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Sonoma Wine Basics

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Along with Napa, Sonoma is one of the most noteworthy wine producing regions in the United States and competes in quality and diversity with the most acclaimed regions worldwide. Think of your favorite wine style, chances are a talented Sonoma winemaker produces it and at the highest level.

Sonoma wineries do it all, from old vine Zinfandel to structured Cabernet, from bubbly wine to elegant Pinot. And it’s because Sonoma is home to an array of microclimates ranging from the warmest AVA in California to some of the state’s coldest vineyards. Here’s all you need to know about Sonoma wine.

Agoston Haraszthy
Agoston Haraszthy

Sonoma's History

Today Sonoma produces roughly 6% of California’s wine, making it the largest wine-producing region in Northern California. Still, Sonoma wouldn’t enjoy its well-deserved fandom if it weren’t for the earliest pioneers who saw an ideal spot for growing prime quality wine grapes in the diverse area.

Russian immigrants planted the county’s first vines in 1812 in Fort Ross, and Spanish missionaries soon followed, planting extensive vineyards in what is now the city of Sonoma.

The larger-than-life visionary and entrepreneur Agoston Haraszthy, the ‘father of Californian wine,’ made Sonoma his permanent home, founding the famous Buena Vista Winery and bringing to the wine region over 100 000 European cuttings — the future of Sonoma wine was guaranteed.

By the early 1900s, there were over 250 wineries in the county, but most of them closed during the ‘noble experiment’ of Prohibition. After a challenging recovery, today, you can find over 400 wineries scattered around Sonoma, and the quality is better than ever.

Sonoma's Grapes

Over 60 different wine grapes are grown in Sonoma, showing the region’s climatic diversity and versatility. Chardonnay is the most planted variety in Sonoma, with around 30% of the county’s vineyards dedicated to the noble white grape. Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir follow, each with about 20% of the plantings.

Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc have significant plantings as well, each with around 6% of the planted area, but expect everything, from Viognier to Pinot Gris. From crowd-pleasing varietals to unique finds like Sangiovese, Sonoma truly has something for every palate.

Of course, such grape diversity would only be possible thanks to Sonoma’s varied climate, from the coastal wine regions freshened by the Pacific breeze to the warm inland valleys extending into the Mayacamas Mountains.

Sonoma's Wine Regions

There are 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Sonoma, each with unique geographical and climatic traits. And although only 6% of the county is planted with vines, they add up to almost 63,000 acres of vineyards.

Sonoma Wine

The Russian River Valley receives the refreshing morning fog that sneaks its way through the Coastal Mountain Range’s gaps. The awe-inspiring Russian River flows 110 miles until it reaches the Pacific Ocean, running through endless vineyards, mainly planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

Carneros, an AVA shared between the Napa and Sonoma counties, is influenced by the San Pablo Bay in the south and has become a source of extraordinary sparkling wine — even Champagne houses as prestigious as Taittinger and Moët & Chandon have operations here.

The warmer AVA’s of Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain and the northern Alexander Valley, amongst others, are better suited for growing Bordeaux varietals and champion Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These regions produce age-worthy mono-varietal wines and blends to satisfy the most demanding wine collectors.

Perhaps the most exciting wine style in Sonoma is the bold and juicy red Zinfandel, often made with grapes from century-old vines grown in the Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile and other warm AVAs. The noble varietal produces one of the most all-American wines despite having its origins in Croatia and Southern Italy.

Last but not least, Sauvignon Blanc has been growing in popularity in recent years, providing a fresher alternative to the often-bold Chardonnay. The Dry Creek AVA is capitalizing on the acidic and herbal grape.

Wine Tasting Profiles

With such a variety of wine styles, categorizing and describing Sonoma wine is not easy. Still, several wine grapes and styles have become the county’s signature, and their consistently high quality makes them worth describing in detail.

Jordan Winery

Sonoma’s sparkling wine is one of the finest in the country. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grown in some of the coldest sites in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros AVAs, often go through the traditional and time-consuming méthode champenoise. These premium sparkling wines offer a dynamic acidity, often supporting white fruit and floral aromas amongst yeast scents extending long into the aftertaste.

Top-Tier Producers: Gloria Ferrer, Chandon, Domaine Carneros, J Vineyards & Winery and La Crema Estate.

Sonoma Bordeaux-style wine is made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc either individually or as part of a blend. The Alexander Valley and Knights Valley AVAs are the better-known sources for this style. The wine is robust with firm, but polished tannins and offers a more vibrant acidity than similar wines from neighboring Napa. Fruit-forward and expressive, these wines often spend at least six months in oak to gain aromatic richness and complexity. Expect black fruit, oak spices and slight herbaceousness.

Top-Tier Producers: Silver Oak Cellars, Jordan Winery, Peter Michael, Verité and Beringer Vineyards.

Sonoma Chardonnay is amongst the county’s most popular styles, and although fresh, un-oaked examples exist. Most Sonoma Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels and is fruit-forward and bold. Golden apples and butter aromas are not uncommon, and the palate is more often than not creamy and concentrated.

Top-Tier Producers: Marcassin Estate, Aubert Wines, Kistler Vineyards, Morlet Family Vineyards and Peter Michael.

Sonoma Pinot Noir is hands down the most celebrated red wine in the region. It displays a silky mouthfeel and powdery tannins framing red and black cherry and oaky vanilla. Riper than the Pinot from Oregon, Sonoma’s Pinot Noir has fruit generosity while still bringing forward balancing acidity.

Top-Tier Producers: Morlet Family Vineyards, Wayfarer, Williams Selyem, Belle Glos, Hartford Family Winery, Paul Hobbs, Joseph Phelps and Kosta Browne.

Sonoma Red Zinfandel is only matched by examples grown in the warm Central Valley AVA of Lodi and few others. Old vines are critical for the style. They produce concentrated grapes that become rich, bold and juicy red wines with well-defined tannins, elevated alcohol and often a pleasant residual sweetness.

Top-Tier Producers: Ridge Vineyards, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Francis Ford Coppola and Turley Wine Cellars.

Enjoy Wine Right Where It’s Made

An unique Vines of Sonoma Wine Tour is the best way of getting to know your favorite winemakers and experiencing their creations right where they’re made...from the grape to the bottle.

There’s lots to see and do in Sonoma County, including world-class dining experiences and wine tastings, always with the beautiful scenery and vibrant vineyards as a backdrop. Let the experts and passionate guides at Vines of Sonoma take you on a Sonoma wine tour of a lifetime!

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