Sonoma: The value valley

Napa Valley might get most of the attention, but Sonoma Valley also creates some great wines that represent better value than its well-known neighbour.

When it comes to California wines, Napa Valley has developed the worldwide reputation as the best. As a result, the prices for Napa wines, especially for the good ones, have soared over the past decade or so. Just on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains from Napa lies Sonoma Valley where the wines are good, the variety is better and the value is best of all.

Jodie Petts, wine sale manager at Blackbeard’s is a fan of Sonoma wines.

“To me, it produces nice, clean, good quality wines, but at lower prices,” she says. “If I’m looking for good value in California, I’m always going to pick Sonoma.”

Sonoma is actually more than just a valley; it a county, just like Napa is a county. Sonoma County has 13

American Viticultural areas, which are distinguishable wine grape-growing regions. Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Knight’s Valley, as well as Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain are all Sonoma Valley AVAs.

The latter three give an indication of what makes Sonoma more diverse than Napa, in that not only does the country include mountains and valley AVAs, but a coastal AVA as well.

“Sonoma delivers diversity because of the different climates,” says Jodie, adding that the coastal region is more suited to growing grapes like Pinot Noir because it stays cooler.

The wines

To prove her point, Jodie organised a lunch tasting of six Sonoma County wines at the Brasserie restaurant. Joining in on the fun were Blackbeard’s wine specialists Jeremy Corday and Lee Quessy.

The first wine poured was 2009 Benzinger Sauvignon Blanc.

Known for its

certified biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming methods, Benzinger was awarded the 2011 Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition earlier this year.

“It’s one of the most amazing vineyards I’ve every visited,” says Jodie of Benzinger, which is saying a lot considering the multitude of amazing vineyards she’s visited in her life.

The 85-acre estate has several different growing climates and soils and Jodie says they plant the grapes that are best suited to each soil type, which is why Benzinger produces 14 different varietals.

Sixty per cent of the grapes in the Sauvignon Blanc come from Sonoma County, with the rest coming from further north, in Lake County. The result is a fresh, light wine with bright floral citrus and floral aromas, without the over-ripeness shown in some Napa Sauvignon Blanc wines. And it retails for only $16.49 at Blackbeard’s.

Next poured was 2009 St. Francis Chardonnay, a medium-bodied wine well suited for Cayman.

Ageing in French oak rather than American oak, gives the wine more subtlety, Jeremy says.

“Subtlety in wine is the wave of the future,” he says. “People want subtlety and elegance.”

Lee agrees.

“I think this style of Chardonnay is more trendy than the Napa alternative,” he says.

Drinkability is key, Jodie points out.

“It’s going into summer; a drinking a wine like this is much nicer than an OK, buttery Napa Chardonnay,” she says.

At $19.49 retail, it’s easier on the wallet than a Napa Chardonnay, too.

There’s also a huge difference in Pinot Noir from Napa compared to Pinot from Sonoma, which has a much better climate for the grape. The 2009 Sonoma Coast Le Crema Pinot is a perfect example, a more refined, less fruity offering than what typically comes out of Napa.

Jeremy says that when people ask him for a good bottle of California wine for under $20, he can steer them to a bottle of other kinds of wine easily enough, but that it’s not really possible with Pinot Noir. However, with retail price of just $24.99, he feels comfortable recommended the Le Crema.

“It hits all the marks,” agrees Lee. “The acid is in balance and has a soft, fleshy fruit finish.”

For those willing to spend more, there are some even better Pinots coming from the Sonoma Coast AVA and the 2009 Patz & Hall, at $43.99, is one of the best.

“They strive to make it as close to Burgundy as they can,” says Jodie. “People will spend $50 on a Napa Cab; why not spend 43 bucks on a Sonoma Pinot if you know the quality is there?”

Jeremy has no problem recommending Patz & Hall Pinot Noir, which he says doesn’t fall into the classification of a ‘food wine’.

“It’s phenomenal alone,” he says. “It doesn’t need food to make it better.”

With the steaks for lunch came the big reds, including 2007 St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel and 2006 Benzinger Cabernet Sauvignon, which both retail for $22.99.

The Zin comes from some of the oldest vines in Sonoma County, with all of the grapes coming from vines at least 50 years old and some from vines as much as 100 years old. Older vines produce less yield, concentrating the flavour in the fruit. Typical of California Zinfandel, the St. Francis Old Vines Zin is high in alcohol content at 15.5 per cent. Jeremy says he finds a lot of Zinfandels too heavy in body, but not the St. Francis Old Vines.

“It’s a good barbecue wine,” he says.

The 2006 Benzinger Cab earned 90 points from Wine Enthusiast, something that would be next to impossible for a Napa Cab at the same price point. Full-bodied with soft tannins and a long finish, a similar quality offering from Napa winery with enough production to export would probably cost close to double.

Blackbeard’s of course sells many other wines from Sonoma Country as well, but for the purposes of the tasty lunch, Jodie proved her point about the value of Sonoma wines quite well.