A Journey Through Sonoma Wine Country
We had the pleasure of touring the Sonoma wine region recently. Our plan was to visit wineries in certain Sonoma sub-regions since their micro climates are perfect for growing specific grapes. The only downside: none of these wineries are currently represented at the LCBO. You really need to go there to experience them yourselves!
Our first stop was the Russian River Valley, which is much cooler than most of Sonoma due to its proximity to the Petaluma Gap. That gap in the coastal mountains allows cold, foggy Pacific Ocean air to flood the region each night, but the fogs are burned off by the sun during the warm afternoons. These conditions are perfect to produce elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Think of Burgundy more than the big, ripe styles produced in the warmer regions of California. If you visit, stop at the spectacular MacRostie Vineyards Tasting Room, which has been recognized as one of the best in Napa and Sonoma to try some of their superb Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
Next we paused in Alexander Valley on the eastern side of Sonoma. One of the warmest sub-regions in Sonoma, it’s the home of great Cabernet Sauvignon. The wildfires impinged on the Alexander Valley this season, but, fortunately, did not cause major damage to the vineyards. One of the stars of the region is Robert Young Winery. If the weather is good, take your tasting outside and enjoy the sweeping vistas of the vineyards as a backdrop. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is excellent, but do try their Chardonnay as well if you like a fuller bodied version.
Finally, we ended in Dry Creek Valley at Sonoma’s north end. Despite being north, it is still another of the warmest sub-regions. It is justifiably famous for its old vine Zinfandel that thrives in the hot, dry climate. Some old bush vines are approaching 100 years of age and, although they have low yields, they produce incredible fruit. This is some of the finest, if not the finest, Zinfandel in all of California. We visited A. Rafanelli Winery to taste their richly fruity, complex, well balanced Zinfandel, but also found their Cabernet Sauvignon to be first-rate. If you visit them, please take note that you must make an appointment to taste here.
The magic of Sonoma could occupy several columns, but we really should review some wines, including a number from Sonoma. My ratings are based on a 5 star system developed by the British wine writer, Michael Broadbent: 5 stars: Outstanding; 4 stars: Very good; 3 stars: Good; 2 stars: Moderately good; 1 star: Not very good, but not bad; No stars: Poor.
MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris Ranch Russian River Valley ★★★★ $24.95 (Vintages) As mentioned in a previous column, this vineyard was owned by the actor from My Three Sons. It’s a full bodied Pinot Gris that gives a nod to its Alsatian homeland. Expect spiced pear compote, lemon, ripe golden apple, peach, and cream with good balancing acidity. Really enjoyable to sip before dinner or with fried chicken.
La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018 ★★★★ $29.95 (Vintages) The Sonoma Coast region is even cooler than the Russian River Valley due to its direct exposure to the Pacific Ocean, which gives this Chardonnay a definite cool climate character. It’s quite full bodied with yellow apple, lemon, vanilla, cream, and spicy French oak flavours and aromas. Good with poultry or oven roasted salmon.
Tornatore Etna Bianco 2018 ★★★★ $24.95 (Vintages) There is still some of this full bodied pale lemon coloured white from the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano in Sicily, in Vintages around the province and it’s worth tracking some down. Attractive flavours of lemon, peach, pear, fennel, honey, and spice with intense minerals abound, but at kept in check by good acidity. Match it up with seafood or creamy pastas.
Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2017 ★★★★½ $29.95 (Vintages) A classic deeply coloured Zinfandel showing plenty of brambly blackberries, raspberries, spice and vanilla with aging in French oak. Strongly suspect much of the fruit has been sourced from Dry Creek and their home vineyard in Alexander Valley. The wine’s acidity renders it quite food friendly making it a good pairing with red meats of all kinds or spicy meat pizza.
Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2016 ★★★★ $27.95 (Vintages) Benziger invests in sustainable vineyard practices to produce this deeply coloured, full bodied, dry Cab that needs some aeration to open up. Then it will show pronounced cassis, black cherry, blackberry, cedar, vanilla, menthol, and mint. Excellent paired with hard, aged cheeses and red meats.
La Crema Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ★★★½ $34.95 (Vintages) Another wine from the cool climate Sonoma Coast. The aromas were lovely – raspberry, strawberry, red cherry, cinnamon spice, orange peel, and clove. However, the flavours aren’t quite as complex and leaned to red fruits with a little cinnamon with a medium finish. It’s an enjoyable Burgundian styled Pinot for your mushroom risotto.
La Braccesca Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2016 ★★★★½ $28.95 (Vintages) A lesser known red from southern Tuscany that you need to try: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. In La Braccesca, its tannic structure, acidity, and ageability make a nice package, especially when matched with notes of red currants and cherries, red plum, earth, vanilla, cedar, sweet baking spice, and violets. Pair it with pasta with cheese, Tuscan bean dishes, or dry salamis.