Sonoma is just a stone’s throw from Napa County, up and over the Mayacamas range, but they really are a world apart in many ways. Napa Valley’s neat and orderly breakdown of appellations that are clearly defined, virtually all contiguous, and predictably different, look positively scientific when compared with Sonoma’s extensive, elongated AVAs. That’s short for American Viticultural Areas and, unlike Napa’s primarily latitudinal divisions, Sonoma’s tend to follow the contours of specific river valleys. The Russian River Valley might be the most famous of these, but closer up towards the headwaters of the river lies the Alexander Valley, home to some of the oldest vines in the county.
What to expect: Alexander Valley CabernetThe style of Alexander Valley Cabernet is built around a rather soft, voluptuous mouthfeel, the result of phenomenal structural ripeness yielding soft acidity and sweet tannins. However, the flavors these wines exhibit are more commonly associated with less ripe grapes. That is to say, the fruit tends to be in the red end of the spectrum, and the wines almost always feature a bit of a vegetal note. Explore Alexander Valley Wines: On Snooth.
That should come as no surprise to anyone who has driven through this narrow, winding valley. These lands look ideally suited for viticulture, much as they did over a century ago when primarily Italian immigrants came through and named various stretches of the valley Asti, Chianti, and Nervo.
While today the valley is more easily recognized as being anchored by Healdsburg in the south and Cloverdale in the north, the influence of those early Italian farmers cannot be overstated. To this day the Alexander Valley remains the heart of Sonoma County’s wine production, with more acres under vine, as well as a greater percentage of land under vine, than any of the other dozen or so AVAs that make up the rest of the county.
Alexander Valley was, not surprisingly, not named for an Italian immigrant, but rather for Cyrus Alexander, one of the original owners of the Mexican land grant that was to become the valley. Cyrus planted vines as early as 1843, about as early as anyone in the valleys north of San Francisco, including Napa. The fertile benchlands along the Russian River, and the warmth of the valley were, and remain, an irresistible lure to farmers and winemakers alike.
The valley is shielded from much of the moderating effects of the Pacific ocean by the hills on its western flank, though the river does create the fogs that are so familiar to the region. Those fogs help to slow the accumulation of heat during the summer days, and contribute to the diurnal shift between day and nighttime temperatures, imparting Alexander Valley wines (and Cabernet-based wines in particular) with their unique character.
The Alexander Valley is home to a wide array of grape varieties and wine producing styles but even here Cab remains king. That should come as no surprise as the style of Alexander Valley Cabernet is built around a rather soft, voluptuous mouthfeel. The Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley has always struck me as a wine that achieves phenomenal structural ripeness, soft acidity and sweet tannins, while exhibiting flavors more commonly associated with less ripe grapes. That is to say that the fruit tends to be in the red end of the spectrum, and the wines have almost always exhibited a bit of herbaciousness in the past. With new clonal selections, lower yields, and different canopy management it looks like that might be a characterization that is, sadly, no longer valid.
This small group of wines is missing some of my favorite Alexander Valley wineries, but it's still an illustrative selection. The Rockaway from Rodney Strong is a big, powerful, and finely-balanced wine. It competes with some of the world's best, but fails to ring my Alexander Valley bell. The Stuhlmuller is still a bit marked by the oak but seems to have the components to come into balance while retaining its herbaciousness. It's a pretty creamy style of wine though, and the fruit is decidedly off into the black fruit end of the spectrum.
For me, the Field Stone and the Arbios are the most typical of the bunch, full of red berry fruit and herbal notes with a soft, slightly chewy textures. The Field Stone has a great track record and is simply a ridiculous value at its price. 'Nuff said, onto the wines.