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Friday, May 8, 2015

Sonoma County Appellations: Alexander Valley

Sonoma County's Alexander Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon. You'll also find first-rate Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and even Petite Sirah.

AV's best feature is its location, not just for wine grapes, but for visiting. It's right outside the town of Healdsburg, but still has that laid-back charm that was more common years ago in the wine country. In case you ever wondered what Napa Valley was like a few decades ago when it was just gaining popularity, it was a lot like what Alexander Valley is today--relatively undiscovered.

History

About 175 years ago Cyrus Alexander came to Sonoma County to manage a Mexican land grant. For his work he received 9,000 acres in the valley where he planted fruit orchards and grapes. By the mid-20th century AV was all about prunes. By the 1970s wine grapes were taking over.

The Appellation

Alexander Valley is over 20 miles long and from two to seven miles wide.  There are 15,000 acres of grapes, about 20% of the total land area. The valley floor is heavily planted in grapevines.

It's been an official AVA (American Viticultural Area) since 1984.


Climate

Alexander Valley is in the northeastern part of Sonoma County so it's away from much of the cooling ocean influence that drives the weather in most other local grape growing regions. The Russian River runs through AV providing different micro-climates and soils compared to rest of the valley floor and the hillsides.

There can be quite a swing in day-to-night temps during the growing season as it wouldn't be unusual to see 90s in the afternoon and 50 at night. This temperature swing is quite ideal for many wine grape varieties.

The Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are most prominent, but you'll find lots of Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, too. The Cab and Zin grown here show distinct Alexander Valley traits.


Wineries

There are about 40 wineries and about 75 grape growers in AV. About half of these wineries have tasting rooms open to the public. Some of the better known ones are Alexander Valley Vineyards, Clos du Bois, Francis Ford Coppola, Hanna, Jordan, Robert Young, Rodney Strong, Stryker, Trentadue, and White Oak. Lots of other wineries use Alexander Valley fruit, too.

Visiting

The town of Healdsburg is just a few minutes away. Pack a lunch for your day of wine tasting as you won't exactly find a McDonald's in Alexander Valley although Francis Ford Coppola is one of the few wineries that has a restaurant (and a swimming pool and a full bar). Otherwise, you can pick up a sandwich at the Jimtown Store. This quaint little country store has been on a number of TV cooking shows.

Image from jimtown.com

Alexander Vly vs Napa Vly Cabernet

Since both are most known for Cab Sauvignon and are fairly close geographically it's natural to compare the wines.

Napa Cabs are overall quite a bit more expensive than Alexander Vly ones. One of the (arguably) top AV Cabs is from Jordan Winery and it retails for about $50. There are lots of Napa Cabs going for over $100. The cost of a ton of Cab grapes in Napa is $5500 and about $3000 in Sonoma County so there's part of the reason. And, of course, there's perception. Napa and Cabernet go together in everyone's mind.

In flavors Napa Cabs tend to be more fruity, lush, and powerful while Alexander Valley Cabs might be a bit restrained, but rich, maybe herbaceous, and assertive in their youth. Which is better? Are Napa Cabs worth the price difference? That's up to you to decide.


More info from Alexander Valley Winegrowers