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Sonoma: An enchanted encounter

It may keep a lower profile than neighbouring Napa, but Denis Lin is enthralled by the dramatic scenery of Sonoma, and the distinctive complexity of its wines, on his first visit to this coastal paradise...

Kunde Family Estate, Sonoma

‘Wow!’ for a moment, I thought I was stepping into Universal Studios in Hollywood. In a fabulous round hall, a shining vintage car on a showroom turntable caught our attention. It was the original automobile from the movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Upstairs, an old but majestic dark wood desk silently overlooked the hall. It belonged to Don Corleone in The Godfather. While every piece at Inglenook winery spoke of owner Francis Ford Coppola’s track record in the movie industry, the scene was also a reminder of the contrast with the wine scene in nearby Sonoma.

This took place several months ago, during a visit to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, among a group of Chinese wine journalists. Sonoma is a joy to visit, and not only for the wines themselves – there are great discoveries for the wine lover, gourmet food and a busy calendar of winery events. And for outdoorsy types, the scenery of Sonoma County, with its lush backdrop of verdant vineyards, is an invitation to get those hiking boots on.

Variety show

But what of the land itself? The geological profile of Sonoma is complex, with volcanic and alluvial soils, sandy loam and heavy clay in different proportions. The coastal area is considerably cooler, with more precipitation than inland areas, thanks to the influence of sea breezes and fog.

With this array of terroir, it is perhaps no surprise that Sonoma County has more than 50 grape varieties planted. ‘Diversity is the keyword,’ says winemaker Zachary Long of Kunde Family Estate. ‘This estate alone boasts over 300m of elevation change, plus multiple soil types and exposure. Based on this diversity of growing conditions, we grow 17 varieties and our harvest season can last three months.’

Although vineyard acreage of Zinfandel lags far behind that of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and even Merlot, Sonoma County has long been strongly associated with this variety. It was the late 19th century when immigrants first planted Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. Pioneers include Pedroncelli and Frei Brothers Winery (now owned by Gallo Group). Thanks to them, many grafted Zinfandel old vines that were planted more than 100 years ago are still producing.

Wineries established later – including the likes of Lambert Bridge, Ravenswood, Ridge and Seghesio – took this jammy, berry-like and often peppery variety to another level. To winemaker Ted Seghesio, the challenge he faces in Alexander Valley is growing fruit in a warm climate while also accentuating ripening and waiting as long as possible for a balance of fruit quality characteristics’.

European sensibilities

Chardonnay from Sonoma County is often crisper, and shows more lightness in comparison with the Chardonnays from Napa. In fact, the 1976 Judgement of Paris white wine winner, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, was made from grapes planted in Alexander Valley, Sonoma.

Among the best examples I tasted was Marimar Estate Dobles Lías Chardonnay 2008, from Russian River Valley. Aged in oak barrels with extended lees contact, this delivered fantastic notes of stone fruit, yeast and nuttiness, interlaced with firm schistous mineral texture – it reminded me of Montrachet.

Today, Marimar Estate has been certified organic for all its vineyards. ‘After experimenting for several years with a few blocks of vines, in 2003 we decided to make the jump for the entire vineyard,’ says proprietor Marimar Torres, fourth generation of the famed Torres winemaking family. ‘The idea is to create an ideal balance between the vines and nature. The vineyard will be ecologically healthier, and the grapes of higher quality. That’s our long-term reward.’

Sauvignon Blanc is another speciality that reflects the characteristics of this land. In the beautiful Matanzas Creek Winery, the 2012 Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc, one of five Sauvignons it produces, impressed with its exotic aromas of lychee, guava and basil, supported with pear and lime peel, vivid acidity, firm structure and a lingering finish. Winemaker Marcia Monahan started using concrete, egg-shaped fermenters on Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc in 2014. ‘The wine shows more minerality,’ she says. ‘We don’t think it is added by the concrete, but it makes it more perceivable.’

Balancing act

Pinot Noir, a delicate and sensitive variety, looks increasingly promising in Sonoma County. While it shows deep black cherry flavours in Russian River Valley, in Carneros it is commonly less dense, with spicier notes. Pinots from the Sonoma Coast generally hit the balance between the two. Many experienced Pinot Noir producers from other regions have staked a claim in this region, betting that it will become the Burgundy of California

Cobb Winery, for example, has cultivated sustainable Pinot Noir vineyards since 1989. In the winery, owner and winemaker Ross Cobb focuses on a style of Pinot Noir that reflects the terroir of each vineyard, striving for a more complex, aromatic, lower-alcohol expression of the variety, picked at lower Brix (potential alcohol) and aged with a modest amount of new French oak.

Having visited Burgundy many times, Cobb keeps in contact with several leading producers, including Christophe Roumier. ‘Recently I tasted the Domaine Georges & Christophe Roumier Les Cras 2008,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know it was such an expensive wine, but that was the kind of the wine I wish I could make.’

Another rising star, the Benziger Family Winery’s de Coelo (pronounced day-chay-lo) vineyard was established in 2001. The fields had been farmed without chemicals since 1870, and the Benzigers have adopted a biodynamic approach from the start. To Mike Benziger, winegrower and general manager, ‘the innovation and the Wild West feel that characterised the Côte d’Or during the 1960s and 1970s is now evident in the west Sonoma Coast.’

The vines are essentially dry farmed to drive deep root growth. ‘The grapes are picked and fermented according to the geology of the blocks, not the geography. We have done extensive soil electroconductivity mapping so we know the geology well,’ says Benziger. ‘I strongly believe that it takes one generation until uncharted growing areas are farmed the right way. The first generation plants the stake, and the next will take it to the next level.’

Earlier this year, Sonoma County Winegrowers announced a plan to become the nation’s first 100% sustainable wine region. The checklist covers environmental issues such as vineyard pest management, water management, energy efficiency, carbon emissions, and also includes employment practices. If everything goes as planned, 100% certification will be achieved in 2019. Back to Long: ‘What we believe most about sustainability is that every year additional improvements must be made. When it comes to sustainability, you can always get just a little bit better.’

Written by Denis Lin

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