While many people associate Santa Barbara County with pinot noir, thanks in large part to the movie Sideways (for those who haven’t seen it, it’s based around one man’s hunt to find the most delicious pinot in Santa Barbara), this often finicky grape does quite well in other regions of California, too — particularly Sonoma County. In fact, Sonoma County is known for producing some of the most elegant examples of pinot noir in California, noted for showcasing bright red fruit, spice, and earth, with balanced structure.
With its varied topography and microclimates, the expansive region of Sonoma County is home to over 65 grape varieties. Though chardonnay dominates the acreage, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are not far behind. In fact, there are over 13,000 acres of pinot noir planted throughout the Sonoma region, equaling roughly 20% of the region’s vineyards. So why, you may be wondering, is there so much pinot noir planted in Sonoma? While some areas of Sonoma County have ideal climatic conditions for growing such varieties as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and zinfandel, including the Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley AVAs, other areas of Sonoma are just too cold for these varieties to thrive. Luckily, Burgundian grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir tend to flourish in Sonoma’s cooler climates, where coastal influences like wind and fog create an optimal environment for producing highly nuanced wines.
Of the 18 AVAs in Sonoma County, there are three particularly known for pinot noir: Los Carneros, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast. Below we’re taking a closer look at each of these regions to help you discover what makes Sonoma County pinot noir so special. And, if you plan to visit Sonoma Wine Country soon for some wine tasting and exploration, we’ve got the scoop on which wineries to hit for tasting excellent examples of pinot noir.
Located in the southernmost area of Sonoma Valley, overlapping the Napa-Sonoma county line, the cool region of Carneros (or Los Carneros) is the first California wine region to be defined by its unique climate rather than political boundaries. Heavily influenced by the strong maritime breezes that blow in from nearby San Pablo Bay, this constant flow of cool air keeps the region’s vineyards cool throughout the year, providing ideal conditions for growing pinot noir. Showcasing distinctive berry, plum, and baking spice characteristics, these wines are known for their silky, elegant texture and delicate flavor.
Courtesy of Facebook: Carneros Wine Alliance
Where to Taste Carneros Pinot Noir:
The Donum Estate
Three Sticks Winery
Russian River Valley AVA
The Russian River Valley is a forested vineyard area in Sonoma County, characterized by the Russian River that winds its way through the region. Here, a cool climate and coastal influences like thick fog work together to create distinct flavor profiles in the wines. The cooler parts of the Russian River Valley AVA produce wines that tend to show natural radiance and well-integrated tannins, revealing expressive layers of red fruit. Warmer areas in the northern part of the region produce richer pinot noirs with notes of dark fruit, cola, and spice. Though lush, these latter wines still have a balanced layer of acidity typical of Sonoma’s colder AVAs.
Courtesy of La Crema
Where to Taste Russian River Pinot Noir:
Gary Farrell Winery
Sonoma Coast AVA
Sonoma’s largest AVA (and the largest licensed AVA in the U.S.), Sonoma Coast is known for its cool climate year-round, thanks to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Extending from San Pablo Bay to the border of Mendocino, vineyards within this vast AVA benefit from cooling temperatures and direct exposure to marine influences, which allow the grapes to enjoy a longer growing season and develop rich fruit characteristics, while maintaining high levels of acidity. While the term “Sonoma Coast Pinot” can be a little vague, since there are so many diverse microclimates and sub-regions within this massive AVA, one can expect consistently expressive pinot noir wines from the Sonoma Coast, from the lean and mineral-driven wines of its coolest areas to the rich, more powerful wines of its warmer pockets.
Courtesy of Peay Vineyards
Where to Taste Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir:
Patz & Hall
MacRostie Winery & Vineyards
To learn more about the different regions of Sonoma County and which varietals, from cabernet sauvignon to zinfandel, grow in each region, be sure to check out our Guide to Sonoma County AVAs
Hana-Lee Sedgwick is a writer and editor based in Santa Barbara, California. A Certified Specialist of Wine and Sommelier, Hana-Lee specializes in all things wine, food, and travel, and her work regularly appears in publications such as The Tasting Panel, Edible, and Food & Home. Follow her on Instagram at @wanderandwine.