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Thumbnail Sketches of Major California Pinot Noir Appellations

Anderson Valley

The Numbers

    2,300 acres of vineyards, 1,128 acres of Pinot Noir

    30 wineries; 28+ wineries outside Anderson Valley source Pinot Noir grapes from the Anderson Valley AVA.

The Terroir

    10-15 miles from the Pacific Ocean so that the valley receives fog incursions and ocean breezes, particularly the northern or deep-end of the valley. A wide diurnal range in temperature of up to 40-50° F allows acid development to remain in line with sugar and flavor formation during the long, warm Mediterranean summers. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes in the northern end of the valley), and Region II (2,500-3,500 degree-days to ripen grapes in the southern end of the valley.

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

    “Classic”: Fresh red berries, cherries, white pepper, spice, hint of cedar. Firm, yet feminine, moderate oak.

    “Neuvo”: Dark berries, jammy, high extraction, color and tannin, overt oak with caramel and baking spice, dark herbs including anise, more masculine. Neuvo style is frequently made with Dijon clones.

Sonoma Coast

The Numbers

    Over ½ million acres: 7,000 acres of vineyards (<1,4% of the total area), the largest Sonoma County AVA.

    228 wineries; 56 wineries outside the AVA source grapes from Sonoma Coast.

    The “True” Sonoma Coast has 6 wineries and >50 growers

    The Sonoma Coast AVA approved in 1987.

The Terroir

    The Sonoma Coast AVA extends from the coastline up to 30 miles inland all the way to the base of Sonoma Mountain east of Santa Rosa and in the north from the Mendocino County border extending south to the north shore of the San Francisco Bay. As a result, the Sonoma Coast AVA is composed of adverse number of microclimates. A sub-division of the Sonoma Coast AVA has been labeled the“true” Sonoma Coast, extending from the Pacific Ocean to 4-5 miles inland (the first two ridges). Some have characterized the “true” Sonoma Coast as follows: “You should be able to see the ocean,” and, “It’s a long way from anywhere,” and, “ “Most Sonoma Coast vineyards are soaked with sun and waiting for the fog to come in. The “true” Sonoma Coast is in the fog waiting for the sun to come out.” In the “true” Sonoma Coast, there is a cool climate (primarily Region I, <2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes) and relatively high rainfall leading to slow grape maturation. In Cazadero, the annual rainfall of 55 inches makes it the second wettest measuring station in California. The true Sonoma Coast vineyards are primarily above the fog line on slopes or hilltops.

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

    More backbone, structure, grit, muscle, and sinew; mineral element; more tannin than the RRV; dense and concentrated with tightly wound acidity; black cherry, sage, savory, earthy, peppery; tomato, beet, and rhubarb if unripe.

Russian River Valley

The Numbers

    126,600 acres; 15,000 acres of vineyards, 1/6 of total Sonoma County vineyard acreage.

    4,600 acres of Pinot Noir, >1/3 if all Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, 19% of the state.

    155 wineries; 171 wineries outside the RRV AVA access fruit from the RRV AVA

    RRV appellation approved in 1983. The RRV AVA overlaps Green Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs.

The Terroir

    Fog is drawn inland each day and dissipates by late morning. This reduces photosynthesis in the grapevine leaves creating a shorter daytime period - the result is the grapes gain sugars more slowly and have brighter natural acidity. The growing season is long. Region II (2,500- 3,500 degree-days to ripen grapes. The Middle Reach is warmer and produces ripe and voluptuous fruit. The southern Russian River Valley is cooler and creates wines with crisper elegance and greater age ability.

The Aromas and Flavors of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

    Bing cherry, strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, plums; roses and smoke scent; Asian spice, c clove, cola, lavender, violets. Typically a voluptuous texture.


The Numbers

    90 square miles. 8,000 planted grape acres (exact figure unavailable).

    37 wineries; 75 growers; 124 wineries from outside the Carneros AVA access fruit from the Carneros AVA.

    AVA approved in 1983, one of the first AVAs to be based on climate rather than political boundaries. Amended in 1987 and 2006.

The Terroir

    Carneros is adjacent to San Pablo Bay and is heavily influenced by the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. As the sun heats up the more northerly parts of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, the rising hot air draws in cool breezes and fog from San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The winds slow the activity in the leaves and dry the dew left by the morning fog. The evening fog moderates vineyard temperatures the next morning. The result is a moderately long growing season. The soils are thin and full of clay which holds water but is slow to release it This factor in addition to the low rainfall make it necessary to irrigate. Mostly Region I (<2.500 degreedays to ripen grapes).

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Carneros Pinot Noir

    Tight, crisp and lean structure. Spicy berry and dried cherry flavors. The older style featured more herbal, sandalwood, underbrush and earthy notes. The newer styles can have more black fruit, higher alcohol, and be more jammy.

Marin County

The Numbers

    38,000 acres of land, 52 family farms and ranches.

    171 acres of vineyards, 152 acres of Pinot Noir; 7 major grape growers.

The Terroir

    The climate is influenced by the Pacific Ocean on the western border and the San Pablo Bay on the eastern border. Winters are warmer than Napa or Sonoma due to winter precipitation. As a result, bud break is accelerated, but persistent cool weather in the spring and summer push flowering set and harvest weeks beyond other cool climate areas in California. Long hang times are the norm. Farming is a challenge due to the cool weather and lack of water. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes).

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Marin County Pinot Noir

    High natural acidity and lower alcohol levels. Typical Pinot Noir aromatic profile but not especially showy. Small berries, wild and exotic concentrated flavors

Santa Cruz Mountains

The Numbers

    350,000 acres over 3 counties

    1,350 acres of vines; 90 wineries; 7 wineries outside the SCM AVA access grapes from the SCM AVA.

    AVA approved in 1981 - the first defined by geophysical, altitudinal, and climatic factors.

The Terroir

    Marriage of fog and sun. Extended growing season. Mountainous terrain with many vineyards located in remote and rugged locations. Harsh climate. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes). Irrigation water is limited. Top soil is poor in many areas. Yields are low.

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

    Lovely aromatics, red and dark fruit flavors, easily approachable tannins, lively acidity, and light to medium bodied.

Santa Lucia Highlands

The Numbers

5,523 grape acres; 2,500 acres planted to Pinot Noir

34 growers, 11 wineries; 62 wineries from outside the SLH AVA source fruit from the SLH AVA.

AVA established in 1991

The Terroir

    Natural southeast exposure overlooking the Salina River Valley. Cool mornings with fog and afternoon breezes from Monterey Bay. Long growing season. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes). Well-drained granitic soils. Higher vineyards (up to 1,200 feet) have the benefit of more direct sun.

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

    Rich, subtle and complex with demure herbal, mineral and fruit characters. Some vineyards produce very bold and highly structured wines.

Santa Maria Valley

The Numbers

    80,000 acres, 7,500 acres of vineyards.

    33 wineries; 50 wineries outside Santa Maria Valley source fruit from the SMV AVA.

    AVA approved in 1981, amended in 1985.

The Terroir

    The Santa Maria Valley has an east-west orientation and Pacific fog and coastal breezes permeate the valley leading to an extended growing season (typically 4 weeks longer than many other California wine regions). The Santa Maria Valley is the most southerly point on the California coast affected by summer fogs. Low rainfall (essentially a desert on the ocean) and warm summers. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes).

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

    Similar to the southern Russian River Valley but more spicy. Red and black raspberry, strawberry, red and black cherry, earthiness, truffles, forest floor, savory herbs, cola, soy sauce. More color than the Russian River Valley in most years probably due to longer hang time. The signature feature is, as the locals call it, Santa Maria spice.

Sta. Rita Hills

The Numbers

    30,720 acres: 1,700 grape acres, primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

    AVA approved in 2001, amended in 2005.

The Terroir

    The mountains run east-west instead of north-south here creating a gap which allows cool Pacific Ocean winds to flow inland. Fog hovers over the vines until mid-morning and the temperature barely gets about 75°F in the western reaches of the appellation. Region I (<2,500 degree-days to ripen grapes). The soils are calcerous and well-drained.

The Typical Aromas and Flavors of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noirs

    Darker fruit expression is the rule. Blueberries and wild berries are common. Deep, concentrated fruit, substantial tannic structure, minerality, high acidity, and usually high alcohol (but can be in balance).

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