An Introduction to Sonoma County AVAs

  • Wine
  • by HANA-LEE SEDGWICK
  • on MAY 1, 2024
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Wine

An Introduction to Sonoma County AVAs

By Hana-Lee Sedgwick May 1, 2024

Located north of San Francisco and bordering the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma County is one of the most recognized wine regions in California, and for good reason. This expansive growing region (roughly double the size of neighboring Napa Valley) produces some of the finest examples of wine in California, where varied climatic and geographical conditions allow for a diverse range of grapes to be grown. In fact, there are over 60 grape varieties grown in Sonoma Wine Country, spread throughout its 19 distinct appellations.

From forested valleys where coastal fog hangs low and thick to mountainous areas with sunshine-filled days, Sonoma’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are as diverse as the grapes that grow within their borders. Whether you’re new to Sonoma and want to get to know the lay of the land or are an avid drinker of Sonoma County wine and are ready to take your knowledge of the region up a notch, our quick guide to Sonoma’s AVAs will help you better understand what makes this Northern California wine region, and its wines, so special.

Jordan Winery | Courtesy of Alexander Valley Winegrowers
Vineyards at Jordan Winery, Courtesy of Alexander Valley Winegrowers

Alexander Valley AVA

Located at the northern end of Sonoma County surrounding Geyserville, Alexander Valley—established as an AVA in 1984—is a respected inland growing area known for structured yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignon. While it gets quite hot during the day, its proximity to the Russian River (and the fog that comes with it) allows the valley to cool off considerably at night. Cabernet may be king here, but the region also produces full-bodied Chardonnay and some unusual grapes like Sangiovese.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Sutro, Banshee

Bennett Valley AVA

Established in 2003, Bennett Valley is a small appellation known for its small, grower-operated wineries. Here, well-draining soils and cooling marine influences such as morning fog and ocean breezes allow for a long growing season. Grapes like Merlot and Chardonnay tend to shine here, as well as cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Coursey Graves, Matanzas Creek Winery, Bennett Valley Cellars

Coursey Graves
Photo courtesy of Coursey Graves

Chalk Hill AVA

Recognized as an AVA in 1983, Chalk Hill differentiates itself from other parts of the greater Russian River Valley (of which it is partially situated) because of its warmer climate, chalky soils from ancient volcanic ash, and higher elevations. Known for its mineral-driven white wines, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill is also home to grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Chalk Hill Winery, Rodney Strong Vineyards, Calluna Vineyards

Dry Creek Valley | WineCountry Media | Julia Ogrydziak
Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg, Courtesy of WineCountry Media | Julia Ogrydziak

Dry Creek Valley AVA

Located north of the Russian River Valley between Northern Sonoma and Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley is a bucolic region spanning roughly 16 miles long and two miles wide. Situated just outside of Healdsburg, this densely planted appellation enjoys a reputation for producing renowned wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and even some Rhône wines, but is most known for its powerful and nuanced Zinfandels—some of which are grown on old vines.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Ferrari-Carano, Dry Creek Vineyard, Seghesio Family Vineyards, A. Rafanelli

Fort Ross – Seaview AVA

Established in 2012, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is located in the heart of the Sonoma Coast AVA. One of the closest appellations to the Pacific Ocean, the region is defined by its narrow valleys and mountainous terrain, where vines soar above the fog line on steep ridges roughly 900 to 1,200 feet above sea level. Despite the challenges of growing grapes here, the coastal conditions and diverse soils prove ideal for growing exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery

Fountaingrove District AVA

At the eastern edge of Sonoma County is Fountaingrove, a newer AVA noted for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties. Comprising only 600 acres of vineyards, nearly all of which are family-owned, this region is distinct because of its well-draining volcanic soils, hillside vineyards, and warmer climate. You won’t find a lot of wine tourism here, however, as most of the vineyards sell their grapes directly to other wineries.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Bricoleur Vineyards

Sonoma AVA Map | Sonoma County Vintners
Sonoma AVA Map, Courtesy of Sonoma County Vintners

Green Valley AVA

One of the coolest appellations in Sonoma County, Green Valley is a subregion inside the Russian River Valley bounded by the towns of Forestville, Occidental, and Sebastopol. Most of the soil here is sandy, fast-draining soil, which, when combined with Green Valley’s trademark foggy weather, is just right for making distinctive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Iron Horse Vineyards, Emeritus Vineyards

Knights Valley AVA

On the eastern edge of Sonoma County lies Knights Valley, a warm growing region nestled between the Mayacamas mountain range and the base of Mount St. Helena. The valley’s mineral-rich volcanic soils and sunshine-filled days are ideal for producing Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the most prominent grape here, however there are a range of other grapes grown, like Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Knights Bridge, Peter Michael Winery

Los Carneros AVA | Carneros Wine Alliance
Los Carneros AVA, Courtesy of Facebook: Carneros Wine Alliance

Los Carneros AVA

Situated at the southern end of Sonoma Valley straddling the Napa-Sonoma county line, the cool Carneros AVA is the first California wine region to be defined by climate rather than political boundaries. What makes this area unique is its close proximity to the San Pablo Bay, where strong winds and fog create a constant flow of cooling air, offsetting the warmth from the sun. Here, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate the plantings, and the resulting wines are delicate with Burgundian-style characteristics. Given the cool conditions, it’s also a spectacular site for producing sparkling wine.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, Gloria Ferrer, Patz & Hall

Moon Mountain AVA

Located on the hills above the city of Sonoma, Moon Mountain is a high elevation region that became an official AVA in 2013. Elevation is a key defining factor of this Sonoma appellation, where hillside vineyards soar between 400 and 2,200 feet in elevation. The mountainous conditions and constant breezes prove favorable for growing structured Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Kamen Estate, Repris Wines

Northern Sonoma AVA

Established as an AVA in 1990, this expansive appellation encompasses Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, most of Green Valley, and portions of Rockpile and Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. With elevations ranging from valley floors to mountain peaks, nearly every type of grape grown in Sonoma County is represented in this AVA. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are the most widely planted grapes of this region.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Carol Shelton Wines, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens

Petaluma Gap AVA | PetalumaGap.com
Petaluma Gap AVA, Courtesy of PetalumaGap.com

Petaluma Gap AVA

Located only 25 miles north of San Francisco surrounding the town of Petaluma, Petaluma Gap is the newest winegrowing region to be established in Sonoma County, recognized as an AVA in 2017. This distinctive region, planted to over 4,000 acres of vines, sees large diurnal temperature shifts from day to night, thanks to strong coastal influences like heavy fog and wind that funnel in from San Pablo Bay. About 75% of the region is dedicated to cool-climate darling Pinot Noir, while the remainder is planted to Chardonnay and Syrah.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Adobe Road Winery, Keller Estate, McEvoy Ranch

Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak AVA

Located at the top of Pine Mountain at elevations between 1,600 and 2,600 feet, this small, mountainous AVA on the border of Sonoma and Mendocino counties is one of the highest grape growing regions in California. Its steep topography, rocky volcanic soils, and cool, yet sunshine-filled days above the fog line provide idyllic conditions for complex Cabernet Sauvignon, for which it is most known for. You’ll also find small amounts of Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc planted.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Pine Mountain Vineyards

Rockpile AVA

This dramatic, rugged AVA on the west of Lake Sonoma is known for its red varieties, such as Zinfandel. The terroir here is heavily influenced by the high elevation (roughly 1,900 feet), where rocky soils, steep hillsides, and long days with plenty of sun exposure allow the grapes to develop more concentrated, rich flavors. Besides Zinfandel, you’ll find small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Syrah, though there are no wineries to visit.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: There are no wineries within its borders, but these producers source grapes from the Rockpile AVA: Mauritson Wines, Rockpile Vineyards, Truett Hurst Winery

Russian River Valley AVA

The Russian River Valley AVA, established in 1983, is a highly regarded growing region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Characterized by its cool climate and coastal fog that travels in from the Pacific along the Russian River, Russian River’s climate allows for a slow ripening of the grapes, resulting in wines of balanced acidity and complexity.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: J Vineyards & Winery, MacRostie Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Moshin Vineyards, Gamba Winery

Peay Vineyards
Peay Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA, Courtesy of Peay Vineyards

Sonoma Coast AVA

Known for its cool climate and high rainfall, the Sonoma Coast AVA (Sonoma’s largest AVA) is an expansive appellation extending from San Pablo Bay to the border of Mendocino. Not surprisingly, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars here, which benefit from the region’s cool temperatures and direct exposure to marine influences.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Azari Vineyards, Sonoma Coast Vineyards, Peay Vineyards

Sonoma Mountain AVA

Rising above the town of Glen Ellen, within the larger Sonoma Valley AVA, Sonoma Mountain is a small appellation known for its rocky soils, high altitude, and long days of direct sunlight. Despite the all-day exposure to the sun, grapevines benefit from cooling overnight temperatures, thereby allowing the grapes to retain acidity and slow the ripening process. While it’s not common to find Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel successfully growing within the same AVA, Sonoma Mountain has become recognized for these grapes.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Wellington Cellars, Laurel Glen Vineyard

Vineyards at Chateau St. Jean | WineCountry Media | Julia Ogrydziak
Vineyards at Chateau St. Jean, Courtesy of WineCountry Media | Julia Ogrydziak

Sonoma Valley AVA

Bordered by the Mayacamas Mountains to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west, Sonoma Valley is one of the oldest Sonoma AVAs, founded in 1981. Known as the birthplace of Sonoma County wine with a tradition of wine making dating back over 150 years ago, this historically significant AVA is now home to over 80 wineries, including the oldest continuously operating family winery in California. Recognized for producing softer, more supple wines, a wide range of grapes do well in this region, including Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Wineries in this AVA to Visit: Kenwood Vineyards, Ledson Winery & Vineyards, Benziger Family Winery, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

Conclusion

Now that you’ve got a good grasp on Sonoma’s diverse appellations and the grapes that thrive within each AVA, it’s time to start exploring! Here’s a run-down of the Top Sonoma County Wines you should be sipping, as well as the Small-Production Wineries of Sonoma to take note of. And be sure to check out our list of the Top Sonoma Tasting Rooms to Visit for when you’re ready to plan your next wine tasting getaway to Wine Country.