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Sonoma Valley AVA

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 30, 2011

Sonoma County and in particular the Sonoma Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) hold a very special place in the history of Northern California winemaking. This can be seen in the fact that the Sonoma Valley AVA region is where the original California wine rush began. From these simple beginnings came the fame of Sonoma County and then the fame of the Napa Valley. Unfortunately for Sonoma County, winemaking did not remain a popular endeavor. Several theories exist as to the decline in Sonoma County winemaking but regardless of the theory, it was clear that change was on the horizon. A testament to this was the decline of the Buena Vista winery--arguably the most famous Sonoma County winery. The end result was that the Napa Valley took center stage as Northern California's and the United States premier wine-growing region. This was no small undertaking and the Napa Valley has maintained this position throughout the difficult Phylloxera and Prohibition years. Throughout this time, Sonoma County has continued to produce some of the finest quality grapes and wines. Recent history has shown that Sonoma County is developing more and more resident wineries. This should help to restore some former glory to a truly impressive wine region.

Critiquing wines and winemaking regions requires a basis of comparison. When reviewing the Sonoma Valley AVA, it is all too tempting to compare Sonoma Valley against the Napa Valley. The reason for this comparison is very simple. Both the Sonoma Valley AVA and the Napa Valley AVA share similar characteristics. Apart from the obvious size difference, both the Sonoma Valley AVA and the Napa Valley AVA sport similar growing conditions and even share the famous county overlapping AVA, Los Carneros. Without taking into account the recognized quality of Sonoma Valley wines, the fact that the Sonoma Valley AVA shares so many positive characteristics with the Napa Valley demonstrates the winemaking potential of the Sonoma Valley AVA.

As with all other American Viticultural Areas located in Sonoma County, the relationships concerning Sonoma Valley AVA can be quite confusing. The Sonoma Valley AVA is one of Sonoma County's three large AVA regions. Several sub-regions exist under the Sonoma Valley AVA and overlapping is also present. Referencing an AVA boundary map of Sonoma County will go a long way in helping you understand the relationships between the various AVAs of Sonoma County.

The Sonoma Valley AVA is located in the southeast corner of Sonoma County. About half of the Sonoma Valley AVA overlaps with the Sonoma Coast AVA. This is overlapping area where the Los Carneros AVA exists and crosses the county line into the Napa Valley. Two additional sub-regions are present in the Sonoma Valley AVA. These regions are the Bennett Valley AVA and the Sonoma Mountain AVA. As two of the smallest AVAs found in Sonoma County, these AVAs are located in the northwestern area of the Sonoma Valley AVA.

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As mentioned earlier, climate conditions of the Sonoma Valley AVA are very similar to climate conditions found within the Napa Valley AVA. It is typically cooler in the southern parts of the Sonoma Valley AVA with cool fog from the San Pablo bay reaching into the valley. Temperatures tend to increase as the valley progresses further north and inland. Due to this fact, noticeable warmer temperatures are easily detected at the start of the Sonoma Mountain AVA. In addition to temperature similarities, the rainfall and soil types of the Sonoma Valley AVA are strikingly similar to that of the Napa Valley. Soil types are varied with differences seen between valley floor soils and mountain face soils. Typically valley floor soils are very fertile and possess loam characteristics while the mountain soils tend to be rockier and well drained.

Due to the variations in temperature throughout the Sonoma Valley AVA, vintners are still experimenting with finding grape varieties that are best suited to local microclimates. As the southern Sonoma Valley AVA is cooler than the north, cool climate grape varieties are being introduced in the south. Varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Merlot are being introduced with varying degrees of success.

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Again, sharing a similarity with the Napa Valley, the northern areas of the Sonoma Valley AVA can best be described as a haven of red wine production. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel do exceptionally well in the northern Sonoma Valley AVA. Cabernet Sauvignons produced in the northern Sonoma Valley AVA can be described as big graceful wines. Hints of warmth along with an iron earthy quality are present alongside a refined fruits and tannin characteristics.

Zinfandel wines produced in the northern areas of the Sonoma Valley AVA show a great deal of promise as well. Surprisingly, the Zinfandel wines produced in the northern areas of the Sonoma Valley AVA do not share many of the strong characteristics of the northern Sonoma Valley AVA Cabernet Sauvignons. Zinfandels produced in the northern Sonoma Valley AVA have a gentle nature and are very similar to the Zinfandels produced in the Dry Creek Valley AVA of Sonoma County. The fact that Zinfandel enthusiasts consider Dry Creek Valley as the vanguard of Zinfandel production demonstrates the quality level found within northern Sonoma Valley AVA Zinfandels. The only major difference found in Sonoma Valley AVA Zinfandels is the inclusion of berry qualities and a reduction of tar flavors.

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