wine features Where and What on the Winelist: Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Where and What on the Winelist: Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
January 2010

Cabernet Sauvignon. While Sonoma certainly has good name recognition among wine drinkers, it doesn’t have the same connotations as Napa. That is to say, it’s not all about high-end Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, its diversity may have stood in its way from a marketing perspective. After all, Sonoma has produced top-notch wines from a number of varieties including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Syrah, and yes, Cabernet Sauvignon. While Cab may seem like an afterthought—or an attempt to cash in on the grape’s popularity in the valley next door—it actually has long roots in Sonoma. In fact, it is the second most planted grape there, after Chardonnay.

Sonoma Valley. That diversity of grape varieties has good cause:  there’s a huge diversity of climate hinted at, perhaps even exaggerated by, the large number of sub-AVAs in the county. There’s Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Mountain, plus all the AVAs without Sonoma in their name like Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Top regions for Cabernet Sauvignon include Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, north of Russian River, as well as Sonoma Mountain, to the south, and Knights Valley, which on a map actually looks like a northern extension of Napa Valley. By and large they are warmer than other parts of Sonoma, either because they are further from the cooling maritime air of the coast, or in the case of Sonoma Mountain, where Cabernet Sauvignon is pretty much the signature variety, the vineyards are at a higher elevation, putting them above the fog line so they get sun from morning to dusk. The best vineyards are also well draining, of course.

Because being slightly cooler and well-draining makes for muscular, dense Cabernet at reasonable alcohol levels. Fruit bomb Cabernets are rare in Sonoma. Medium-bodied muscle is more common, as is a focus on earth and spice—some could even be taken for Bordeaux in the right blind-tasting context. By-and-large Sonoma Cabernets are well-structured and can age well. All these factors make them food-friendly, tannic enough to match well with beef and lamb elegantly, rather than bombastically.

From the broadest Sonoma appellations, Sadler Wells and August Briggs (from the Monte Rosso vineyard) both standout, the former for its spice, cedar, and graphite character, the latter for its power.

The Kamen Cabernet, Sonoma Mountain AVA, keeps that dense fruit and structure, even in vintages when the alcohol creeps up a bit, it stays balanced and doesn’t get hot on the finish. Their vineyards are certified organic, while Benziger goes a step further as a biodynamic property, the first in Sonoma County; their “Tribute” Cabernet is rich, intense, and age worthy.

The Alexander Valley offers good wines from familiar wineries. Look for Silver Oak, Simi, and Jordan. In neighboring Dry Creek Valley, A. Rafanelli, more known perhaps for their Zinfandel, produces a delightfully intense Cabernet. Dry Creek Vineyards and Mauritson also produce muscular Cabs from the AVA.

Beringer is the big Cabernet name associated with Knights Valley and makes three red wines (two 100% Cabernet, one a Bordeaux blend) there, and Peter Michael’s Les Pavots and L’Esprit des Pavots are world-class, Cabernet-centric Bordeaux blends from the Les Pavots vineyard there. The L’Esprit is a second-label wine made from younger vines replanted after a bout of phylloxera.