount St. Helena. We have Cabernet Sauvignon
on the hillside, and we have on the
foothills, we have Merlot. Knights Valley, for me,
represents the excellence for Cabernet Sauvignon
in all of Sonoma County, because the soil
is very poor, sandy gravel with some
volcanic ash as well, a little bit
of clay, and the ripening
is always early. This is very good for
Cabernet Sauvignon, to keep a flavor
without astringency, without a
green flavor, or even
herbaceous flavor. It’s an exceptional region
for Bordeaux varietals.>>(narrator)
Today, seven grapes make up 90% of commercial plantings
in Sonoma County. But growers are
rediscovering the past and exploring its
future potential.>>For us in Sonoma County, we
really want to kind of exploit this diversity of soil,
this diversity of climate, and so, we are
experimenting with lots of
different varieties.>>(narrator)
Throughout the
1,500 square miles of Sonoma County,
diversity reigns. Italian grapes from
Barbera to Vermentino find their niche along with
old-vine mixed vineyards and experimental
varieties. GuildSomm is a nonprofit
membership organization for wine
professionals. To join our
online community, visit us on the web
at guildsomm.com.

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