It’s undeniable, we sing Sonoma County’s praises often and with due measure. From its bucolic rolling hills and rugged coastlines to sensational farm-to-table experiences and welcoming locals, it is truly the ultimate northern California destination for those looking for a relaxed getaway filled with charm. And the cherry on top? Sonoma is also a world-class wine region.
Often thought of as Napa Valley’s kid sister, Sonoma County is said to be the birthplace of California’s now-thriving wine industry. Over 500 wineries dot the landscape, with 19 AVAs, or American Viticulture Areas, producing wines from the Pacific Ocean to inland warm valleys.
With so much wine, we want to be sure you’re aware of the award-winning wine region’s usual suspects. Whether you’re heading westward for a tasting or pouring and exploring at home, here’s your chance to get to know a few of the most well-known wines of Sonoma, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel and everything in between.
Considered one of the world’s most recognizable grapes and a favorite in the United States (have you heard “Cab is King?”), Cabernet Sauvignon is a red varietal born out of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in France in the 1600s. Now making up 20% of Sonoma County wine produced, the vines can primarily be found in Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.
Rich in color and flavor, the popular fruit is now grown across the globe and is typically aged in French oak. Enjoy with fatty, umami-rich foods like red meat, blue cheese, or mushrooms, and expect flavors of dark fruit, tobacco, black pepper, and even the notorious green pepper.
Wine to Try: Medlock Ames Fifty Tons Cabernet Sauvignon, $110
Buttery or not, Chardonnay continues to be number one when it comes to white wine from Sonoma. Also born in France, specifically the Burgundy region, this grape is the most planted around the globe with its reach spreading from the Pacific Northwest down to New Zealand. The diversity in growing regions allows the fruit to produce some dramatically different flavors ranging from creamy to more citrusy versions.
Full-bodied and golden in color, Chardonnay from California is typically oaked and boasts notes of vanilla, coconut, or butterscotch, but more and more producers are going for a cleaner style using neutral oak or stainless steel to let the fruit shine. Chardonnay is great to sip on its own, but it’s a natural match with chicken and turkey dishes, shellfish, and creamy pastas.
Wine to Try: VML Russian River Chardonnay, $37
One of the oldest grapes in the world, Pinot Noir has a bit of a cult following. From dedicated festivals since Roman times to major motion pictures (Sideways, anyone?), this delightful grape is constantly leaving its mark. Plants grow best in cooler climates and can be quite finicky and susceptible to disease, making a great glass that much more fruitful.
There’s quite a breadth of flavor in Sonoma County’s Pinot Noirs, depending if the vines grow closer to the foggy coastline or further inland where sunshine is aplenty. But regardless, Pinot Noir from Sonoma ages well and exhibits flavors of earth, berries, and sometimes even toast. Pair with sushi, a myriad of cheeses, or duck for a meal that’s as distinct as this beloved grape.
Wine to Try: WALT La Brisa Pinot Noir, $44
Perhaps it’s the charming color or the diversity in flavor, but pink is in. In fact, it’s hard to find a tasting room that doesn’t serve this crowd favorite. Rosé wines are produced with red wine grapes — from Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir to Zinfandel — and a shortened period of contact with the grape’s skins before fermentation, which causes the finished product to blush.
Served chilled, and ranging from still to sparkling, rosé from Sonoma can run the gamut between dry and sweet styles, as well as lighter, pale pink wines to deeply hued, bolder ones. Because of the variety of flavor, rosés can be paired with just about anything, but are best enjoyed outside — preferably while enjoying a picnic or sunny day in Sonoma County.
Wine to Try: Scribe Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir, $40
Even the name Sauvignon Blanc is wild and wonderful. Stemming from the French word, sauvage, this grape grew with careless abandonment across Bordeaux. Now less wild and a ton more refined, the herbaceous wine gained international fame when it left its European roots and headed to New Zealand in the 1980s.
Usually dry and clean in style, California Sauvignon Blanc is considered to be “warm climate” and tastes like peach and passion fruit with medium acidity. It pairs well with dishes boasting complementary herbal flavors, like parsley, cilantro, and mint, and also works with green salads, white meats, tart cheeses, and vegetarian dishes.
Wine to Try: Benziger Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc, $16
Once you pop, you won’t stop, or so the saying goes. Regardless if you’re celebrating a big event or enjoying a casual evening at home, sparkling wines will be a hit — partially because they can be produced from a wide array of grapes and with different levels of sweetness, so there’s a sparkling wine to please every palate.
From Brut to Sec, Blanc de Blancs to Rosé (and everything in between), there are many delightful ways to experience Sonoma County’s sparkling wines whether you’re searching out dry, fruity, or floral. We think it pairs best with salty, savory foods like caviar, creamy sauces, and fried foods, but is also worth popping a bottle to just say cheers.
Wine to Try: Truett Hurst Sparkling Brut, $50
Syrah may be the lesser known fruit to its more established California red wine counterparts, but the sleeper grape is thriving in Sonoma County’s cooler coastal AVAs. Starting its wine life span in France, as many of these fruits do, Syrah’s reach has expanded so much that the grape variety now goes by two names: Syrah and Shiraz (as in Australian Shiraz).
Burgundy in color, we suggest enjoying this full-bodied juice with hearty food pairings, like barbecued pork with pepper and cumin, or mushrooms and grilled veggies, for those sourcing out vegetarian fare.
Wine to Try: Red Car Estate Syrah, $55
Thriving in Sonoma County’s warm climates, Zinfandel has had quite the colorful California history and before some deep-rooted investigation, it was thought to be “America’s Grape.” Arriving in the state in the mid-1800s, the grape grew out of fashion as Cabernet Sauvignon made its red rise to fame. Now in the spotlight again, Sonoma’s Zin is a medium-bodied red known for its spice and fruit-driven, almost jammy, characteristics and higher levels in alcohol.
This striking wine can possess a smoky aroma along with flavors of black cherry, raspberry, and hints of pepper. Bold, barbecued foods always pair well, but spiced foods are also hits. We suggest grilling up some meat, ordering Thai take-out, or pairing it with a range of hard and soft cheeses.
Wine to Try: Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, $45