If you’re looking for a hidden winegrowing region on the rise in Northern California, then it’s time to get to know Suisun Valley in Solano County.
Suisun (pronounced sue-soon) is the Native Indian word for west wind. Stretching along the backside of Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain to the west and the slopes of the Blue Ridge of the Vaca Mountain Range to the east, this region is located above the cities of Cordelia and Fairfield, at the halfway point between San Francisco and Sacramento on Hwy 80.
With a warm Mediterranean climate and a mixture of sand and clay loam soils integrated with traces of gravel, sandstone, shale and volcanic matter, the growing conditions are very similar to those found in the northern section of Napa Valley.
The first vines were planted in the valley in the middle of the 1800s. But following Prohibition and World War II, the region was best known for its small farms, orchards, and its peaceful, rustic landscape. In the late 1960s, the number of vines began to increase. And although it became only the twelfth American Agricultural Area in California in November 24, 1982, the fruit was mainly used in blends made by top producers in Napa and Sonoma counties or bottled under the North Coast appellation, which Solano County became a part of on September 21, 1983.
That started to change in the 1990s when a new wave of passionate wine lovers and viticulturalists began planting new vineyards in the region. In addition to preserving the old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards and popular grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, many of the new plantings included European varietals like Viognier, Verdehlo, Syrah, and Tempranillo. The end result was a wide range of expressive wines with lovely aromas and deep flavors.
Currently, there are more than 3,000 acres of vineyards planted in Suisun Valley. While many of the more than thirty wineries that work with the fruit are based outside the area; the ones that call Suisun Valley home, like Wooden Valley Winery, Vezer Family Vineyards, Mangels Vineyards and The Scholium Project, have the advantage of being less commercialized than their neighbors to the west. For that reason, the tasting rooms tend to be more relaxed, user-friendly, and the prices of the high-quality wines are admirable as well. www.svvga.com.
Whites: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Chenin Blanc, Verdehlo.
Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Primitivo, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache, Barbera, Valdiguie (Gamay), Black Muscat, Bernardo.
White Wines: With gravelly soils coupled by warm days and cool breezes blowing in from the nearby Sacramento Delta and San Pablo Bay, the southern end of Suisun Valley is an ideal place to grow many different white grapes. Generally speaking, the Sauvignon Blancs feature fragrant aromas and refreshing flavors of pineapple, mango, citrus, ripe green figs and vibrant acidity; while the Pinot Gris-based wines are more centered on elegant flavors of the ripe apple and fresh melon. The conditions are equally beneficial to working with Viognier and other Rhone grapes, producing wines with lofty aromas and tangy flavors of ripe apricot, peach, and white pepper. On a smaller scale, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and newer plantings of Verdehlo offer fragrant aromas and flavors of fresh blossoms, honeysuckle, ripe melons, mandarin orange, grapefruit, mineral, and natural richness.
Red Wines: Petite Sirah is the signature red grape of the region. But instead of being inky, dark and overbearing, the flavor profiles of the offerings from the valley are highlighted with opulent notes of blackberry jam, fresh boysenberry, plum, licorice, softer tannins, velvety texture, and long finish. The Zinfandels are equally enjoyable with notes of ripe red fruits and black pepper. For Bordeaux lovers, most of the Cabernet Sauvignon offerings feature deep, rich and elegant notes of black cherry, cassis, and dark chocolate, while the Merlots tend to be stately with refined flavors of ripe berries, fresh herbs, cinnamon, and cocoa.
For white wines, try fresh oysters, tangy cheeses, gourmet salads, chilled soups, fish tacos and chicken skewers with fruit salsa alongside the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris; sushi and spicy foods with Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Verdehlo; and richer cheeses, seared scallops, fresh pasta with white sauce, and pork tenderloin with fruit chutney are great to try with the Chardonnay, Viognier, and other white Rhone varieties grown in the region.
Beyond grilled steaks and roasted meats, the full-bodied red wines from the valley match up nicely with everything from grilled vegetables, Mac & Cheese and wild mushroom raviolis; to slow-cooked duck, quail and gamier meats; and elegant offerings of fine Asian cuisine.