10 Unique Sonoma County Wines
Sonoma County is famed for its interpretations of five key wine varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. However, these are far from the only grape varieties grown and fermented in Sonoma County.
There's a cornucopia of other wine varietals (and styles) made in Sonoma County, hailing from around the world — and each one has a story. Here, we give you a taste of some of these delicious Sonoma County outliers.
Albariño, Marimar Estate
The white grape Albariño originated in the cool, rainy climate of Galicia, Spain, so Spanish-born founder/owner Marimar Torres figured the cool, rainy Sonoma Coast would be the ideal place to grow it in the U.S. But after four unripe years, Torres and her team gave up, grafted the vines onto their slightly warmer Don Miguel Vineyard in the Green Valley AVA , and now have this crisp, tasty Spanish-born white to show for their efforts.
Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, this bone-dry white wine has aromas of citrus and honeysuckle, with stone fruits like peach on its bright palate. Try it with grilled seafood, sushi, and Spanish tapas. ($34)
Arrossire di Barbera, Methode Champenoise, Portalupi
The only sparkling Barbera made in Sonoma County, this Northern Italian variety (along with most of Portalupi's wines) pays homage to owners Jane Portalupi and Tim Borges' immigrant grandparents, who left Italy to make wine in California.
A distinctive blush color and strawberry aromas set this elegant bubbly apart, but tight, tiny bubbles and a creamy mousse are the Champagne method all over. Pair with cheese and charcuterie, or simply lift a glass for a toast. ($45)
Aglianico, Unti Vineyards and Winery
This red grape long ago made its way from Greece to southern Italy, thriving in the sunshine of the Campania region (where Naples is the capital). The winery, co-owned by Tuscan-born George Unti, grows its Aglianico grapes in the all-day-sun of the Dry Creek Valley, and makes the wine in the style of Campania's revered Taurasi DOCG.
The rich, full-bodied result has deep color, pronounced aromas of dried rose petals, prunes and spice; it's a great pairing for lamb, duck, or pork belly. This structured wine could age at least 7 years — if you can hold out that long. ($50)
French Colombard Halfshell White, Woodenhead
It's rare to see this white Bordeaux grape in Sonoma County, and rarer still to see it expressed as a single-varietal wine rather than part of a blend. In France, it's a traditional component of Cognac and Armagnac.
Dry, crisp and moderately aromatic, with juicy acidity and pronounced minerality, this is a go-to pairing for raw or cooked oysters. Bring a bottle to local oyster spots like Rocker Oysterfeller's and The Shuckery, and enjoy. ($26)
Gamay Noir, Pax Wines
Winemaker Pax Mahle is best known for his Syrahs, but among his other offerings is Gamay Noir, little seen in this area; also called simply Gamay, this is the signature grape of France's Beaujolais region. Mahle's Gamay Noir is grown in two Sonoma County vineyards: One with volcanic soils in Santa Rosa's Bennett Valley, the other farmed biodynamically in the Mayacamas Mountains.
Mahle's Gamay Noir is made using a combo of whole-cluster fermentation and carbonic maceration to conserve its freshness. This light-bodied red displays aromas and flavors of black cherry and pomegranate, as well as savory spices like rosemary and thyme. Best served chilled. ($38)
Grignolino, Idlewild Wines
Idlewild's owner and winemaker Sam Bilbro focuses on traditional Piedmont (northern Italy) varieties, including pale red Grignolino. In Italian, grignolino means "many pips," referring to the many seeds in these slow-ripening grapes, which require slow, gentle pressings in order to avoid strongly tannic, bitter wines.
Bilbro manages this very well. Grown in the Russian River Valley, his light-bodied Grignolino has a nose of fresh and dried flowers, raspberry, and hibiscus, with a bright palate of just-ripe red fruit. Akin to a complex rosé, it pairs well with a wide variety of foods, from charcuterie to mild curries. ($35)
Grüner Veltliner, Belden Barns
Though it's the most-planted grape in Austria, Belden Barns is the first winery to grow Grüner Veltliner in Sonoma County, in its Steiner Vineyard atop Sonoma Mountain.
Belden makes this deep-green variety into a dry, pale green wine with pronounced notes of yellow grapefruit and hints of nectarine, white pepper, roasted nuts, and tarragon. A little creaminess speaks to the wine's high quality, and acid minerality lends a tingly finish. A rare wine that can be paired with asparagus, artichokes and green beans, it's also lovely with ricotta or yellow curries. ($30)
Muscat of Alexandria 2016, Martinelli
Having originated in North Africa, the large-clustered, big-berried, pale-green Muscat of Alexandria grape was first made into wine by Ancient Egyptians. Long since used for table grapes and raisins as well, the variety is known for its straightforward taste of sweet green grapes. Around the world, it's often made into dessert wines, but Martinelli's Russian River Valley version is fermented dry.
The winery's 140-year-old, head-trained Muscat vines are interspersed with old Zinfandel in their Jackass Hill vineyard, set on one of the steepest hillsides in Sonoma County. Floral and expressive, Martinelli's Jackass Hill Muscat of Alexandria has aromas of honeysuckle, tangerine, and baked yellow pear, with a viscous palate of orange blossom, apricots and vanilla. ($32)
Pinotage, Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery
Fort Ross co-owners Lester and Linda Schwartz hail from South Africa, where Pinotage is the signature red-black grape. A hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, it was created in South Africa in 1924 to thrive along the country's Cape of Good Hope.
The Schwartzes grow their Pinotage in their Fort Ross-Seaview AVA vineyard. From it, they produce this deep maroon, full-bodied, medium-acid wine with juicy flavors of blackberry and cherry, hints of black pepper, and a sumptuous, earthy nose not unlike the scent of a campfire. It's an ideal pairing for barbecued steaks and burgers, with sauces and all. ($58)
Sagrantino, DaVero Winery
Rare even in its indigenous town of Montefalco in the Umbria region of Italy, this red grape nearly went extinct there before being resurrected in the 1960s by a group of local growers. Now a passion of DaVero co-owner Ridgley Evers, it's one of only a handful of Sagrantinos produced among Sonoma County's 425 wineries (along with Orsi Family, Jacuzzi, and VJB Cellars).
Sagrantino is the most tannic grape in the world, yielding wines that are powerful and deep, with medium acidity and strong structure — like DaVero's version, which has flavors of black currants, game meats, blueberries, black olive, and red fruit. This wine is ideal with sausages and wild mushrooms, the latter of which are a Sonoma County specialty. Decant a few hours before enjoying, or to reach its full potential, cellar it for about 20 years. ($100)
Written by Melanie Wynne