Back To Cali
There is something comforting about the familiar, whether it is your mother’s home cooking, a classic Rolling Stones album or a Lindsay Lohan mess. Well, maybe the last is a stretch.
What I am saying is that the memorable is never forgotten. In regards to California, much ballyhoo has been made of the emerging AVAs (appellations) of the Central Coast, i.e., Santa Barbara, Lodi and Paso Robles, in the past decade. But what of the regions that started it all, Napa and Sonoma? Without these historic locales, there would not be a California wine history. So, with this in mind, it is time to get back to the basics, and to look again at the different AVAs and what they do best.
Contrary to popular opinion, California’s fine wine history started in Sonoma County, not Napa, with the arrival of Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy. In 1857, he bought a small vineyard and christened it Buena Vista Vineyards, establishing California’s first premium winery. More importantly, in 1861, when he visited Europe’s famous growing regions, he collected over 10,000 cuttings of 350 different varieties, and then transplanted them to Sonoma’s rich soil. He also published a variety of reports and books about his wine growing activities. His tireless work brought the state of California worldwide fame, and earned him the moniker “The Father of the California Wine Industry.”
Today, Sonoma County’s 350 wineries grow 66 different varietals on over 62,000 acres, producing six per cent of California’s yearly production. The moderating factor here is the 100 kilometres of cool Pacific coastline. The air currents and fog reach many of the AVAs via three routes, and this meteorological fact explains why Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two most frequently planted grapes throughout the county.
major sonoma avas
Alexander Valley: Sonoma’s warmest AVA is inland, away from the Pacific Influence. In this 20-mile-long by 2-mile-wide region, Cabernet Sauvignon is King. Planted on the hillsides and mountain ridges, plump/ripe wines are the norm, with a definite cocoa quality. Valley floors give way to tropical fruit Chardonnays and rich Merlots. Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese have also shown promise here.
Chalk Hill: There is no chalk at all present; rather, it is volcanic soil. Elegant and mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays are this region’s calling cards. Cabernet Sauvignon tends to have an herbaceous edge.
(Los) Carneros: This AVA crosses over into Napa, so wines are produced on both sides of the border. The area north of San Francisco Bay is, essentially, a cool climate, and received its AVA status in 1987. The proximity of the fog and Pacific’s influence have created an area that is noted for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and consequently, this is the hub of California sparkling wine activity. But, as you head into the northwestern portion (Sonoma), the climate becomes markedly warmer, and ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot becomes easier.
Dry Creek Valley: This AVA abuts Alexander to the west. As the name denotes, it a region of low rainfall, averaging eight inches during the growing season. The first plantings were by French immigrants. The Italians soon followed, bringing Zinfandel. America’s grape thrives on the infertile red volcanic soils, making for small concentrated bunches. Today, both Zin and Cab Sauv are neck-and-neck in terms of plantings and quality. For white wines, check out Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Northern Sonoma: This multi-appellation AVA, encompassing most of Sonoma County, except for Carneros and Sonoma Valley, is for blending. It was petitioned by Gallo, as this winery wanted a more prestigious appellation (instead of basic Sonoma) for blending their huge tracts of land all over the county.
Rockpile: This AVA was created in 2002. The original plantings were by Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Its full-bodied Zinfandels are its hallmark.
Russian River Valley: RRV occupies one sixth of the entire acreage planted in Sonoma County. The cool fog is responsible for the significant daily temperature shift. With nighttime temperatures dropping as much as 35˚F to 40˚F from daytime highs, this area is ideal for the star varietal, Pinot Noir. All things being equal, some superb Zinfandel and Cab are sourced from hillside plantings. Chardonnay is very good too. The Green Valley AVA, which is located in the southwestern portion of RRV, is one of the main access points of Pacific influence into upper Sonoma County: Read: very cool climate.
Sonoma Coast: The largest region within the county is also the coolest and wettest. Despite this, it has become the rising star. Why? The long hang times required to mature the fruit gives extra dimension and fruit to the crisp and elegant Chardonnays and dark cherry-laden Pinots.
In appearance, Napa has carved out its reputation on traditional French grapes (Chard/ Cab) as opposed to the more “fuzzy” multi grapes of Sonoma. That being said, diversification has arrived. As a general rule, it is warmer than Sonoma, as the fog tends to be relegated to the southern portion of the county.
Napa’s godfather was the Russian immigrant, via France, André Tchelistcheff. When hired as chief winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards in 1938, he started the modern wine movement in the County, introducing the concepts of French barriques, cold fermentations, frost machines and malolactic fermentation. He is also credited with defining the style of Cali wines, notably Cabernet Sauvignon. His efforts earned him the title of “Dean of American winemakers,” and countless winemakers, including Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi, referred to him as “maestro.”
Speaking of Mondavi, his winery was the first to be built in the Valley, post Prohibition. He was also one of the early proponents of varietal labeling, and became California’s Wine Ambassador until his death in 2008.
Napa is also home to two wines that beat the French in the infamous 1976 tasting, Château Montelena Chardonnay and Stag Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. If you have seen the movie Bottle Shock, you know the story.
major napa avas
Howell Mountain: On the eastern side of Napa, in the Vaca mountains, vineyards are planted between 1400 and 2200 feet above sea level. The soil is volcanic, and some of the finest Merlots and Cabernets I have ever tasted have come from this AVA.
Mount Veeder: Located on the western cool Mayacamas mountain range, many vineyards are on 30-degree slopes. Stylistically, the reds are powerful and structured with firm tannins. Cab is King!
Napa Valley: This designation is generally used when blending fruit from different AVAs within the valley. Otherwise, producers use this on the label instead of listing a specific AVA within.
Oakville: Oakville is Napa’s heartland. The soil is sand and gravel and the climate is neither too warm nor too cold. These conditions are perfect for the ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Rutherford: Tchelistcheff said, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.” Although other AVAs successfully grow the varietal, Rutherford is considered one of the premier Cab-producing regions of Napa.
Spring Mountain District and Diamond Mount Ridge: Both are very similar to Mount Veeder in that the styles of the wines, namely the Cabernets, are firm, powerful and full of blackcurrant fruit, minerals and herbal/mint qualities.
Stags Leap District: This appellation was the first to achieve AVA status based on the terroir characteristics of its soil — namely, clay, loam and volcanic sediment. Elegant and perfumed reds and whites are the norm.
92 Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve Chardonnay 2008, Napa Valley ($44.95)
Sourced from Yountville fruit, this full-bodied white kicks up the concentration, ripeness and oak over the regular Napa Valley bottling. This rich offering churns out cream, banana, apple, fig and pineapple. In the mouth there is a creamy texture, with good acid and a spice-tinged finale.
90 Beringer Chardonnay 2008, Napa Valley ($24.95)
Beringer’s Napa Chardonnay is a value-priced offering (in California terms). Mid weight, the aromas of banana, tropical fruit, lemon and Fuji apple mesh together with subtle oak notes of caramel, vanilla and spice. It finish is lengthy and refreshing.
89 Etude Chardonnay Estate 2009, Carneros ($49.95)
This wine epitomizes the modern style of Cali Chardonnay. It is one in which elegance and subtle oak have supplanted the two-by-four oily style of yesteryear. Sourced from the cool Carneros region, there is definition and freshness beneath the apple, spice, vanilla, honey, minerals and yellow plums. The lengthy finish is perfectly suited for grilled salmon in a butter sauce.
88 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches 2008, Sonoma Coast ($24.95)
A cool climate bouquet of apples, minerals, hay and cinnamon meshes together with flavours of lemon, banana and caramel. It is elegantly styled, with fresh acid and a touch of creaminess.
94 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley ($94.95)
Sourced from a sloped vineyard on Howell Mountain, this wine is a full-bodied beauty with loads of crème de cassis, black cherries, blackberries, mint, graphite and toast. There is loads of sweet fruit and flesh on the mid palate as well as a substantial amount of tannin underneath. It will drink well until 2025.
92 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley ($79.95)
A sleek, yet powerful, purple/black coloured offering, its nose is still quite youthful and a tad closed, but cassis, vanilla, cocoa, tobacco and spice are all present on the nose and palate. Full-bodied, the tannins grip the finale, ensuring a long life ahead for this beauty. Enjoy it from 2011 to 2023.
92 Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($44.95)
Made from old vines, some which date back to 1913, this full-bore wine offers huge amounts of black raspberries, blackberries and berry fruit jam in the glass. Throw in some spice, tobacco and vanilla and you have a perfect wine for a winter pot roast or braised lamb shanks.
91 Chateau St Jean Cinq Cépages 2007, Sonoma County ($89.95)
Sourced from many different AVAs within Sonoma, this Meritage is the flagship red wine of this winery. Cassis, boysenberry, cocoa, spice, vanilla and cocoa come together on the nose of this young wine. There is excellent length as well as a medium plus body. Drink it over the next 7 years to take advantage of its exuberance.
91 Stags Leap Winery Petite Syrah 2007, Napa Valley ($50)
Even though the wine is labelled Napa Valley, the grapes are sourced from the home vineyard in the Stags Leap AVA. This is a powerful offering with a dark nose of plums, cassis, cherries, violets and spice. Gutsy, to say the least, the wine has at least 15 years ahead of it thanks to the pronounced tannins. Meat is needed, lots of meat, to tame this baby.
90 Rodney Strong Symmetry 2007, Alexander Valley ($50)
The 2007 Symmetry is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 3% Merlot and 1% each of Franc and Petit Verdot. Aromas of After Eight mints, blackberries, violets, cinnamon and raspberries are constructed on a full-bodied frame. The jammy texture is laced with dark fruits, raspberries and spice. Great persistency and structure will allow the wine to age for a decade.
89 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley ($49.95)
This mid-weight Pinot opens up with dark cherries, raspberries, flowers, vanilla and cocoa on the nose. Spice, herbs, raspberries and smoke come together on the taste buds. There is a lengthy finish, supple tannins and a touch of heat. It is ready to drink now.
89 Philip Togni Tanbark Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley ($59.95)
This, the second label of Togni, is very much approachable as no press wine was used to make this wine. All the grapes for this wine were sourced from Spring Mountain. The telltale herbal/cedar aromas of the higher elevation fruit combine with raspberries, cassis, cherries and liquorice. Now to 2015.
89 Beringer Knights Valley Alluvium 2007, Knights Valley ($39.95)
This elegant blend is made primarily from Merlot (78%), with the remainder a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Cassis, mint and herbs, boysenberry, violets and mocha are all present. There is good persistency with tannins popping up at the end. Drink it over the next 5 years.
88 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma Coast ($19.95)
Here is a straight Pinot that is fruity, friendly and ready to go. The cocoa/coffee aromas from the oak influence mesh together with boysenberries, black cherries, flowers, earth and spice. It is flavourful, fruity and has fine length. The price is also very right.
87 La Crema Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast ($29.95)
Here is a smooth and easy Pinot, which possesses a medium ruby colour. Cherries, spice, herbs, and vanilla are all constructed on fresh tannins and soft tannins. And it has a very good length.