The appeal of Sonoma Coast wines

The appeal of Sonoma Coast wines

Contributed by Dan Berger
Unfortunately, the word “acid” has a turbulent reputation. It’s a synonym for a difficult person’s disposition, a grimace-inducing taste, a caustic remark, a harsh response and other negatives.

When used to describe a wine, acid rarely is a beneficent trait. It’s almost never used as an encouragement to buy a wine. It implies sourness. By contrast, some people love the S words to describe quality wines – sweet, soft, succulent, silky, sensual, seductive. Such wines tend to be low in acid.

The word “unfortunate” started this essay because I view the pathway that many New World wines have been involuntarily subjected to as being a conduit to perdition. I believe that if the grape is the heart of a great wine, its soul is acidic. For me, the best wines to pair with most foods are savory, without sweetness.

I believe most low-acid wines are dreadful. (Indeed, even great dessert wines are usually defined as having a perfect balance between acid and sugar. Dessert wines without sufficient acid are flaccid and cloying.)

The word “savory,” besides meaning appetizing, is defined in taste terms as salty or spicy, without sweetness. In wine terms, a savory wine is dry – which could refer to wines that have actual residual sugar, but which also have sufficient acid to mask most or all of any sugar.

This extended explanation of the use of the word “acid” relates to how we should think of some of the newer cooler sub-regional designations, such as the new American Viticultural Area (AVA) called West Sonoma Coast, which was approved on May 22.

When the federal government approves a new AVA, it receives geographical boundaries and climatological data submitted by the region’s proponents. The approval process is lengthy. All submitted evidence is digested and analyzed. Of the dozens of AVAs already approved, a few have such risky (very cool) climatological issues that keep producers and growers on the edges of their proverbial seats regarding the subject of ripening fruit. Unripe isn’t good. Ripe is better.

Warmth and sunlight are crucial to the development of the sugars needed to produce the alcohol that wines must have. They also help to develop proper wine flavors. Cold regions can be problematic for wine grapes; several aren’t warm enough to ripen fruit annually.  Of the approved U.S. AVAs, one of the most famous cool areas is Russian River Valley, a complex series of sub-regions that need far greater explanation than most textbooks or articles provide. Parts of RRV are extremely cool; parts aren’t.

The coolest Russian River Valley locations are at the southwestern corner of the AVA, making it marginally hospitable for many varieties, but blessed for grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (And, of course, for Riesling, but the land is so expensive no one would plant any of that variety there.)

The newest AVA approved by the government is West Sonoma Coast. In a press release, the area’s backers wrote, in part, that it has “50 vineyards planted with varieties ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Syrah.

“The approval of the AVA recognizes the region’s unique maritime growing conditions that are clearly expressed in the wines and give proper distinction to the growers who farm this cold, marginal viticultural region.”

The use of the words “cold, marginal” refers specifically to acid, along with several other characteristics of regions that are close to the Pacific Ocean. As such, vines must survive fog, wind, cold temperatures, and several other issues that make grape growing a risky venture. Not to me and a few others, however. We love tartness. My appreciation for acidity knows almost no bounds. I have often felt that the vast majority of wines made along the West Coast of the United States barely have enough acidity for those of us who appreciate the most European of wine styles.

Europe is the paradigm for so many of the most popular grape varieties because of its continental climate. Thus it’s cooler and less sugar- and alcohol- developing. Contrast that with the West Coast, which is more like a desert. A Mediterranean, sun-washed area, it is “benefited” by a lot of sun and heat. Maybe too much sun and heat to make classic wines. Excessive sun tends to play havoc with grape acidities. Which is a benefit for most average American wine drinkers, especially those who aren’t very adept at understanding real varietal characteristics — and the tart structure that helps us to pair wines properly with our meals.

Except for some unusual situations, sweet wines paired with savory foods are like fingernails on a blackboard.

Anyone growing grapes in excessively cool regions will therefore have a more difficult time selling such wines to the broad market because most wine newcomers, as well as most casual consumers, prefer softness – one of the succulent S words from above. But the classic nature of many wines from the cooler areas, like Petaluma Gap, Santa Lucia Highlands, parts of the Central Coast and now West Sonoma Coast appeal to Europhiles.

West Sonoma Coast’s natural acidity is one of its features, allowing wines to display personalities that work well when the wines are young and paired with food. Also, that same acidity combines with other elements that allows many of these wines to become better with time in the bottle.

High acid in wine is associated with longevity. Most winemakers know that too much acid is anathema. Balance is what they always wish to achieve. It’s possible to increase the acidity in a wine prior to fermentation by adding tartaric acid from a bag, but wine grapes are composed of several different kinds of acid; only one of them is tartaric. Almost all California wine grapes are acid-adjusted before fermentation (adding it afterward has negative consequences), which helps the structural make-up of the wine. In higher-acid regions, wines have more natural acids, which I believe adds to the potential complexity.

The 19th AVA in Sonoma County, West Sonoma Coast isn’t large. It’s a narrow sliver. The vintners’ announcement said it has “steep, rugged mountainous [coastal] terrain” and includes “three sub regions from north to south – Annapolis; the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, and Freestone-Occidental."  The Pacific Ocean forms the western boundary. The Sonoma-Mendocino County line is the northern boundary. The eastern edge “follows a series of elevation contours within 5 to 7 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The southern boundary [not far from Freestone in RRV] is marked by the northern boundary of the Petaluma Gap AVA.”

Petaluma Gap is an excellent neighbor since it shares some of the same characteristics found in West Sonoma Coast. Marine breezes or gales (?!) ensure that acid levels will be slightly higher than in more inland areas. (Tip: do not try to visit West Sonoma County beaches on even hot days without a jacket!)

Such constantly cool regions also produce somewhat different aroma characteristics in the wines, including in some cases a slightly pepper-y aroma in some grapes.

From the vintners’ press release:

“Bright acidity, moderate alcohol, and pure flavors are qualities often associated with the wines from the West Sonoma Coast. The new AVA [status] provides clarity for consumers who can expect a wine labeled ‘West Sonoma Coast’ to have these defining qualities that differentiate its wines from those grown on warmer sites farther inland in the Sonoma Coast AVA.”

Winemakers know full well that to make a wine that is described as being tart is pretty much a guarantee that the scores it receives from those who rank wine by numbers may not be high enough to help sell it broadly.

Purists, especially those who love European models, will benefit from the West Sonoma Coast designation.

Over time, the use of the name will become vital, much the way Petaluma Gap now is becoming a prestigious appellation, indicating a uniqueness to some perfectly balanced wines.

Sonoma Coast remains a vast, amorphous area. Much smaller West Sonoma Coast helps to define structured wines for many consumers and is long overdue.
Check out these great and Highly Rated Sonoma Coast Wines we have in stock:

Alma Fria 2019 Plural Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Alma Fria 2018 Holtermann Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Argot 2019 Chardonnay Le Rayon Vert Sonoma 94 Points
Arnot Roberts 2019 Pinot Noir Heaven and Earth, Sonoma Coast 94 Points
Aston 2016 Pinot Noir “X”Estate, Sonoma Coast
Cattleya 2019 Chardonnay “Beyond the Threshold” Sonoma Coast 97 Points
Cobb 2018 Pinot Noir “Rice Spivak” Sonoma Coast 96 Points
Ernest 2019 Pinot Noir Cleary Freestone Ranch, Sonoma Coast
Ferren 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 94 Points
Ferren 2019 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
Hirsch 2018 Pinot Noir East Ridge Sonoma Coast 94 Points
Occidental 2020 Pinot Noir Freestone-Occidental Sonoma
Peay 2018 Chardonnay “Estate” Sonoma Coast  95 Points
Peay 2018 Syrah Les Titans Sonoma Coast – 97 Points
Peay 2019 Pinot Noir Pomarium Sonoma Coast 95 Points
Raen 2019 Pinot Noir Royal Saint Robert Sonoma Coast 97 Points
Ramey 2018 Syrah Sonoma Coast 98 Points
Senses “UV/El Diablo” 2019 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast – 97 Points
Argot 2019 Syrah “Indigo” Sonoma  97 Points
LaRue 2018 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 95 Points

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