Wine Growing Areas
Pinot Noir in California
Here is an overview of principal California American Viticultural Areas, (AVAs), the U.S. equivalent of appellations, associated with Pinot Noir. For a deep dive into specific regions, please visit our Regional Guides
California Pinot Noir Acreage by County (2020)
|COUNTY||2020 TOTAL GRAPE ACRES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|2020 TOTAL GRAPE HECTARES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|San Luis Obispo||2,078||841|
Los Carneros, Oak Knoll
Napa Valley’s climate is, as a rule, less well suited for cooler climate Pinot Noir than its raison d'être red grape of choice, Cabernet Sauvignon. Simply put, in most spots Napa Valley is too warm for Pinot Noir. Compared to neighboring Sonoma County, Napa Valley has almost six times less Pinot Noir, and all is located in Napa’s cooler southern regions. As Napa’s coolest AVA, Los Carneros (located approximately 40% in Napa, and 60% in adjoining Sonoma),with its calcium-rich soils, features a large percentage of Pinot Noir used for both sparkling and still wines.
- Los Carneros: Generally speaking, Los Carneros Pinot Noir tends to be a little spicier, earthier, lighter, and tighter than those from other Californian regions, with notes of red berries and herbs, rather than anything deeper and more opulent. It is easy to understand why a fair proportion of the district's grapes are purchased by wineries from warmer regions for use in sparkling wines.
- Oak Knoll: The district is planted largely to Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, in that order. But Oak Knoll Pinot Noir has a reputation for a restrained, delicate style of Pinot.
Russian River Valley → Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA and neighborhoods including Sebastopol Hills, Laguna Ridge, Santa Rosa Plain, Middle Reach
In Sonoma County, Pinot Noir is the region’s premier red winegrape, planted in over 13,000 acres/5,261 hectares. Within Sonoma, no AVA is as celebrated as the Russian River Valley, which accounts for almost all Pinot Noir plantings east of “The True” Sonoma Coast. A cool, foggy pocket, it is known for excellent méthode traditionelle sparkling wine.
- Sebastopol Hills: Sebastopol Hills is about as cool as it gets within the Russian River Valley's official boundaries. It is all about tea, dark black fruits, spice, tannin, acidity, structure, strawberry, bright cherry, blackberry, density of flavor, earth, lean, minerals, and complex aromas.
- Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA: Pinot Noir from the Green Valley’s celebrated sandy Goldridge soils stylistically tends to be high in acid, if not as high as Sebastopol Hills. Look for ample red fruit, blueberry, bing cherry, floral, light brown spice, pomegranate, tomato leaves, white pepper, and sage. Thanks to that high natural acidity, lovely sparkling wine is made here, as one might imagine -- not to mention great apple juice and cider from the region’s celebrated Gravenstein apples.
- Laguna Ridge: Situated between the Santa Rosa Plain to the east and the Green Valley area of Russian River Valley to the west, this ridge is a north-to-south line of hills. The fruit profile here is lush berry (darker fruit than Green Valley or Sebastopol Hills), ripe cherry, violet, anise, mocha, floral, bright blueberry, raspberry. Pinots from this area are typically soft, rich, ripe and dense, with a lusher mouthfeel.
- Santa Rosa Plain: It starts to warm up a little in the Plain, with Pinot Noir from here becoming more amplified: Think big red fruit, strawberry, cherry, cardamom. Pinot Noirs here are interestingly lighter in hue, with high aromatics, soft tannins, and approachable while young, with moderate acidity.
- Middle Reach: This was the first of the Russian River neighborhoods to gain widespread fame due to early plantings by the Rochiolis, Bacigalupis and others. The warmest of the Russian River subzones, it is still considered a cool area and is most often the first to be harvested in the Russian River Valley. Middle Reach Pinot Noir is big, bold, and rich, with cherry cola, mild cocoa, mushroom, forest floor, spice, earth, and jammy rich red fruits. Typically Pinot Noirs from here are higher in tannin, and spice-driven, with a signature velvety texture.
Sonoma Coast → Fort Ross-Seaview + West Sonoma Coast + Petaluma Gap, Carneros
The county’s Sonoma Coast is arguably too large and inclusive to generalize. The “true” (far) coast includes the Fort Ross-Seaview and Petaluma Gap AVAs, with many a celebrated Pinot Noir.
- West Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross-Seaview: West Sonoma Coast’s cool climate equates to small berries with high skin-to-juice ratios. This leads to very concentrated flavors and amplified tannins. Along with plums and dark cherries, Pinot Noirs here can be peppery in leaner years, with sage and other savory herbs and spices, while always long on mineral elements, with extremely focused tannins. The newer West Sonoma Coast AVA incorporates the nested-AVA of Fort Ross-Seaview, along with other hamlets including parts of Freestone, Occidental, Cazadero, Guerneville and Annapolis.
- Petaluma Gap: Coastal proximity and ample wind maintain higher acidity (with higher skin-to-juice ratio) while having more relative richness and texture than those in Fort Ross-Seaview. Gap Pinots are deep-flavored and densely structured, but still maintain delicate floral and fruit characteristics that include cherry, blood orange, tangerine, tea leaf and pomegranate molasses.
- Los Carneros: The Sonoma side of the AVA is known for delicate and elegant Pinot Noir with enticing aromas of black cherry, dark strawberry, and organic earthiness, a spine of acidity, and flavors of red cherry, spice and dried herbs. Note: This region straddles the Napa County region with about 40% of the AVA lying on the “other side” of the county line. A significant amount of the region’s Pinot Noir is made into sparkling wine of particularly good quality.
Growing as much Pinot Noir as Napa Valley, the Anderson Valley AVA is another North Coast gem for the variety, with differing examples emanating from the warmer Philo and Boonville areas than the cooler western “Deep End” hamlet of Elke and the higher elevation vineyards of the far western Mendocino Ridge AVA. The region excels for Pinot existing in climatic spots that are cool like Oregon but have more regularity to their harvests, in keeping with other parts of Northern California. Note: A good amount of Pinot Noir here is harvested at low sugars and directed towards sparkling wine production. The remainder is made into rich full-bodied table wines with a hint of ripe apples.
- Anderson Valley: Pinot Noirs are characterized by their crispness and natural acidity; as a group, they tend to be somewhat leaner and red fruited (raspberry, sour cherry) in style and exhibit more earthiness and conifer/herbal notes than the plusher, fruitier Russian River Valley Pinots from Sonoma.
Though not an AVA, there is some Pinot Noir grown in coastal Marin County. Winegrape growing in Marin County can be traced back to the early 19th century, but after a vineyard growth burst in the late 19th and early 20th century, acreage today stands at less than 250 acres, mostly Pinot Noir.
- Marin County: Persistently cool weather in the spring and summer, and complete lack of heat waves push flowering, “set,” and harvest many weeks beyond even the “cool-climate” district of Los Carneros. The result is one of the longest natural “hang times” in the state. As a result, Pinot here exhibits superb natural acidity and generally lower alcohol levels, framed by wild berry and cherry flavors.
MOUNT HARLAN, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County (Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone)
South of San Francisco, Pinot Noir flourishes in the Central Coast from select spots near Hollister (Mt. Harlan), the Santa Cruz Mountains and down through Monterey and the historically well respected Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone AVAs, both in Monterey County, a county that quietly ranks second only to Sonoma statewide in production of Pinot Noir. Notably, Monterey is a county that petitioned for and gained AVA status, in part to increase the percentage content of Monterey-grown grapes to the 85% required of AVA appellation and labeling mandates.
- Mount Harlan: In the hills of Hollister, Mount Harlan is associated with the lone winery in the AVA and the one for which it was granted AVA status: Calera. Demarcated thanks to the presence of one of the few limestone veins in the state, Pinot Noir here is forward, perfumed and aromatic, lighter and somewhat exotic, with exceptional softness on the palate -- balanced without being too powerful.
- Santa Cruz Mountains: Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs are very pretty wines. They tend toward the elegant rather than bold, mineral over leafy, cherry over berry.
- Monterey: Classic region-wide Monterey Pinot Noir will exhibit a fruit profile driven by bing to black cherry, rhubarb and dark, bramble cluster fruit, often with a signature spice component determined by the clonal selections and soils in the vineyards.
- The Santa Lucia Highlands: Depending on where in the AVA the fruit grows, Pinot Noir can wear many hats in the Highlands. Wines from the northern tip offer a brighter, more red-fruited character with nuances of rosewater, sweet spice and bing cherry. Further south, Pinot Noir is a few shades darker with smoky black cherry, and nuances of balsamic-soaked medicinal herbs.
- Chalone: The nearby and adjacent AVA of Chalone has unique limestone and granite soils which limit grape yields. Limited rainfall concentrates the fruit character of dried cherry, cranberry, jasmine, orange zest, rosemary and pomegranate.
With roots going back to the early 1970s at the namesake Edna Valley Vineyard (and winery), the Edna Valley is surrounded by volcanic mountains and characterized by black humus and clay-rich soils.
- Edna Valley: Pinot Noir here is about raspberries and dried cherries, layered with subtle nuances of lavender and fresh herbs (sage, bay leaf).
Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills
Another touchstone spot for the variety in California, Santa Barbara County ranks third in the state, trailing only Sonoma and Monterey Counties in acres/hectares planted. Here, the north-south coastal range of mountains abruptly turns to run almost east-west for 50 miles/80 km, framing the valleys in a unique transit to the Pacific Ocean. This is the only geographical stretch of land from Alaska to Cape Horn constituting an east-west traverse. This unique topography allows the flow of fog and ocean breezes to shape distinct microclimates and makes the region one of the coolest viticultural areas in California and a bastion of delicious and complex Pinot Noir. Many vintners capitalize on the cool climate to create crisp styles that showcase finesse and subtlety. However, some pockets allow for richer styles. Wines range from rich and opulent to savory and restrained.
- Sta. Rita Hills: The signature grape of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Pinot thrives here and delivers elegant, structured wines. The valley’s unique east-west orientation is the key to success with this cool climate variety. It’s true that the combination of climate and soils delivers character that is easily discerned, even compared to the Santa Maria Valley, which is just to the north and has a similar climate. The focus here is almost always on bold, red cherry flavors with a captivating note of minerality and, at times, salinity in the glass.
- Santa Ynez: Just 30 minutes from the Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez is the overarching designation for the landscape carved out over eons by the Santa Ynez River. The designation is still used by producers that make wines from grapes sourced throughout the area. However, most wineries now label wines with more specific sub-AVA names like Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, and Los Olivos.
- Santa Maria Valley: Home of the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard, the area is not as cool – and indeed warmer in many spots than even the Santa Ynez Valley. Pinot Noir here can resemble southern Russian River Valley Pinots, but spicier. Santa Maria Pinot Noirs are all about red and black raspberry, strawberry, red and black cherry, earthiness, truffles, forest floor, savory herbs, cola, soy sauce. The wines have more color than the Russian River Valley in most years due to longer hang time. The signature flavor is, as the locals call it, Santa Maria spice.
Pinot Noir Around the World
As one of the world’s most widely planted and popular vinifera grapes, it might be easier to list where it is not found! Below is a list of the principal areas associated with premium Pinot Noir. For further information on these areas, click on the below region:
- France: Burgundy (Côte d'Or, Côte Chalonnaise, and Mâconnais), Loire, Champagne, Alsace, Jura
- Italy: Northeast, especially Veneto’s Franciacorta and the Alto Adige
- Spain: Catalunya (Cava)
- Other European countries: Germany (Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Würrtemberg, Baden), Switzerland, Austria, Moldova, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine
- Australia: Tasmania, Victoria (Yarra Valley, Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland)), South Australia (Adelaide Hills, Fleurieu)
- New Zealand: North Island (Martinborough), South Island (Central Otago, Canterbury, Marlborough, Waipara)
- South Africa: Walker Bay, Mossel Bay
- The Americas
- Argentina: Patagonia (Rio Negro, Neuquen)
- Chile: Casablanca, San Antonio, Leyda
- Mexico: Mexican Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe
- Canada: British Columbia
- USA (beyond CA): Oregon (Willamette Valley, Rogue Valley), New Mexico, Idaho, New York
- Argentina: Patagonia (Rio Negro, Neuquen)