Sonoma – the most exciting wine region in the world?
I make no apologies for the length of this post; there was so much great stuff going on that I couldn’t leave anything out!
From the land of Cabernet in Napa, we arrived in Sonoma a couple of days ago to check out some great Pinot Noir. And find it we did, along with magnificent Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, Chardonnay… even Trousseau, Arinto and Nebbiolo; the latter made into rosé! There is wonderful feeling that the old and new live in perfect harmony in Sonoma; there is respect and love for each other’s wine, at every tasting room the servers tell you about another great place to visit or a funky wine they had with dinner just last night. It’s refreshing and a real pleasure to be here.
Whereas Napa Valley is a pretty easy area to understand, the Sonoma County appellation is vast at 1,786 square miles and is home to around 60,000 acres of vines. The big appellation also houses 16 sub-regions, or AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas), including Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Los Carneros and Sonoma Coast. Few of the wineries own all, or any, of their own vineyards and purchase grapes from throughout the appellation. It feels much more like Burgundy with each winery producing small amounts of lots of different wines from all over the county.
We visited six wineries and I have to admit that there wasn’t a single wine I tasted that I didn’t enjoy (apart from the Gewürztraminers… but that wasn’t the fault of the winemakers!). Below are my notes from four of the tasting rooms we visited; there will be a separate post for Kistler and Ridge.
Wind Gap Wines
I had a glass of Wind Gap Pinot at Sager + Wilde the week before we left for the states and was told in no uncertain terms that I had to pay them a visit… what a piece of advice that turned out to be! This could be the most fun to taste wine anywhere in California, located in one of the new warehouse/barn units at “The Barlow” in Sebastopol. The Barlow describes itself as “a place for the community to conduct business, share food and enjoy art, wine and time together” and they do it with a smile on their face!
The label was started by sommelier-turned winemaker Pax Mahle, the name refers to the geological breaks in the coastal hills where many of the vineyards are planted, which funnel wind inland and strongly influence the growing and ripening of the grapes. According to Pax, “Wind Gap is all about classically styled wines that represent the new California.”
Wind Gap Pierce Ranch Arinto 2013
This is a grape that is mostly found in Vinho Verde – at Wind Gap it is only available in a growler (a refillable glass bottle) to encourage everyone to drink it immediately! The wine is all lemons and grapes, grassy and zesty, and dry as a bone. Crisp. Bright, delicious and fun! 88 points
Wind Gap Trousseau Gris 2013, Russian River Valley ($24)
There is very little of this variety planted anywhere in the world so this was of great interst. Grapefruit and very floral nose with just a touch of apple. On the palate the apple and white flowers shine through with restrained acidity and great balance. It’s alike a slightly less acidic Riesling… and very good! 90 points
Wind Gap North Coast Rosé 2013 ($19)
This oone they call their GSN… Grenache (small amounts), Syrah and Nebbiolo… and they make a rosé with it! The palate is strawberries and red apples and the palate reveals the same fruit; the sweet strawberries dissolve into dry apply fruit, which in turn reveal a cherry and apple skin finish. I love it! 91 points
Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($36)
This is the wine I tried an Sager + Wilde – it didn’t disappoint. The nose is delightful with notes of strawberry, cranberry and orange peel as well as fragrant sweet vanilla. The cranberry freshness and orange peel stands out of the palate but there is also a distinct earthiness and great structure, with a sweet red fruit sign-off. A super-cool and modern wine. 93 points
Wind Gap Sceales Vineyard Grenache 2012 ($36)
What a ripe and wild nose! Cherries and blackberries are in the mix but the star turn is the big whiff of herbs de Provence, especially the dried fennel. The fruit explodes on the tongue and the freshness is spectacular – no wood, just Grenache grown in sand – like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I have no idea how to score this one! 91… ish!!
Wind Gap Sonoma Coat Syrah 2010 ($36)
Plums, blackberries and black pepper invite you to take a sip, and when you do you are greeted with all of the same flavours plus amazingly fresh acidity and a big spicy pepper finish, great cool climate Syrah. 92 points
Wind Gap Nelessen Syrah 2012 ($36)
The aromas are reminiscent of Ribena, with spikes of blackberry and just a nuance of black spice. Ripe, juicy and fresh on the palate with hefty tannin and searing acidity. This baby needs some time but it is a wow wine! 93+ points
Wind Gap Russian River Syrah 2008 ($40)
Ripe plums and a touch of raspberry freshness with delicious hints of leather and spice now really coming through. Fresh and sweet fruit – this is amazingly rounded and complete. The tannins are like feathers and the length is wonderful. Concentration, balance and elegance. Great, great wine. 94 points
Red Car Wine
The Red Car tasting rooms have a small winery feel but these guys are making some serious wines… but definitely having fun at the same time. They describe themselves as a winery specializing in cold climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah with small production lots and a winemaking style that embraces wild yeasts, natural acidity and gravity flow to produce aromatic wines of complexity, finesse and balance.
The tasting room is also home to an antique record player and a collection of LPs you can choose from to accompany your tasting experience (Wind Gap do this too – I think I know where they got the idea!). Red Car also have the best labels I have come across, featuring a visualisation of the mountains where their grapes are grown, each label with an arrow showing precisely the spot from whence the grapes originated.
Red Car Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2012 ($35)
What is it with this place and Chardonnay? It’s enough to convert the biggest denier! All apples, lemons and cool minerality on the nose, which carries onto the palate. Then there is a delightfully creamy mid-palate moment, like a lemon meringue pie, before the crisp finish takes your breath away. Awesome! 93 points
Red Car Pinot Noir Rosé 2012, Sonoma Coast ($25)
Such a pale colour that belies the red apple and red fruit… and the pink grapefruit finish. Wonderfully dry and wonderfully fresh. These guys make ace rosé! 91 points
Red Car Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($40)
This smells of summer pudding! Lots of red berries and just a touch of smoky, warming spice. The palate is super fresh and fruity; bright acidity and a fruit salad of flavor… Slurp! 92 points
Red Car Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast ($68)
Deep and warm with aromas of crushed strawberries and balsamic vinegar… so enticing. The palate is ripe and concentrated with pomegranate and red berries holding the long finish, underpinned by smoky, toasted spice. This is THE BOMB! 94 points
Red Car Falstaff Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($68)
Darker, more concentrated fruit than the Platt on the nose; silky smooth texture with a sweet super-ripe (but now way jammy) concoction of red and black berries… this is fruit all of the ay with just a dash of well-judged oak. Very sexy. 94 points
Red Car Sonoma County Syrah 2010 ($35)
Blackberries, raspberries and black spice get you salivating before you tuck into the clean, cool, silky wine in the glass. This is just pure drinkability, pretty good a touch chilled too I reckon. 91 points
Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah 2011 ($50)
What a wild and funky nose! Black and red fruit but the standout is the white pepper. On the palate there is a ton of concentrated, elegant, fresh fruit but there is a touch of leather and just a hint of smoked meat in the background. The acidity is incredible and the finish is long, fruit, peppery and oh so cooling. Wonderful stuff. 93 points
Joseph Swan Winery
The tasting room at Joseph Swan is only open on a Saturday and Sunday… that’s because they’re so busy making wine at the same location the rest of the time. Their annual production is around 5,000 cases and split across 20+ different wines and have “been having a party since 1968” as one of the guys in the tasting room so eloquently put it!
The winery is constantly finding new grapes to turn into bright and fresh wines but they are most famous for their Pinot Noir, heck these guys even have their own Pinot clone named after them!
Joseph Swan “The Vineyard Nextdoor” Rosé 2012 ($18)
Literally from the vineyard outside the tasting room, this 100% Pinot Noir has a wild berry nose and a ton of red fruit on the palate with a layered and spicy, complex finish. This is a serious rosé and a brilliant price – not sure it’ll make it across the pond though! 92 points
Joseph Swan Pinot Gris “Orange Wine” Saralee’s Vineyard 2012 ($24)
I can’t believe it took this long for someone to bring out an orange wine! It plays tricks with you… is it red or is it white?? I can tell you there’s a whole load of red apple at the end but I found this so hard to work out the fruit at the start and middle! I got some very light red berries and the texture was delightful. Confusing but delicious. 90 points
Joseph Swan Saralee’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($39)
A ton of red fruit that explodes on the nose and the palate – so pure and clean. The acid is a delight and the fruit just keeps coming on the long finish, with just a delicate touch of spicy oak. 92 points
Joseph Swan Trenton View Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($38)
Fuller, deeper and richer than the Saralee with layer upon layer of fruit; dark cherry, touch of plum, wild strawberry. The body is bigger without every being claggy or jammy as the bright acidity cuts through. This is an awesome wine and the best value of the entire trip… I’m sipping a glass right now! 95 points
Joseph Swan Cuve de Trois Pinot Noir 2012 ($29)
This will only be released in the next couple of weeks – a blend from 3 vineyards that seems to bring the best of each. Smoky, dark berry fruit is zingy and smooth on the palate – there is a lot going and and just needsa bit of time to meld together, 92+ points
Joseph Swan Great Oak Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($36)
More of the fruit-forward style with a beautifully concentrated palate of cherries, plums and blackberries. There are touches of smoke and earth, even hints of smoked meat. The great minerality gives a delicious cooling finish. Great stuff. 93 points
Joseph Swan Cotes du Rosa 2012 ($24)
Made from 90 year old Carignan vines and foot trodden! A huge blast of red fruit, almost bubblegum like on the palate; funky delicious and great fun. 89 points
Joseph Swan Syrah Great Oak Vineyard 2008 ($34)
This is magnificent! Cherries, plums and blackberries on the nose and palate with incredible concentration and incredible finesse. The black pepper undertones provide complexity and round the wine out beautifully; the finish is long and lavish, this is an exquisite wine. 94 points
Joseph Swan Ziegler Vineyard Zinfandel 2009 ($30)
Wow, these guys make awesome Zin too! Bright red fruit, a touch of smoke and spice, silky smooth and so long. We arrived at JS after visiting Ridge, and the best compliment I can give this wine is that it would not be out of place next to Lytton Springs or Geyserville. 93 posts
Joseph Swan Ziegler Matthew’s Station Tannat 2010 ($28)
Another first from me, Tannat from California. Deep and broody but retains great freshness. So, well, drinkable! 90 points
Not only does Copain lay claim to some of the best wines around but they have a view overlooking the Russian River Valley that beats the rest hands down! Winemaker Wells Guthrie is a lover of European wine, even spending time under the tutelage of Michel Chapoutier in the Northern Rhone. He is committed to crafting elegant, nuanced wines that are firmly rooted in California, yet with the sensibilities of the European wines.
I also love the experimentation here; the vineyard at the front of the tasting room used to be planted to Pinot Noir but has since been replanted to Trousseau… and what a fun wine that makes! Oh, and remember to put the correct email address when you book your visit… or like me you won’t have the access number to open the gate!
Copain Estate P2 2013, Anderson Valley ($25)
A rosé co-fermented with 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Pinot Gris, first developed for super-chef Thomas Keller to serve to guests as an aperitif. Soft red fruit, very fresh and easy, a great summer wine. 88 points
Copain Estate Les Voisons Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley ($42)
Fruity, earthy and funky on the nose. The palate is very clean and pure, nice earthiness and great acidity – a touch light on the palate, but a very nice wine. 91 points
Copain Estate Wetzel Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley ($65)
Lots of red fruit and a great luxurious edge from the new oak – this has real class. The palate has fruit, sweet spice, wonderful earthiness – its integrated, balanced and complex – a huge jump in quality. 94 points
Copain Estate Les Voisons Syrah 2010, Yorkville Highlands ($36)
Blueberry and blackcurrant with a touch of chocolate and tapenade. Super acidity and a delicious spicy, then mineral finish. Top notch stuff. 93 points
Copain Estate Brousseau Syrah 2010, Chalon ($45)
It gets even better! There may be less on the nose initially than the “Les Voions” but the concentration of flavor on the palate is incredible. A ton of black fruit with a great tannic structure and that fresh, clean acidity that is everywhere in California. The finish is spicy and long, with hints of chocolate and just a touch of roasted meat. Awesome stuff! 94+ points
Copain Estate Trousseau 2010, Russian River Valley ($42)
I was so glad when this one came out after the main tasting – I bloomin love Trousseau and they’re making a great go of it in California now too. Red currants, cranberry and earth – really funky and pops on the tongue and has a party in your mouth. Love it! 91 points
That is a lot of fantastic wine and some of it is available in the UK – it’s also worth signing up for all of the newsletters as they are full of interesting stuff and get to know what’s going on in this fantastic and exciting wine region:
If that wasn’t fun enough, then how about 38 tasting rooms in one place? Well that’s what Healdsburg has to offer! I had been driving around and doing far too much spitting so we spent Sunday playing a bit of tasting room tag – asking the current venue to pick the next… it was a long day, an enjoyable day, a no notes day… and one hell of a hangover! What I can do however, is recommend each of these places to visit if you are in the area; most of these guys are making about 150 cases of each wine – I hope they get the chance to make more so we can get some over in the UK!
Sean, the direct to consumer guy at Longboard, was my favourite guy of the whole holiday – a recovering attorney, scuba teacher and all-round super cool dude!
This is one super-cool, super-excisting region… don’t miss out!