A look at pinot growing regions of Sonoma County

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No California red wine today is generating more buzz than pinot noir. And Sonoma County is ground zero for the widest range of cool-climate styles of pinots, like the ocean-influenced wines of Sonoma Coast, foggy and cool Green Valley, gentle rolling hills of Carneros Sonoma and the extensive vineyards throughout the Russian River Valley.

The common denominator for all of these vineyard zones: cool sites with fog, powered by the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, San Pablo Bay or the Russian River. A cool climate is essential for ripening sensitive pinot noir grapes, the polar opposite for cabernet sauvignon.

But it’s more than just physical location that attracts so many wine drinkers to pinot noir and even causes cabernet lovers to admit to pinot envy. Pinot noir is sexy. Pinot noir is substantial, smooth, silky and packed with layers of berry-rich flavors. These are reason enough for adventurous wine drinkers to look to pinot noir for something different and to break the cabernet lockstep.

Pinot noir has famously been called the holy grail of grape growing and winemaking. It’s a challenge that sends many growers out to find new sites in the county for growing pinot noir. Pinot noir is happy in cool, shallow, low fertility soils, like those found in Carneros Sonoma, Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley. These areas are known as AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas; countywide there are 18 AVAs, although Sonoma County is a political designation and not itself an AVA.

Clonal variations are a more recent consideration for growers and winemakers. Pinot noir is known for its wide range of clones, more than any other red grape, that provide the winemaker a broad palette for color, elegance, texture and many other factors. Here, then, are snapshots of five main Sonoma County appellations that specialize in pinot noir.

Russian River Valley

Perhaps the best known region for pinot noir in the county is the Russian River Valley, stretching from Healdsburg in the north to Rohnert Park in the south and includes the sub-appellations of Chalk Hill and Green Valley. About 20 percent of all of the pinot noir grown in California is rooted in the Russian River Valley. Russian River pinots are weighty with blackberry and dark plum flavors, sometimes with a touch of tobacco.

The largest concentration of Sonoma pinot noir producers is in the Russian River Valley. There are too many to mention them all, but look for these reliable names: Williams Selyem, Rochioli Vineyards, Merry Edwards, Joseph Swan, Dehlinger, Gary Farrell.

Green Valley of Russian River Valley

Despite its long name, Green Valley, in the southwestern corner of the Russian River Valley, is one of the smallest AVA appellations in Sonoma County, contained entirely within the Russian River Valley appellation. Thought to be the coolest and foggiest part of the area, interest in Green Valley as a vineyard area dates back to the early 1980s, when Iron Horse began making sparkling wine from pinot noir and chardonnay. Green Valley pinot noir is known for its lively acidity and bright, clear berry flavors.

Green Valley is mainly vineyards, but a small number of wineries, known for pinot noir, such as Marimar Estate. Dutton-Goldfield and DeLoach have joined Iron Horse in building Green Valley’s reputation for cool-climate pinot noir.

Carneros Sonoma

Los Carneros is a cool, windy region that extends across the southern parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. Once grazing land (carneros is ram in Spanish), Carneros became a popular place for pinot noir and chardonnay in the mid-1980s, mainly through the efforts of a group of growers and wineries called the Carneros Quality Alliance. Carneros Sonoma makes up the largest part of the AVA, an area of low rolling hills next to San Pablo Bay.

Carneros Sonoma is known for cool-climate pinot noir, used both in sparkling and still wines. Stylistically, Carneros pinot noir is rich in berry and spice flavors, full bodied with good acidity. Carneros Sonoma wines: Gloria Ferrer, Cline Cellars, Robledo, Schug, Anaba, Saintsbury and Nicholson Ranch.

Sonoma Coast

In terms of its size and scope, the Sonoma Coast AVA name has more meaning as a marketing tool than it does for grape growing and winemaking. The appellation stretches from the border with Mendocino County south to the San Pablo Bay and extends as far inland as the Sonoma Valley AVA. The vast area encompasses a wide range of soils and climates, making it difficult to define a sense of place for pinot noirs carrying a Sonoma Coast appellation. Fort Ross-Seaview, within the Sonoma Coast AVA, provides more specific parameters for its wines.

Still, Sonoma Coast pinots benefit from marine soils and cool ocean breezes, especially from those vineyards that actually “see” the Pacific Ocean. Pinot noirs carrying a Sonoma Coast appellation include Littorai, Flowers, Martinelli, Annapolis Winery, Kosta-Browne, Etude and Keller Estate.

Fort Ross-Seaview

Fort Ross-Seaview, just north of Jenner, emerged from the large Sonoma Coast appellation with its own AVA in 2012. The focus is on pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah, with vineyards stretching along a ridge, up to 1,800 feet above sea level. “Coastal Cool” is the marketing motto of Fort Ross-Seaview, describing the proximity of the sub appellation to the ocean but above the fog line. The leaner, higher acid character of Fort Ross-Seaview pinot noir falls in line with the shift in style away from bigger, darker pinots.

Fort Ross Vineyards, Hirsch and Flowers are members of a small group of grower-producers. Other wineries with vineyards or using grapes from the AVA include Siduri, Williams Selyem, Wild Hog, Marcassin and Peter Michael.

Pinot noir rewards wine drinkers willing to experiment. So begin the exploration today with a few Sonoma County pinot noirs.

Gerald D. Boyd is Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Email him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net

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