Bennett Valley is a sub-appellation of Sonoma Valley and is located in the Sonoma Mountain chain that leads up towards Santa Rosa. It is almost an extension of the Sonoma Mountain sub-appellation.
Chalk Hill is a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley. It is at the east end of the appellation running up against the Alexander Valley appellation and Knights Valley appellation in the Mayacamas Mountains.
I'm going to tell you a little bit about both.
Bennett Valley is one of the newest appellations in Sonoma County. In fact, it is one of the newest California appellations. The application for the appellation was filed in October of 2001 by the CEO of Mantanzas Creek. Mantanzas Creek is the ‘anchor' winery of the appellation. The appellation was granted in December 2003. I don't know for sure if that is a record but it is very fast. According to information I read, there was on opposition.
The area shares a lot of it's formative history with Sonoma Valley and Sonoma in general. Grape growing recorded as far back as mid-1800s. Many of the original vineyards farmed by immigrants and used for local wines.
Bennett Vally is, well, a valley. It is one of the smallest AVAs in the Sonoma County with only 650 acres currently planted out of 8,140 acres available. For comparison, Sonoma valley has about 60,000 acres planted. It is a valley that is part of the Sonoma Mountain chain that runs along the west side of Sonoma Valley. It is surrounded by three different mountain peaks: Taylor Mountain (west), Sonoma Mountain (south) and Bennett Peak / Bennett Ridge (east). Finally to the north is the city of Santa Rosa.
Bennett Valley, like a lot of the area, around it has volcanic type soil and is a cool weather climate. It's unique feature, which separates it from the surrounding areas, is cool air is channeled into the valley from the north by the peaks via the Crane Caynon / Grange Road wine gap. The air has no where to go but settle in the valley.
Grapes, Wines & Wineries
You would think with a small amount of land planted that there wouldn't be a lot of variation of in the grapes being grown. If you did think that, you'd be wrong. It planted mostly with Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, with lesser amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Barbera, Grenache, and Sauvignon Blanc. You can even find a bit of Petite Sirah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.
Why should you care?
Bennett Valley is one of those lesser known special places. It is one of those places that is coming into it's own. It is home to a well known and respected winery in Mantazas Creek and a lot of smaller family owned wineries. The growers there provide grapes to some of the best known California names including: Stag's Leap Cellars, DuMol and Caymus.
Bennett Valley Grape Growers Association
Bennett Valley @ Appellation America
Bennett Valley @ Wikipedia
Bennett Valley @ Calwineries
When people say the name Russian River the first thing that comes to mind is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That is a fair assessment as that is what the Russian River Valley is known for. So, when people hear that Bordeaux style wines are being made in Russian River Valley they think someone is smoking some funny cigarettes or they just made a mistake. The truth is, it is being done in a sub-appellation called Chalk Hill.
There isn't anything outstanding about the history of Chalk Hill. It wasn't one of the first places that grapes were grown in California or even in Sonoma County. It has, like a lot of places in Sonoma, growing grapes. The Chalk Hill AVA was founded in 1983 when people realized this wasn't Russian River Valley.
The Chalk Hill AVA covers about 33 square miles (85 square kilometers) and is situated at the eastern side of the Russian River AVA. It has about 1,600 acres (650 hectares) of planted vineyard land with about a 1000 of that planted. It is mostly rocky volcanic ash based soil and the elevation slopes upward the farther east you go. The AVA ends on the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain. The elevation of the AVA ranges from a low of 200 but is as high as 1300 feet. Unlike the rest of the Russian River Valley AVA, the Chalk Hill region is relatively warm due to the influence of a thermal belt that runs through the area. Harvest time in Chalk Hill often takes place in September while harvest in the surrounding regions usually takes place in October.
Grapes, Wines & Wineries
Chardonnay is still the most grown grape in Chalk Hill. But there is an increasing amount of Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. Like many regions in California people experiment by growing different grapes, other grapes that are grown in Chalk Hill include: Pinot Gris, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. With the warmer climate and big variation in altitude it is possible to find an area suitable to a lot of different grape varieties.
So what wineries are in Chalk Hill that you might know? How about J Vineyards and Rodney Strong? Yes, they are both in Chalk Hill with, of course, Chalk Hill Estate.
Why should you care?
Like Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill is one of those stealth AVAs. It is an AVA with great grapes and wineries. If you are the type of person that knows a secret that other people don't you want to know about Chalk Hill. The great thing about it is that you can find all wine in one area. It produces a bit of everything, Burgundian and Bordeaux wines in 33 square miles. Oh yeah, don't forget the sparkling wine courtesy of J Wines.
Chalk Hill @ Appellation America
Chalk Hill @ Wikipedia
Chalk Hill @ Calwineries
John Andrews is a software product manager during the week and is a professional Tasting Room staffer at Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen, CA on the weekends.