When it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon, it is true that Napa Valley is King. Between the sheer amount of plantings, savvy marketers, big names, and the “Judgement of Paris” Napa will long hold the bulk of the market value for California Cab. But with a similar Mediterranean climate and temperature swing (above the fog line), Sonoma County Cabs have proven themselves to rival their neighbors concentration, structure, and quality without carrying the hefty price tag.
The many sub-appellations of Sonoma offer incredible nuances of terroir in their Cabernets much like the sub-appellations of Napa. For example, the ‘dustyness’ from the Chalk Hill area, the deep chocolate notes from Dry Creek, or the mentholated hints to Knights Valley fruit. The Cabs from Sonoma can carry forward notes of raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, and cassis with secondary notes of cigar box, graphite, and gravel – not unlike the neighboring Napa Cabs.
There are a few key regions in Sonoma County for excellent Cabernet:
- Sonoma Valley – On the western side of the Mayacamas range, just across the Napa AVA border, and with a similar climate (above the Pacific fog line) many producers create world class Cab from incredible vineyard sites, most notably, the Monte Rosso vineyard.
- Alexander Valley – Essentially the Napa Valley of Sonoma County, Alexander Valley has hot days and cool nights, perfect for ripening conditions in the growing season, and well drained gravelly soils. The higher up the mountain, the better the exposure and drainage in this appellation, making for small, concentrated, powerful fruit.
- Dry Creek Valley – The home to California’s best Zinfandels, growers saw opportunities for Cabernet though the unique “chocolatey” terroir and warm summer days and cool summer nights, perfect conditions for Cabernet to thrive in while taking on a more unique “coastal” influence.
Although Sonoma as a whole is more known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Sparkling wines (all due to coastal influence and – as a horrible generalization – a cooler climate), the Cabernets from Sonoma can compete on the world stage. It is not uncommon for a Napa producer to acquire Sonoma fruit for their program, and bottle a Sonoma Cab for their Napa tasting room. What it really boils down to is preference of Cabernet style for a consumer. Honestly no one Cab from Napa or Sonoma is better than another, just different, the same way no two Napa Cabs are the same. It is important to understand this as wine is subjective. A triple digit dollar bottle of Napa Cab may impress your friends and family, but may not be enjoyed by all the different palates at the table. A double digit bottle of Sonoma Cab may actually be a better choice because of approachability. Or maybe not. Again, it is all subjective as we all have different palates and preferences. It should also be stated that price in wine is not indicative of quality or ‘tasting better’ than a less expensive bottle. Price is more indicative of marketing, hands on the wine, yield from the vintage’s harvest, supply and demand, and of course, pomp and circumstance.