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Sonoma Coast AVA

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 29, 2011

An almost universal fact is that the process of defining American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Sonoma County is overly complex and confusing. This can be seen in the overlapping tendencies found within the small Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA to the overly large and somewhat macro Sonoma Coast AVA. Equally confusing is the methodology concerning the logic used in the creation of the AVAs. Some of the AVAs use climate patterns to determine their boundaries while other AVAs use political motivations to define their boundaries. Because of the complexities of Sonoma County, understanding each AVA and their relationships to each other is critical when exploring and discovering the fine wines that Sonoma County produces.

The Sonoma Coast AVA is located in the western part of Sonoma County. Bordering the westward limit of the Sonoma County line, the Sonoma Coast AVA also borders the Pacific Ocean. From the westward county line, the Sonoma Coast AVA extends between 5 to 15 miles inward at certain parts and encompasses a total area of 750 square miles. Due to this fact, the Sonoma Coast AVA is the largest AVA located within Sonoma County.

Founded in 1987, the Sonoma Coast AVA can be considered a macro AVA. The word macro is suitable and applicable to the Sonoma Coast AVA due to the sheer size of Sonoma Coast AVA. Included with the vast size of the Sonoma Coast AVA are the presence of various sub-AVAs. Concerning the sub-AVAs found within Sonoma Coast AVA, the Russian River Valley AVA is located but not completely contained to the Sonoma Coast AVA. Of the Russian River Valley AVA, the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA is completely contained to the Sonoma Coast AVA while the Chalk Hill AVA is only partially contained to the Sonoma Coast AVA. Finally, a small amount of the Bennett Valley AVA is contained within the Sonoma Coast AVA as well as additional small parts of Los Carneros and Sonoma Valley AVAs.

The definition of the Sonoma Coast AVA is interesting when compared to other AVAs within Sonoma County. From the onset, the Sonoma Coast AVA was created with climate in mind. It is for this reason that the borders fell as they did. The Sonoma Coast AVA's immense area shares a similar common temperature of around a high Region II classification. Temperature was not the only factor in the creation of the Sonoma Coast AVA as politics played a part as well. By creating a large AVA, wineries could legally blend grapes from remotely located vineyards and maintain a label stating "estate bottled." Finally, the creation of the Sonoma Coast AVA also allowed roughly 85% of Sonoma County to legally use an AVA designation.

Regardless of the principal concerning the creation of an AVA based on climactic similarities, the Sonoma Coast AVA does have unique characteristics that lead to regional differences. These regional differences are visible and defined by landmarks within the Sonoma Coast AVA. For example, western areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA have unique characteristics that set them apart from the remainder of the Sonoma Coast AVA.

Lands not contained to the western areas of Sonoma Coast AVA are smaller and much more unique. Temperatures found within the eastern areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA are slightly warmer than those areas found in the western Sonoma Coast AVA. Other differences include the absence of mountains within the eastern parts of Sonoma Coast AVA. Comparatively speaking, eastern parts of the Sonoma Coast share many similarities with the inland AVAs of Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley and Sonoma Mountain.

It has been commented that with the regional differences found within the Sonoma Coast AVA, a special AVA might be created sometime in the future for the western Sonoma Coast AVA. Research into the differences between the western areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA shows that this is a sound prediction. It is simply a matter of time as to when this AVA classification will occur.

Western areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA are contained to a mountainous area not found elsewhere in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The political climate of grape growing within these western areas has created difficulties when individuals attempt to set-up new vineyards. Due to this fact, the vineyards that are present are on the smaller side. The quality of their wines however cannot be disputed. Wines--and in particular Pinot Noir wines--produced in these western areas reveal a distinction of place and are indeed superb. Much like other wine areas found in a mountainous setting, benefits include vineyards planted at altitudes above the fog line. This results in an abundance of sunshine not found in other areas of Sonoma Coast AVA. The soils found within the western areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA are of the sandy clay and clay loam types and are also a factor in the uniqueness of the wine.

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Grape varieties grown within the Sonoma Coast AVA are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, to name a few. When reviewing favorable varieties, it becomes clear that Pinot Noir has found it's calling in the Sonoma Coast AVA. This fact is especially true in the western areas of Sonoma Coast AVA. Intense flavors combined with high acidity result in truly wonderful Pinot Noir wines. There is little doubt that the continued development of Pinot Noir within the western areas of the Sonoma Coast AVA will eventually yield America's finest Pinot Noir wine. Chardonnay wines are also produced in the western Sonoma County AVA, although they are typically not as refined as the Pinot Noir wines. As winemaking is continuing to advance, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Sonoma County AVA Chardonnays.

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