The Ultimate Guide to Essential Wines From Sonoma's Wine Country

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Sonoma vineyard vista

You're passionate about wine collecting, and you love discovering fine wines that add prestige to your collection. You've likely enjoyed Napa Valley wines, but you'll find just as much quality from the best bottles in Sonoma wine country. These wines have complex flavors and depth, and their quality has captured the attention of collectors from around the world.

Discovering Sonoma Wine Country

The Sonoma wine region lies just west of the Napa Valley wine region, spanning the Mayacama and Sonoma Mountains and the valleys in between. Its rich variety of climates and soils, which range from gravel to chalk to volcanic ash, give this region a strong base for many types of wines.

The region is known primarily for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – similar to Burgundian wines – with select parts providing prime growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and other varieties.

You'll find 18 appellations or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the Sonoma wine region, each offering unique mesoclimates perfect for particular wine grapes. Sonoma Wine Country is home to 400-plus wineries with the total area of its vineyards exceeding 60,000 acres.

The southern, western and south-central sections have cooler temperatures and a fog influence. They include AVAs like Sonoma Coast, Carneros Sonoma, Russian River Valley and Green Valley. In the eastern, northeastern and north-central parts of Sonoma Wine Country, you'll experience warmer temperatures and drier conditions, as well as higher elevations. Some of the AVAs in this region include Moon Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

Whether you're seeking the best and most expensive Sonoma wines or simply those with flavor profiles you enjoy, you'll have no difficulties identifying excellent vintages. Here are 10 essential Sonoma wine producers and their wines.

1. Marcassin

With small-scale production, Marcassin focuses on excellence at every step. Grapes are grown and harvested in the Sonoma Coast AVA and transported to the Marcassin Winery in Windsor, where they undergo natural yeast fermentation. Marcassin Vineyard produces a Pinot Noir, with rich berry, plum, smoke and earthy notes, and a Chardonnay, with honeysuckle, orange blossom, citrus and creamy flavors. Both varietals age in oak barrels for 12 months before bottling.

2. Peter Michael

Found in the Knights Valley AVA, the Peter Michael Winery produces varietals that display their commitment to high-quality wine making. The winery is known for several Chardonnays, such as Point Rouge, Belle Cote, Ma Belle Fille and Mon Plaisir. They also produce Les Pavots, a Bordeaux-style blend – primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – with notes of black currant, licorice, truffle and a hint of cassis. Their vineyard in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA produces a rich Pinot Noir that evokes florals, cherries and dark berries.

3. Aubert

Aubert Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come from several vineyards throughout the Sonoma Coast AVA and one in the Russian River Valley AVA. The winery, based in Calistoga, produces vineyard-designate wines, including Ritchie, Lauren, Eastside and Reuling Chardonnay, and UV and UV-SL Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay is praised for complex citrus notes along with peach, spice and honey, while the full-bodied Pinot Noir delights with berries, mint, florals and spice.

4. Dehlinger

Dehlinger Winery harvests and produces several wines from within the estate in the Russian River Valley AVA. While their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are single vintages, their Syrah and Pinot Noir come in two types per vintage: Goldridge and Atlamont, named for the distinct soils on their property. Dehlinger Chardonnay is unfiltered and aged in French oak barrels, offering fresh citrus, tart apple and apricot flavor notes. Pinot Noir, their second-most-sought-after wine, is smooth and balanced with dark fruits and spices.

5. Chalk Hill

Located in the AVA of the same name, Chalk Hill Estate Winery sits atop a rolling hillside landscape that features a variety of soil types. Their use of vertical viticulture suits the higher elevation and undulating terrain, allowing for 350 acres of sustainable vineyards. Chalk Hill produces a variety of wines thanks to their diverse acreage, with primary varietals including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. They also produce an Estate Red from a Bordeaux-style blend, which delights with its full body, rich tannins and notes of black currant, chocolate, plums and berries.

6. Verite

Situated in the Alexander AVA, Verite Winery produces three blends each year from more than 50 micro-cru sites. La Joie, which is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, offers up florals, blackberries, smoke, spices and a lingering finish. Le Desir, which is primarily Cabernet Franc, is full-bodied with medium tannins and hints of vanilla, chocolate, black currant, blueberry and truffles. La Muse, which is primarily Merlot, reveals chocolate, spice, blackberry, cassis, raspberry and rich minerals.

7. Kistler

Kistler Vineyards is located in the Russian River Valley AVA, although most of its Chardonnay vineyards are scattered through the Sonoma Coast, Carneros – Sonoma and Sonoma Mountains AVAs. As such, they produce distinct vineyard-designate bottlings such as Vine Hill, Kistler, Durell and McCrea. All Chardonnay bottlings age for 11 to 18 months. Kistler also produces a limited amount of Pinot Noir, which ages for 14 to 18 months.

8. Rochioli

At the northern end of the Russian River Valley AVA, Rochioli Vineyards produces high-class estate wines of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from more than 140 acres of vines. They're most known for their full-fruit Pinot Noir, but their citrusy Chardonnay and mineral-rich, tropical fruit-laden Sauvignon Blanc also capture plenty of attention. They also produce a limited amount of single vineyard estate wines for those on their mailing list.

9. Kosta Browne

Harvesting wine from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs, as well as Anderson Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands outside the Sonoma region, Kosta Browne puts significant focus on Pinot Noir. They have numerous vineyard-designate wines, such as Cerise Vineyard, Keefer Ranch, Giusti Ranch and Kanzler Vineyard. Their 4-Barrel Pinot Noir features the best barrels of the vintage, producing a unique offering each year.

10. Flowers

With vineyards on the far western ridges of the Sonoma Coast AVA, Flowers Vineyards and Winery takes pride in farming organically. Their estate vineyards, Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge, are also biodynamically farmed and produce vineyard-designate wines – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sea View Ridge and Pinot Noir from Camp Meeting Ridge. They also produce two Sonoma Coast wines blended from numerous vineyards. Pinot Noir bottlings have rich minerality and bold fruit, and Chardonnay bottlings have honeysuckle and tropical fruit blended with minerals.

Consider expanding your wine collection with one of the above outstanding wines. If you'd like more information on best practices, read our article on how to start a wine collection.