Russian River Valley

 


The movie Sideways did as much to promote California Pinot Noir as it did to vilify Merlot.  Some people would argue that Pinot was already on a rise but a little advertising doesn't hurt.  One region that has really benefited from the rise in popularity of Pinot Noir is the Russian River Valley.  For many wine enthusiasts Russian River Valley is synonymous with Pinot Noir.  While the Russian River Valley has its own style it could be said that the Russian River Valley is the Burgundy of California.

Geography 
As the name suggests, the Russian River Valley Appellation is an American Viticulture Area defined predominantly by the depression created by the flow of the Russian River.  The river is the flows southward from Mendicino County parallel to Dry Creek Valley, through the town of Healdsburg and finally turns westward where it flows out into the Pacific Ocean.   The AVA is characterized by rolling hills with some deep valleys.  The slopes face a number of different directions which means the amount of sunlight can vary dramatically.  This creates pockets of unique geography.  Now there is a condition where the cool breezes that flow in from the Pacific Ocean each night (thoroughly explained in Sideways) are easily felt.  The AVA is a mere 10 miles from the Pacific Coast at its closest point.  Combine the terrain and the cool breezes and it becomes clear why a person will experience significant changes in temperature within a few miles of each other.  As we like to say in California the region blessed with numerous microclimates.

Russian River Valley AVA

As many regions in the US, the wine growing history is divided into pre-prohibition and post-prohibition.  The pre-prohibition history has the area producing as much as 500,000 gallons of wine.  While it cannot be determined exactly when the first grapes were planted and harvested it is well documented by 1870s the region was known wine production with more than 7,000 acres planted with grapes.  The region was moving along nicely until prohibition was instituted.  Prohibition basically halted all wine production in the area.  It wasn't until the 1960s that wine production in Russian River Valley really started up again.  It was then that Bob Sisson, the University of California Farm Advisor for Sonoma County, urged many of the local farmers to start planting grapes.  In fact, we could call Bob the father of Russian River Pinot Noir as he was the one encouraged the local farmer to plan Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, cold weather grapes he believed would flourish in the region.

The Russian River Valley AVA was created in 1983 and has been adjusted in 1987, 2003 and 2005.  Unlike Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley isn't as well defined geographically.  The AVA is bordered on the north end by the Russian River and its valley.  To the north the AVA is Dry Creek Valley.   The east border is the Mayacaymus Mountains (Knights Valley AVA and Alexander Valley AVA).  The west border is coastal mountains (Sonoma Coast AVA) and the south border is the town of Sebastapol (Sonoma Coast AVA).

Sub-appellations include Chalk Hill, which is warmer and dryer than most of Russian River Valley, to the far east of the appellation and Green Valley (or Sonoma Green Valley or Green Valley of Russian River Valley), located in the southwest corner is of Russian River Valley, is the coolest and wettest part of the region.

Grapes and Wineries of Russian River Valley

According to the Appellation America website there are at least 40 varieties of wine grapes grown in Russian River Valley.  However, the ones that are the most important and most well known for the region are: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Zinfandel.  Because of the numerous microclimates it is possible to grow a wide variety of grapes.  In fact, in Chalk Hill sub-appellation you are more likely to find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc than Pinot Noir.

Again, according to Appellation America website, there are 170 wineries based in Russian River Valley and 353 wineries producing wines with the Russian River Valley appellation.  There is a approximately 15,000 acres planted in the region and it keeps expanding.

Why should you care about Russian River Valley?

Russian River Valley is as important to California as Napa Valley.  While Napa established California as a competitor to French wines, Bordeaux in particular, Russian River Valley has show that California can produce Burgundy wines as good as the French.  Is the Russian River Valley the Californian equivalent of Burgundy?  Not exactly.  The major grapes are the same but the styles are different.  Red Burgundies display significant earthiness and acidity whereas Russian River Pinot Noirs display perfumed aromas with delicate red cherry flavors.  White Burgundies and Russian River Chardonnays are more similar than the reds but differ in the ability to age.  Although, this is a broad generalization Russian River Chardonnays are better in their youth and White Burgundies can age much more gracefully.  However, the thing that really separates Russian River Valley from Burgundy is the fact that Russian River Valley also produces elegant wines produce from Syrah, Zinfandel and also produces very high quality sparkling wines.

If you are in California and want to experience something a little different than Napa you should consider a trip to Russian River Valley.  There are a large number of great wineries and restaurants.  If you want to make a trip, drop me a line and I'll share some of my recommendations with you.

Websites:

Russian River Valley Wine Growers

Northern Sonoma Wine Road

Russian River Travel

Appellation America

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.


Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,549

    John - being able to grow varietals as diverse as Pinot to Cab / Syrah is pretty unusual. I understand that the various microclimates allow this, but can you provide any more color on how and what/where?

    Apr 20, 2009 at 3:57 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,441

    John, thanks very much; I believe I asked for this closeup some weeks ago. A few questions to add to Philip's:
    1) Who are the top dozen or so winemakers there, and what are they making and how are they making it? Subjectivity is just fine!
    2) What is the difference between the pinots made by people in RRV (e.g. Rochioli) and those made in Sideways country, aka Santa Barbara (e.g. Au Bon Climat)?
    3) Why are the RRV people making chardonnays that lack staying power, to rephrase your description above?
    4) How's the sparkling wine in RRV?
    5) And what's the best RRV wine to drink on hot, lazy summer days when innertubing down the Russian River? ;-)

    Cheers

    Apr 20, 2009 at 6:41 AM


  • Snooth User: joss
    Hand of Snooth
    73889 988

    thanks, john, for the spotlight on rrv.

    @dmcker: gundlach bundschu (unsure of spelling?) is one my favorite rrv wineries. they produce some phenom reds IMO. :)

    Apr 20, 2009 at 7:35 AM


  • Snooth User: joss
    Hand of Snooth
    73889 988

    oops, my mistake. i got confused. gundlach bundschu is not rrv, but sonoma. sorry.

    Apr 20, 2009 at 7:38 AM


  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,418

    @Philip … the micro-climates really have to do with the terrain of the area. First there are series of mountains ranges that span (mostly) north to south from the coast inland until the Sierra Mountains in the inland to the east. I'm not talking Alps height mountains but high enough impede the flow of cool air.

    As you pass over each one of the mountain range chains temperatures increase a few degrees. This is a result of less cool air from the Pacific Ocean, down low to the sea level, doesn't make it fully over the mountains. Each range inward, less cool air.

    Now in each of these mountain ranges also contains numerous peaks and valleys. There are numerous small rivers and creeks that wind their way from and through some of the mountain ranges (Russian River Valley) out to major bodies of water (Pacific Ocean & San Pablo Bay). Then, there are natural depressions in these mountain chains from the coast inland. These depressions allow cool are to flow more freely (at night time) into the areas that are normally much hotter during the day.

    But what makes the area have a lot of micro-climates is that within the mountain chains you get a lot of small valleys or protected hillsides. The valleys can keep cooler temperature and moisture in the air as the valleys protect from sunlight early in the day. What happens in the Russian River Valley and most of the coastal wine regions in California is that there is a mix of these small protected valleys right next to wide open flat valleys. This allows for dramatic temperature changes a few miles apart.

    Now that said, generally speaking, the closer you get to the coast the more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted. The more inland you get the more Zinfandel and Syrah are planted. However, even though Zin and Syrah are generally warm weather grapes they thrive well in these cooler areas because of longer growing season in the region. The only region that really grows Cab is Chalk Hill sub-appellation of Russian River Valley. It is generally flat and the only steep slops are westward facing which allows for a lot of heat.

    Hope this helps.

    Apr 21, 2009 at 3:43 AM


  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,418

    @dmcker … I'll do my best to answer your questions.

    1) Who are the top dozen or so winemakers there, and what are they making and how are they making it? Subjectivity is just fine!

    Hmmm … tough one. Many people source grapes from the area but do production in other areas. Ones that I like in the region are:

    - Rochioli
    - Williams Selyem
    - Brogan Cellars
    - Lynmar
    - Arista
    - Hartford Family Winery
    - Kistler

    In general, they all use traditional methods of production. Many are picking a bit earlier in the past to maintain acidity. However, they rich in fruit flavors and get great balance. French oak is almost exclusively used and %s of new will vary.

    2) What is the difference between the pinots made by people in RRV (e.g. Rochioli) and those made in Sideways country, aka Santa Barbara (e.g. Au Bon Climat)?

    My experience suggest that Santa Barbara County Pinots are more similar to Carneros Pinots. They are lighter in texture and colour but do take on more of an earthiness characters. I would put them ‘inbetween' the perfumed RRV Pinots and Oregon. Does that make sense?

    3) Why are the RRV people making chardonnays that lack staying power, to rephrase your description above?

    Depends on the producer but I think / speculate they focus their energies on Pinot Noir because there is still a pretty strong sterotype of what California Chardonnay ‘is'. The amount of effort to defeat that is stereotype is so high that it is much easier to chase the Pinot consumer. There is still a California Chardonnay backlash.

    4) How's the sparkling wine in RRV?

    Decent to very good. Not as many wineries are doing them but two good ones are Iron Horse and J Vineyards.

    5) And what's the best RRV wine to drink on hot, lazy summer days when innertubing down the Russian River? ;-)

    Hmmm … I'd have to say the J Vineyards Sparkling Brut http://www.snooth.com/wine/j-vineya... Properly chilled of course!

    Apr 21, 2009 at 3:55 AM


  • I'd like to put a vote in for Gary Farrell for Pinots and Chardonnays.

    May 15, 2009 at 3:53 AM


  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,418

    @MikeWest … I have liked Gary Farrell wines in the past but since it has been sold I've found them to be inconsistent. However, I think it is time to go try them again.

    May 18, 2009 at 11:37 AM


  • I'm a big fan of Porter Creek's wines, especially the single-vineyard Pinots (Fiona HIll is especially nice). Their Viognier is delicious. Sold out last time we hit the tasting room.

    Agree w/ above comments--Williams Selyem produces luscious, rich, complex Pinots. Worth the splurge.

    Gary Farrell's new venture is Alysian Wines--they're aiming to open the new winery in 2011 but you can order their inaugural wines (2007) from their website. This is GF returning to his roots, creating exceptional limited production wines. Looking forward to tasting these. One to watch.

    John Tyler wines is another new winery that's being built here on Westside Road. The winery is a venture from the Bacigalupi family, who've been growing on Westside Road for decades. Should be open late this year or in early 2010.

    Dec 12, 2009 at 6:20 PM


  • Snooth User: Canne
    200793 12

    Just returned from my first trip to Sonoma Co. and, coincidentally, spent most of my time in RRV. Visited several wineries, including Lynmar, Gary Farrell, and Iron Horse, but especially liked the wines and experiences at Harvest Moon and Thomas George. In general, I got a real education in chards and pinots on the trip which are not usually the varietals I prefer; those would be the zins and syrahs and cabs. Also, the countryside is gorgeous! Reminded me a little of the western part of Ireland, all misty and brilliantly green with a spectacular coastline. This article would have been great prep reading for me if I'd seen it before I left!

    Jan 22, 2010 at 3:03 PM


  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,418

    @Canne ... Would love to hear more about Harvest Moon and Thomas George. I've not been to either of them. Jump in and share your insights in the forum.

    If ... err ... I mean when you head back out this way, let me know and I'll give you a few of my recommendations. Of course, that is if you are interested in them! ;-)

    Jan 22, 2010 at 4:35 PM


  • Snooth User: Canne
    200793 12

    Oh, there is no doubt I'll be back! And I am definitely interested in any recommendations you might have. I have really enjoyed reading your very informative articles.

    As for my thoughts on Harvest Moon and Thomas George, they are these: Harvest Moon was our second stop after Kendall-Jackson. What a difference in experience! KJ all very corporate and slick, while HM very laid back with much personal attention even the day before the Winter Wineland events started. Of course, there were only 2 of us there most of the time! Anyway, their wines are nice: several zins, including a late harvest zin which is heavenly with the dark chocolate they provided; and pinot; a dry and a sweet gewurztraminer; and a red blend. Our 1st purchase of the day was their "Randy Zin," a blend of zin, sangiovese, and syrah - drank it that evening back at the hotel! Elise, our pourer, and Randy himself were fabulous hosts, and we were able to get a barrel tasting of one of their upcoming zins. Armed with several great recommendations for wineries and restaurants that we tried later in the trip, we left this wonderful place reluctantly.

    Thomas George was one of Elise's recommendations - and it was recommended at KJ as well - for its wines and for its grounds. And we were impressed by both. Another reason we went was that my father's name is Thomas George so the souvenir quotient was high! TG does mostly pinots and chards, but does them in styles that really appeal to me, who is not much of a pinot or a chard drinker. Jeremy Baker, the owner, is quite the salesman, and picked up on our likes and dislikes and tailored his recommendations to fit our taste. My sig other had this to say: "This is hands down the best pinot noir I've ever had," about TG's 2007 RRV Pinot Noir. (Though he isn't a pinot drinker at all.) TG also has a lovely non-chard chardonnay, their Stuhmuller Vineyards '08 Chard, all stainless steel. We purchased 2 zins, a sauv blanc, and an un-sampled sauv musque on the recommendation of our pourer, Chris. (You may be asking why we bothered going to RRV if we don't really care for pinots and chards. Doesn't really matter anymore! We learned a lot and loved every minute.) Our visit to TG was during Winter Wineland, so the place was full and the energy was high; we had a great time. The winery is only a couple of years old as TG, as I understand, and some things were still under construction, like their caves. The property is just up/down the road from Gary Farrell, also highly recommended by several people, so we went there next.

    So, that's my review of Harvest Moon and Thomas George Estates- not so detailed on the wines, I know; describing wine in winespeak is still like using a foreign language I learned in school and am afraid to use just in case the teachers were playing a cruel joke on me. Needless to say, however, I'm going back to Sonoma as soon as I can!

    Jan 28, 2010 at 3:37 PM


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