Sonoma Valley in California has earned a stellar reputation for producing some of the most fascinating wines in the New World. An incredible array of wines is made here, from refined and elegant Pinot Noir that dances delicately on the palate to robust and hedonistic Zinfandel that’s full of unctuous fruit flavors. What makes this region so diverse? More than a dozen microclimates and terroirs are packed into this small county. There are 18 Sonoma wine appellations (called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs for short), each producing different styles of wine. No two appellations are exactly alike.
Because Sonoma Valley is home to so many distinctive appellations, it can be difficult to decide which wines to add to a collection. Should you focus on the elegant, complex Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley or the rich, dense wines of the Alexander Valley? In this detailed guide to Sonoma wine appellations, we’ll help you identify the AVAs that make the most valuable, delicious, and age-worthy wines.
A Detailed Map of Sonoma Wine Appellations
To understand what makes Sonoma wine appellations, or AVAs, unique, you should understand where each AVA is located. For example, some areas of Sonoma, like the Russian River Valley, are cool and foggy, so the wines made here are typically more acidic and light-bodied than those made in other AVAs. Areas like the Alexander Valley, on the other hand, get much more sunlight during the day and are warmer overall compared to other AVAs in Sonoma, so this region produces more concentrated, full-bodied wines.
The map below shows where all of the Sonoma wine appellations are located and what the climate is like in these areas:
Pinot Noir is typically grown in the cooler, foggier regions of Sonoma, as this delicate, thin-skinned grape thrives under these conditions. Chardonnay and Zinfandel are made in almost every AVA in Sonoma, as these grapes can grow in a wide variety of different climates and soils. Cabernet Sauvignon is often grown in the warmer AVAs because these grapes are thicker-skinned than Pinot Noir and require more sunlight to ripen properly. However, there are some exceptions to these general guidelines. Sonoma wine producers are known for experimenting with the grape varieties they grow in each AVA. This is why it’s helpful to take a more detailed look at the grape varieties and styles of wine made in each Sonoma wine appellation.
A Breakdown of Sonoma Wine Styles by AVA
If you’re starting or adding to a Sonoma wine collection, seek out wines from the AVAs best suited for the particular grape variety or style you’re looking for (like Pinot Noir in areas with a cool climate). If you’re interested in a grape that grows well in many different climates (like Chardonnay), look for AVAs that make these wines in the style you prefer, such as bold and powerful or refined and elegant. In the list below, you’ll see a breakdown of the most popular types of wine made in each Sonoma AVA and their typical flavor profile.
- Rich, buttery Chardonnay.
- Bold Cabernet Sauvignon with strong minerality and chocolate flavors.
- Intensely concentrated Merlot.
- Complex Sauvignon Blanc with tropical fruit flavors.
- Full-bodied Zinfandel with layered fruit flavors.
- Concentrated, acidic Merlot with dark fruit flavors.
- Crisp Chardonnay with bright citrus flavors.
- Chardonnay with prominent minerality, similar to fine Chablis.
- Crisp and flinty Sauvignon Blanc.
- Mineral-rich Cabernet Sauvignon.
Dry Creek Valley
- Well-structured Zinfandel with healthy acidity and tannin.
- Concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Ripe, fruity Sauvignon Blanc.
- Elegant, acidic Pinot Noir with great aging potential.
- Round, soft Chardonnay with stone fruit flavors.
- Aromatic Cabernet Sauvignon with dark fruit flavors.
- Deep-colored, perfumed Merlot.
- Rich, intense Syrah with peppery notes.
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
- Acidic, refined Pinot Noir that is very consistent in quality.
- Refreshing Chardonnay with some aging potential.
- Complex and fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Ripe, fruity Sauvignon Blanc.
- Fleshy and multilayered Merlot.
- Elegant and light Pinot Noir.
- Still and sparkling Chardonnay of exceptional complexity and quality.
Moon Mountain District Sonoma County
- Deeply complex Zinfandel made from very old vines.
- Intense and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Round, approachable Merlot.
- Soft, light-bodied Pinot Noir.
- Rich and supple Chardonnay.
- Fruit-forward and well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Elegant and potentially age-worthy Pinot Noir.
- Rich, complex Chardonnay with some aging potential.
- Perfumed, peppery Syrah.
Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak
- Full-bodied, intense Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Bold, fruity Zinfandel.
- Ripe, fruit-forward Zinfandel.
- Deeply-colored and spicy Syrah.
- Refined and collectible Pinot Noir with layers of fruit flavors that deepen with time.
- Rich, age-worthy Chardonnay.
- Light and acidic Pinot Noir.
- Refreshing Chardonnay with a great balance of acidity and ripe fruit.
- Powerful, elegant Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Age-worthy and complex Chardonnay.
- Rich and unctuous Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Creamy Chardonnay with deeply ripe fruit flavors.
Many of these Sonoma wine appellations grow other grape varieties as well; however, these are the grapes that each AVA is best known for producing. Another important thing to keep in mind is that some AVAs also have their own distinctive microclimates. For example, the Sonoma Mountain AVA has steep hillsides that vary significantly in temperature and sun exposure, so Cabernet Sauvignon from one vineyard may taste very different from Cabernet grown in a nearby vineyard.
To help you find the best bottles of Sonoma wine for your collection, we’ve ranked some of the top AVAs in the region.
What Are the Most Valuable and Reputable Sonoma AVAs?
If you’re looking to resell your wine on the secondary market or you simply want to invest in the highest-rated wines in Sonoma, it’s helpful to know which Sonoma wine appellations produce the most collectible wines. Ranking Sonoma’s AVAs according to quality is somewhat subjective, as much depends on what types of wines you personally prefer to drink. For example, those who love bold, fruity styles will likely pick the Alexander Valley and Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak as their favorites, while those who prefer lighter and more acidic styles will be drawn to Los Carneros or Green Valley wines.
If you want to invest in sparkling wine from the New World, Los Carneros should be your first choice.
To rank Sonoma AVAs by quality, we considered more objective factors such as the value of wines from the region on the secondary market and whether or not a region’s wines tend to be age-worthy. With these criteria in mind, seven Sonoma wine appellations that stand out as particularly valuable and reputable.
#1: The Russian River Valley
This AVA consistently produces some of the most valuable and flavorful wines in Sonoma. The cooling fog is ideal for growing complex and regal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you’re looking for wines to resell on the secondary market, bottles from this area are your best bet. Many critics and enthusiasts compare these wines to fine Burgundian Pinot Noir. Top Russian River Valley producers include Aubert, Kistler, and Morlet Family Vineyards.
#2: Green Valley
This AVA is located in the southwest of the Russian River Valley (Green Valley is actually a sub-AVA of the Russian River Valley). Green Valley is even cooler than the Russian River Valley, so the wines produced here are even more acidic and often have excellent aging potential. While generally not as valuable as wines from the Russian River Valley, Green Valley wines are becoming more popular among serious collectors. Top Green Valley producers include DuMOL, Martinelli, and Kosta Browne.
#3: Los Carneros
If you want to invest in sparkling wine from the New World, Los Carneros should be your first choice. The sparkling Chardonnay from this region is often compared to traditional Champagne. In fact, famous Champagne houses like Taittinger and Moët et Chandon have vineyards in this AVA. The region is also known for producing light-bodied and herbaceous Pinot Noir. Top Carneros producers include Aubert, Kistler, and DuMOL.
#4: Knights Valley
Collectors looking for riper, more fruit-forward styles than those found in the Russian River and Green Valleys will enjoy wines from Knights Valley. These wines don’t always receive as much attention from critics as more elegant, light-bodied wines from other Sonoma AVAs, but they are still superb. Knights Valley wines have rich, powerful layers of fruit that become more complex with age. Top Knights Valley producers include Peter Michael, Donelan, and Anakota.
#5: Chalk Hill
If you’re a fan of Chablis, you’ll love wines from the Chalk Hill AVA. The mix of volcanic rock and chalky white ash in the soil gives these wines a very distinctive minerality. Chalk Hill wines are becoming more popular among collectors and critics, particularly as more top-quality producers move to this area. Top Chalk Hill producers include Arnot-Roberts and Chalk Hill Estate.
#6: Petaluma Gap
This is the newest Sonoma wine appellation; it was officially given AVA status in late 2017. The reason it was given its own AVA status is that the climate is unlike any other in Sonoma. Situated between the Pacific Ocean and Sonoma Valley, this “gap” channels oceanic winds into the valley. As a result, it is windier and chillier here than most other parts of Sonoma, making it ideal for producing elegant Pinot Noir and white wines. Top Petaluma Gap producers include Arnot-Roberts and Kosta Browne.
#7: Sonoma Coast
This AVA actually encompasses many other sub-AVAs of Sonoma, including Chalk Hill, Los Carneros, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley. Because this area is so large, the wines made here vary in terms of flavor and overall quality. However, generally speaking, wines from the Sonoma Coast AVA tend to taste elegant in style, making them ideal for collectors who enjoy traditional Old-World wines. Top Sonoma Coast producers include Marcassin, Aubert, and Hartford Court.
Sonoma wine appellations are still evolving. The United States Tax and Trade Bureau (which defines and regulates AVAs) continues to add new AVAs in an effort to distinguish each region according to overall style and quality. However, while it is now much easier to find wines from top-rated areas, building a Sonoma wine collection can still be challenging because these wines vary so much in quality. Wines from the seven AVAs above will generally be very high in quality, but the producer’s winemaking style and the quality of the individual vineyards also matter. To find the very best wines, seek out bottles from the AVA’s most reputable producers.
Where Are the Best Sonoma Producers Located?
There are fantastic producers in every Sonoma wine appellation, but the best AVAs tend to have more top-quality producers than others. That’s because when the terroir is ideal, producers can make the highest quality wines, which in turn bolsters their reputations on the fine wine market. Some of the best AVAs also attract established producers to the area. For instance, we’re seeing more Champagne houses buying vineyards in Los Carneros as well as a number of Napa Valley producers expanding into cooler regions of Sonoma (which are better suited for Pinot Noir).
Try multiple wines from each estate to identify the labels you enjoy most.
These are some of the top-rated producers in Sonoma:
- Aubert: Located in Sonoma Coast, Los Carneros, and the Russian River Valley.
- Donelan: Located in Knights Valley and Bennett Valley.
- Donum: Located in the Russian River Valley and Los Carneros.
- DuMOL: Located in the Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast.
- Hartford Court: Located in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Green Valley, Los Carneros, and Anderson Valley.
- Kistler: Located in Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain, and Los Carneros.
- Marcassin: Located in Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross-Seaview.
- Morlet Family: Located in Fort Ross-Seaview, the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley, and Alexander Valley.
- Paul Hobbs: Located in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Mountain.
- Peter Michael: Located in Knights Valley and Fort Ross-Seaview.
- Ridge: Located in Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley.
- Turley: Located in Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley.
- Vérité: Located in Bennett Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, and Knights Valley.
While Sonoma is full of talented winemakers creating excellent wines, these are some of the most noteworthy and popular producers among collectors.
An interesting note about Sonoma producers is that many have multiple vineyards in different parts of the region. In fact, all of the estates on the list above have vineyards in multiple AVAs. This means that when you buy wine from a top Sonoma producer, you should also look carefully at the vineyard listed on the label. Wines from different vineyards often taste completely unlike each other, even if they are made by the same producer. If you’re just starting to build a collection of wine from Sonoma, it’s a good idea to try multiple wines from each estate to identify the labels you enjoy most.
How to Collect Wine from the Best Sonoma AVAs
Once you understand what types of wines are most commonly made in each of Sonoma’s wine appellations (and why), investing in Sonoma wines should be a much simpler process. However, knowing the basic characteristics of the AVAs can only tell you so much about these wines. Seeing Russian River Valley or Fort Ross-Seaview on a wine label is a good indicator of how that wine may taste, but it’s not a perfect system. With so many microclimates to consider and different winemaking philosophies among top producers, there’s a lot of variation in Sonoma wine. This is part of what makes this area so exciting to invest in as a collector—you can experiment with many different styles.
Top-quality Sonoma Pinot Noir can age for ten to 20 years or more.
The best way to dive into the world of Sonoma wine is by first identifying the AVAs that are known for producing the varieties or blends you’re looking for in a style that appeals to you. Next, look for top producers that own vineyards in these AVAs. Consider buying multiple labels from each producer until you find a few wines that you really enjoy. Top-quality Sonoma Pinot Noir can age for ten to 20 years or more, as can the top-rated Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah from this region. So, if you find a few bottles that match your tastes, set a few of them aside to see how they develop over the next decade. Ambitious winemakers are flocking to Sonoma’s best AVAs and vineyards, so the quality, complexity, and aging potential of these wines continue to rise every year. Now is the time to pay attention to this diverse and remarkable region.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.