Far from its home in Burgundy, Pinot Noir thrives in Sonoma County, whose renown as a United States wine region is second only to its nearby neighbor, Napa Valley. An American Viticultural Area in its own right, Sonoma is home to 19 sub-AVAs, 62,000 acres of grapes, 1,800 grape growers, and more than 425 wineries ranging from boutique family-run operations to gigantic corporate operations. Situated to the west of Napa Valley and just a bit larger than Rhode Island, Sonoma’s position alongside the Pacific Ocean provides cooling conditions favorable for the cultivation of Pinot Noir.
The grape takes its name from the French words for “pine” and “black.” Tight pinecone-shaped clusters of grapes are susceptible to mold and mildew, so the variety thrives in cool weather wine regions where those are less likely to develop. Sonoma County’s AVAs, from Carneros in the south to Alexander Valley in the north, boast more than 13,000 acres of Pinot Noir on vineyards that range from sea level to 2,600 feet of altitude. Some versions from Russian River Valley have been compared to the elegant style of the grape’s native region, but much Sonoma Pinot Noir is more highly extracted and a touch more powerful than its French cousins. That said, its popularity has taken off in recent years as the trend towards lighter styles of wine and cuisine have evolved. With flavors of cherry, chocolate, spice, orange zest, and vanilla and polished, well-structured tannins, Sonoma Pinot Noir is a good choice with roast chicken, grilled pork, seared tuna, and pasta or risotto made with mushrooms. Here are nine to get you started.
J Rochioli 2020 Estate Grown Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County
The Rochioli family emigrated from Italy to New York in 1911 and quickly crossed the country, planted grapes, and settled in Northern California. Their success with Pinot Noir started in 1968 when subsequent generations planted French clones in the Russian River Valley and their 1985 wine was named “Best Pinot Noir in America” by Wine Spectator magazine. The 2020 offers a bouquet of red cherry, cedar shavings, and a touch of warm vanilla. In the mouth there are flavors of red plum, red raspberry, and dried sage and rosemary leaves. The tannins are velvety, and the finish goes on for days.
Wayfarer 2017 Wayfarer Vineyard Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma County
Jayson Pahlmeyer made wines in Napa Valley for over 30 years before succumbing to the magic of Burgundian wines. In the early 1990s he began looking to acquire vineyards in Burgundy and was shocked and disappointed when a real estate deal fell through at the last minute. His dream came to fruition when he found Wayfarer farm in Sonoma Coast and began making Burgundian style wines in California. The 2017 is drinking perfectly right now and has aromas of soft red fruits, cranberry, and pomegranate with flavors of red raspberry, red currant, and a touch of brown baking spice. The tannins are well structured yet soft and the wine has great persistency in the finish.
Chenoweth 2018 Green Valley of the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Sonoma County
This wine is Chenoweth’s flagship, and it is made from grapes sourced from their three estate vineyards including Home Ranch, Bootleggers, and Treehouse. It has enticing aromas of ripe red cherry, pomegranate, and strawberry. There is a firm backbone of minerality, and the tannins are pleasantly grippy. On the palate there are bright fruit flavors of cranberry, red raspberry, and tart cherry with pronounced notes of tobacco leaf and cigar box in the finish.
Cirq 2016 Treehouse Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County
Pinot Noir grapes for this Cirq 2016 Treehouse were harvested about two weeks earlier than average for the decade and were picked in multiple passes to create subsequent individual fermentation lots. This allowed the winemaker to blend those lots to make an extremely complex wine with aromas of red raspberry, freshly sliced red delicious apples, and tangerine pith. Upon entry it is soft and creamy with silky tannins and soft flavors of raspberry, pomegranate, and cranberry.
Aston Estate 2015 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Sonoma County
Aston Estate’s vines are planted to face southwest and benefit from full days of sun to achieve ideal ripeness. Vines growing just five miles from the Pacific Ocean also benefit from ocean breezes and cooling effects. The 2015 is drinking nicely right now, so there’s no need to lay this one down. It has aromas of freshly ground black pepper, eucalyptus, pomegranate, and boysenberry with flavors of forest floor, ripe red cherry, and red raspberry enveloped by silky tannins. There’s great minerality in the finish.
Paul Hobbs 2018 Goldrock Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma County
The vineyards from which these grapes are sourced benefit from proximity to the effects of the Pacific Ocean, enjoying full days of sunshine and cooling ocean breezes at night. This wine shows both effects with ripe fruit flavors and balanced acidity. It offers aromas of ripe cherry, crushed violet flower, and red cassis. There is pronounced minerality with flavors of iron and saline and fruit flavors of caramelized orange peel, black cherry, and five spice powder. The tannins are pleasantly grippy and the acidity is well balanced. Drink now through 2028.
Belle Glos 2019 Dairyman Vineyard Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County
Fifth generation Napa Valley winemaker Joe Wagner wanted to honor his grandmother Lorna Belle Glos Wagner by naming his winery after her. The co-founder of Caymus Vineyards, she was an inspiration to her grandson. He started Belle Glos in 2001 and began focusing on making Pinot Noir from California’s best coastal regions. The 2019 Dairyman Vineyard Pinot Noir is ruby colored and has aromas of freshly ground white pepper, dark cherry, and pomegranate. It is soft at first sip with velvety tannins and flavors of red raspberry, ripe red cherry, and a touch of bramble in the finish.
Kistler 2019 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Sonoma County
While many Russian River wineries use 10 or more clones, Kistler makes their red wines using only two Pinot Noir clones. This Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is garnet colored in the glass and has aromas of eucalyptus, ripe black cherry, cigar box, and dried rose hips. The palate offers flavors of cranberry and red raspberry and a touch of rose petals with silky soft tannins and balanced acidity.
Williams Selyem 2020 Sonoma County Pinot Noir Sonoma County
Friends Ed Selyem and Burt Williams attempted to make wine for the first time in 1979 with Zinfandel grapes sourced from the Martinelli Family’s legendary Jackass Hill Vineyard. They had good success making wine over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1984 that they released their first wine using their own names on the label. True to their house style, the 2020 Sonoma County Pinot Noir has aromas of white pepper, lifted mint, cranberry, and pomegranate and flavors of red currant, red raspberry, and red plum with velvety tannins and a touch of salinity in the long lasting finish.