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Written by Gerald Boyd
Once thought to be part of the pinot family, the Chardonnay grape is now believed to be related to Pinot Noir and the obscure Gouais Blanc grape. Even with sketchy ancestry, Chardonnay is one hot grape and is Sonoma County's leading variety.
Varietal Description: Ripe Chardonnay on the vine displays light green leaves, cylindrical-shaped clusters, often with wings and spherical yellow to medium brown-yellow grapes. In the vineyard, Chardonnay is difficult to distinguish from Pinot Blanc.
County Acreage: an estimated 16,000 acres.
Usage: Chardonnay is used mostly in making still and sparkling wines.
Appellations: Among the county's most popular appellations for Chardonnay are Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma-Carneros.
Synonyms: In France, Chardonnay appears bearing different names, including Epinette in Champagne, Melon Blanc in the Jura, and Chaudonnet in Burgundy's Cote Chalonnaise.
The historical homeland of the Sauvignon Blanc grape is generally thought to be the Bordeaux region of France, although some say it is the Loire Valley. Today’s zesty Sauvignon Blanc pairs nicely with Sonoma County briny oysters and the bounty of Pacific seafood.
Varietal Description: In the vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc leaves are golden yellow with a bronzed tint. The clusters are small and compact with small ovoid golden-yellow berries.
County Acreage: Of the popular classic varieties planted in Sonoma County, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for approximately 2,700 acres.
Usage: Sauvignon Blanc is used exclusively for making dry floral-grassy white wines and a little sweet dessert wine.
Appellations: Popular county appellations for Sauvignon Blanc include Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley.
Synonyms: Confusingly, Sauvignon Blanc is also known as Fume Blanc in California, Feigentraube in Germany and Muskat Sylvaner in Austria.
Chardonnay is the 800-pound gorilla of white wine – it goes anywhere and does anything it wants, while Sauvignon Blanc is its less dominant traveling companion. Good news, though, for the curious -- there are other white grapes of interest grown in Sonoma County.
Pinot Blanc is the less known cousin to Chardonnay. Subtle and not too assertive, Pinot Blanc has just enough body to marry nicely with a little oak seasoning; thus, it is often made like Chardonnay and mistaken for Chardonnay. Sonoma-grown Pinot Blanc has a rounded creamy texture, with a touch of spice.
Pinot Gris, also known by its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, is fast becoming a white grape of interest and excitement in Sonoma County. Firmly established as one of the most pleasing aromatic whites, Pinot Gris offers the wine adventurer juicy, lightly honeyed fruit flavors of ginger and tropical fruit. Mostly tank fermented to retain its freshness, Pinot Gris is a versatile white wine, great as an aperitif, but also ideal with light foods.
Fruitier, with aromas and flavors reminiscent of fresh peaches and honeysuckle, Sonoma County Viognier strikes a perfect balance between dry oak-seasoned Chardonnay and aromatic whites like Riesling and Pinot Gris. Viognier, the primary white grape of France’s Northern Rhone Valley, has earned respect among American drinkers for its lush flavors, ample fruit, and great balance.
Although there have been many fanciful theories of the origin of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, modern fingerprinting indicates that it is a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. No matter, because as Sonoma County's second most planted wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in places such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Sonoma Mountain.
Varietal Description: A highly adaptable variety, Cabernet Sauvignon has shiny dark green leaves that take on a red hue at harvest. Clusters are small and conical with small black thick-skinned berries.
County Acreage: an estimated 12,600 acres.
Synonyms: In Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is also known as Vidure, while in St. Emilion it is often called Bouchet. In Spain the variety is sometimes known as Burdeos Tinto, while in Russia, the colloquial name of Cabernet Sauvignon draws on one the Medoc's famed chateau, Lafite.
Although most experts agree that Merlot is native to Bordeaux, there is disagreement regarding its parentage. One theory has it deriving from Cabernet Franc, while another opinion claims the grape was named for the blackbird, or merle, which loves to eat the sweet grape. Regardless, Merlot is a popular red grape in Sonoma County for its up-front fruitiness and smooth flavors.
Varietal Description: The Merlot has dark green leaves with well-defined lobes. The grape clusters, sometimes winged, are dense with medium blue-black grapes.
County Acreage: Merlot accounts for 7,500 acres of Sonoma County grapes.
Uses: Merlot is used exclusively for the making of still red wines and as a blending component in Bordeaux-style red blends.
Wineries: Popular county appellations for Merlot include Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley.
Synonyms: Local dialect term in Bordeaux for Merlot is Petit Merle, while curiously in some areas the variety is also called Semilhoun Rouge.
One of the oldest cultivated grapes, Pinot Noir is thought to have taken root 2,000 years ago in the Burgundy region of France, establishing the noble pinot as the ancestor of no fewer than 16 modern grapes.
Varietal Description: Pinot Noir sports a three-lobed leaf with yellow-red color. The clusters are small, sometimes with wings and the small blue-black berries are closely clustered.
County Acreage: Pinot Noir acreage, presently at 11,000 acres reflects the growing popularity of the soft and silky red wine.
Uses: Pinot Noir is used mainly for the production of still dry red wines and sparkling wines.
Wineries: Deep black-cherry flavored pinots are most often seen from the Russian River Valley, while less dense and spicier ones are more common from Carneros. Pinots from the Sonoma Coast generally strike a balance between the two.
Synonyms: Throughout Europe, Pinot Noir takes on many names including Plant Dore in Champagne, Gros Noiren in the Jura, Klevner in Switzerland and Blauer Burgunder and Spatburgunder in Germany.
There are many romantic stories about the origin of Syrah; it originated in ancient Persia and was named for one of its cities, Shiraz.
The most current origin-story has Syrah related to the red Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, or that the Syrah originated in the Northern Rhone. Sonoma County’s range of different micro-climates makes it an ideal spot for a versatile and adaptable grape like Syrah.
Varietal Description: The five-lobe green leaves take on a red edge at harvest, while the cylindrical clusters, sometimes winged, are compact with small blue-black berries.
County Acreage: Syrah accounts for 1,820 acres in Sonoma County.
Uses: Syrah is used almost exclusively for making dry red wines.
Appellations: Syrah grows well in both the cooler and warmer climates of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.
Synonyms: In addition to the different spellings in France, such as Syra and Sirah, Syrah is also known as Shiraz in Australia.
Although it is now determined, thanks to DNA testing, that Zinfandel is identical to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski, the popular California grape has a strong Austrian connection. The first Zinfandel vines showed up in a Long Island nursery, brought there from Vienna; and the name Zinfandel is likely confused with the Austrian vine Zierfandler.
Varietal Description: Zinfandel leaves are shiny green with well-defined lobes. The medium-large blue-black berries are tightly grouped in a cylindrical bunch.
County Acreage: County wide there are approximately 6,000 acres of Zinfandel.
Uses: Zinfandel is used mainly for making still red and pink wines and as base material for port-style wines.
Appellations: Bright berry-rich, slightly jammy Zinfandels can be found from the Dry Creek Valley, while those with greater density are coming from Rockpile.
Synonyms: Outside California, Zinfandel has been identified as Primitivo in Italy.
If it's true that wine's first duty is to be red, then Sonoma County is a dutiful supplier of leading reds such as Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Zinfandel and Russian River Pinot Noir. But that's only part of the Sonoma red wine story.
Sharing some of the spotlight with Cabernet Sauvignon is Cabernet Franc, a grape that serves double duty as a reliable component in Bordeaux-style blends and as a stand-alone varietal with its own personality and flavor of ripe blueberry and licorice. Where ever you find Cabernet Sauvignon planted in Sonoma County you're likely to find Cabernet Franc.
Sangiovese, like Pinot Noir, has a reputation for being a difficult grape for the grower and the winemaker. Of Italian origin, Sangiovese produces wines of different weight and complexity according to where it is grown. Sonoma County Sangiovese, such as the small amount in the Alexander Valley, hints of a juicy blend of savory herbs and ripe raspberries, supported by bracing acidity.
Petite Sirah, fondly known as "Pet," is a long-time resident of Sonoma County. Dense and concentrated, Petite Sirah offers ripe berry fruit on a muscular framework of tannins and acidity. Petite Sirah has been a stalwart part of Sonoma County viticulture for decades, both as a blending partner and a varietal in its own right. The recent rising interest in Syrah, a distant cousin of Petite Sirah, encourages a resurgence of "Pet" in Sonoma County, especially among the hillside vineyards of the Russian River.