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Russian River Valley: Fog, Farming, and Fame

Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley (RRV), one of California’s cool grape-growing areas, is a hot place to make wine, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There are warmer sites within the region’s vast expanse where Zinfandel and Syrah ripen to perfection, but the climate is most suited to growing the Burgundy varieties. Other cool growing regions near California’s coast, from Carneros to Santa Barbara, also specialize in these two grapes, but bottlings from the Russian River Valley seem to garner a disproportionate share of fame and fortune. The world-class quality of RRV Chardonnay and Pinot Noir derives not only from a climate and soils that are a near-perfect fit for growing these grapes but also from the skills and ingenuity of the region’s grape growers, winemakers, and producers. 

 

A Defining Mist

The Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), as approved in 1983, covered roughly 96,400 acres. Included within its extensive boundaries are the Green Valley, Sonoma County AVA (about 32,000 acres sanctioned in 1983), and Chalk Hill AVA (approximately 22,400 acres, founded in 1988). In 2005 new boundary lines for the appellation expanded the RRV designation by 30,200 acres to include the entire Santa Rosa Plains (west of the city of Santa Rosa) and the Sebastopol Hills (south and west of Sebastopol). 

The current boundary reflects the broad area that is often shrouded for part of the day in a cooling fog, the primary character that helps define the Russian River Valley. On most days during the growing season, a chilling mist forms at night; as California’s interior heats up during the sunny day, cool and damp Pacific air is sucked through the Petaluma Gap and up the Russian River, then condenses as the temperature drops during the evening. The morning fog dissipates from north and east to west and south, persisting longer in the vineyards along the Russian River, in Green Valley creek bottoms, and in the Sebastopol Hills. 

The dramatic diurnal temperature shift (often 30 to 40[º]F) and the fog offer what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes need: relief from rapid metabolism during the sun and heat of the day. Acidity is preserved, and the grapes mature slowly to achieve physiological ripeness at harvest. Today more than 6,300 acres of Chardonnay and 4,500 acres of Pinot Noir are cultivated in the Russian River Valley, representing 41 percent and 29 percent, respectively, of the appellation’s total wine grapes.

 

Chardonnay and Pinot Heaven

What makes RRV Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so prized? Paul Ahvenainen, senior winemaker at Korbel, who worked his thirtieth vintage this year, declares, “The difference that I see between the Russian River Valley and other areas is that we get higher physical grape maturity while preserving acidity at lower sugars.” This grape maturity with accompanying crispness can be tasted in the wines. Steve Reeder, vice president of winemaking for Simi Winery since 2003 and a veteran of 34 vintages, says the appellation’s Chardonnay “gives tannin, palate structure, and a sweet, unctuous impression.” Merry Edwards, who has made wine for 36 years and has lived in the region since 1977, says of the Pinot Noir, “What sets the Russian River Valley apart is the texture—juicy, plump fruit—and the Pinot has more tannin. Depending on where the fruit is grown, the aromas are a kaleidoscope—there’s a lot going on.” 

Chardonnay is a more adaptable grape than Pinot Noir, prospering for both still and sparkling wines on different soils, aspects, and mesoclimates throughout the appellation, from the relatively warm areas on the AVA’s eastern edge to the coldest spots in the Green Valley creek beds. The RRV climate and soils bring out the best in the grape—bright and complex fruit aromas and flavors, rich textures, and crisp acidity. Few wine regions in the world can grow such compelling Chardonnay. Growers get a premium price for their fruit, and producers can pass on these costs to consumers with Chardonnay labeled Russian River Valley.

The site-specific Pinot Noir thrives in the cooler sites, and because the grape expresses its specific terroir when grown at low yields, producers like to showcase individual vineyard expressions. Bottlings that are blends from Pinot Noir vineyards in different parts of the appellation display the region’s gorgeous fruit. Whether single-vineyard cuvées or appellation blends, consumers find the bright, rich, expansive palette of fruit flavors with the balancing crispness of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir irresistible and satisfying. 

 

Growing a Reputation

Today there are more than 150 growers and 100 wineries in the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association, a vibrant nonprofit and educational marketing organization that is succeeding in establishing the appellation as a glamour region, with name recognition approaching that of Napa Valley. Passionate, engaged farmers are the foundation of the region’s success. Merry Edwards, who has moved from buying grapes to owning vineyards and leasing long-term with grape-growing friends, notes, “Pinot Noir is a <i>grown</i> wine, not a <i>bought</> wine. Pinot Noir is unstable in maintaining tannins, and shoot thinning, leaf pulling, removing short shoots, taking wings off clusters are all part of the process of getting good Pinot. It’s all about the farming.” 

Knowledge about growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the appellation has expanded over the years, and grape growers have adjusted to new technologies and hired consulting viticulturalists. They work with their winemaking clients and share growing advice. Sustainable farming practices are the norm in the region, and some producers have adopted organic and biodynamic methods (e.g., DeLoach, Marimar Estate, and Porter-Bass). New vineyards and vineyard upgrades have required a considerable investment in time, resources, and money—all in the pursuit of better wine quality. 

Evidence of the dramatic evolution of RRV vineyards is found at Dutton Ranch’s home vineyard. Wide-spaced, high-trellised, thick-trunked French Colombard vines that were growing on the property when the Duttons purchased it in 1964 are within sight of a hillside vineyard that is being developed for Chardonnay. Broken into blocks for Ramey, Kistler, Lewis, Chasseur, and others, the Duttons are collaborating with their clients on such decisions as vine spacing and orientation, rootstock, trellising, and clones. 

J Vineyards & Winery’s viticulturalist John Erbe and Vice President of Winemaking George Bursick worked together, sorting through the many choices in planting the winery’s new Bow Tie Vineyard. They used a camera mounted on the tip of a soil probe to generate electromagnetic radiation images to analyze the underlying soil structure, chose a northeast-southwest row orientation (28[º] off true north) to provide even sun exposure on the grapes on both sides of the canopy, and planted rootstock and clones and divided the vineyard into blocks based on soil and water analyses.

DuMOL’s Estate vineyard has been a seven-year undertaking from conception to full production. Planting decisions were made after detailed soil and water analyses, which showed the property’s Goldridge soils had low availability of water in the topsoil and were overly acidic and high in aluminum. The results required, among other measures, shallow ripping to improve soil water-holding capacity and to open up the rooting area and additions of dolomitic lime and gypsum to neutralize the acid and aluminum, respectively. Devigorating rootstocks and budwood were selected in the fall of 2003 and bench grafted during the winter. The grafted vines were grown in the nursery in 2004 and planted dormant in the spring of 2005. The vineyard-row orientation was similar to J’s Bow Tie to ensure even sun exposure on the grapes. The first small harvest was 2007, and 2009 marked the first year of full production. DuMOL cofounder Michael Verlander remarks, “We’re pleased that our quality objectives have been met. The fruit has small berries and clusters with mature flavors and lower sugar levels.”

Winemakers pay particular attention to clones for both Burgundy varieties, always striving for the more complex palette that a variety of clones can offer. DiJohn clones developed in France have been introduced to new and replanted vineyards based on a complete analysis of soils, water, vine vigor, vineyard aspect, and other variables. Varieties of Chardonnay (Rued and Robert Young, among others) and Pinot Noir (e.g., Martini, Joseph Swan, Pommard, and Calera) that have been California staples for some time produce spectacular results in certain locations, and new vineyards are often planted with a selection of both the older and DiJohn clones. 

From her years of experience and observation, Merry Edwards believes, in general, that “DiJohn clones work well in cool areas; Pommard and Martini do well in warm areas,” but even a less-than-perfect clone choice can produce magnificent fruit in an exceptional vineyard. For example, Martini clones first planted in 1974 and 1975 in Hartford’s Arrendell Vineyard, a very cool site in the Green Valley, struggle to produce three-quarters of a ton of fruit per acre—grapes that are often harvested in late October. The small thick-skinned berries make a remarkably bold, brooding <i>Arrendell Vineyard</i> wine with black fruit and savory notes. Adjacent to the old Martini block, 13-year-old DiJohn clones mature about two weeks earlier, and the harvested fruit makes up the <i>Haley’s Block</i> cuvée, a more delicate wine with bright, red-berry fruit aromas and flavors.

 

In the Winery

For the most part, RRV winemakers make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir using classic Burgundy methods, but many carry out their regimens in modern facilities fitted with state-of-the-art equipment designed for the Burgundy varieties. Rodney Strong built a “winery within the winery” so that Winemaker Gary Patzwald can make small-batch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Davis Bynum wines (an estimable brand acquired in 2007) and Rick Sayre, Rodney Strong’s director of winemaking, can craft Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Reserve wines. DuMOL, Littorai, and Merry Edwards all have new wineries designed to their specifications to craft a number of small, single-vineyard wines, and DeLoach has retrofitted its winery to accommodate small-lot fermentations for the many single vineyard cuvées and to complement its biodynamic practices. J Vineyards & Winery purchased new Italian-made Pinot Noir tanks that are designed to eliminate 85 percent of the grape seeds, significantly diminishing the number of bitter “green” seeds during fermentation. 

 

Going Forward

Two years of an economic tailspin and weak consumer buying power projected well into 2010 raises a logical question: Who will buy high-quality but relatively high-priced RRV Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at restaurants? Gary Farrell, an RRV veteran who worked as a cellar rat for Davis Bynum in the 1970s, started his own brand at the end of that decade, built Gary Farrell into an esteemed brand, sold his winery and name to Allied Domecq in 2004, and recently launched Alysian (which will specialize in small-lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), has a well-earned perspective: “A healthy correction is underway in our industry. Brands lacking consistency, especially new brands, are not selling their products. Reputable brands that have continued to deliver quality and value will survive this downturn and emerge stronger than ever from this recession.” 

RRV wineries such as DeLoach, Frei Brothers, Iron Horse, J Vineyards &Winery, Korbel, La Crema, MacMurray Ranch, Rodney Strong/Davis Bynum, and Simi fit Farrell’s “reputable brands” description. Small-lot specialists who have built solid reputations for exceptional single-vineyard wines—Dehlinger, DuMOL, Dutton-Goldfield, Gary Farrell, Hartford Family, Kistler, Merry Edwards, Siduri, to name a few—also will thrive. As Farrell states unequivocally, “The finest examples of Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can compete with the very best international wines in the world.” Even in tight times there is a demand for exceptional wines with strong track records. And there are outsiders eager to secure the appellation’s prized fruit and put “Russian River Valley” on the label.

 

 

RRV Wine History

The region and its river were named after the Russians, who arrived in 1812, hunted otters off the Sonoma coast for fur and food, and left by 1841. They may have planted the first wine grapes, but it was settlers from European grape-growing countries, spilling in from the Gold Rush, that ignited what became a vibrant wine industry. By 1876 grape vines covered 7,000 acres and more than a half million gallons of wine were produced. The era’s prominent wineries included the Martini & Prati Winery, established in 1880 and now the home of Martin Ray Winery; Korbel Champagne Cellars, which opened in 1882 after two decades of lumber production; and Foppiano Winery, founded in 1896 and still going strong under Foppiano family leadership. 

 

Prohibition crippled the RRV wine industry; many wineries shut their doors for good, and the industry was slow to start up again after Repeal. The region’s modern wine industry began in the early to mid-1960s, when farmers and visionaries such as Joseph Swan began planting cool-climate grape varieties. In the beginning Chardonnay was easier to sell than Pinot Noir, but the high quality of the fruit was undeniable, and the Burgundy varieties have attracted many who believe that the Russian River Valley is California’s promised land for the great grapes of Burgundy.

 

RRV Divisions

The fog may help define the appellation’s borders, but the region’s soils, aspects, and mesoclimates vary widely, and variability is evident even within vineyards. Grape growers and producers divide the territory into several areas. The Green Valley and the Sebastopol Hills are the coolest areas, and the predominant vineyard soil, Goldridge (nutrient-poor, eroded sandstone from uplifted ancient seabeds), is an excellent substrate for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and, unfortunately, gophers, a vineyard scourge that requires constant pest management. The Laguna Ridge, which lies just east of Route 116 between Molino and Forestville, also has the favored Goldridge soils and is prime Pinot and Chardonnay land. The northern stretch of vineyards that line the Russian River from east of Guerneville to just south of Healdsburg is referred to as the Middle Reach, an area renowned for lush, multitextured Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the soils vary from alluvial soils and soils laden with what was once volcanic ash to denser, packed clay soils; and more. Many of the vineyards on the Santa Rosa Plain and the less foggy Chalk Hill AVA, which has volcanic ash-derived soils resembling chalk in appearance, are better suited to Chardonnay and grape varieties that thrive in warmer conditions than Pinot Noir likes.

 

RRV Winegrowers

Grape growers and producers, both small and large, from the region and beyond its borders, have harvested Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gold and helped build the region’s sterling reputation. Long-time RRV farmers, such as the Martinellis and Rochiolis, began planting the Burgundy varieties, sold their grapes, and eventually built their own wineries. In the mid-1950s, the Bacigalupis bought land along Westside Road southwest of Healdsburg, expanded and improved the vineyard acreage, and sold grapes. Bacigalupi fruit composed 40 percent of Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay—the white wine that was judged the best at Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Paris Tasting. The family is now making wine under the John Tyler Wines label. 

Davis Bynum, Bryce Cutrer-Johnes, Tom Dehlinger, Cecil DeLoach, Kent Richie, and Joseph Swan were in the Chardonnay growing business in the early and mid-1970s, and all except Richie became producers—really “winegrowers,” the American equivalent of the French vignerons, people who are intimately involved in all aspects of grape growing and winemaking. Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Marimar Torres, Williams Selyem, and others followed, further enhancing the RRV name for wines made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Today such stellar artisanal producers as DuMOL, Hartford Family, Paul Hobbs, Kosta-Browne, Littorai, Olson Ogden, and Siduri receive high praise for their RRV wines.

Large-scale farmers and producers include Korbel, which sources more than half of their fruit from their own vineyards, including 500 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. Korbel’s vintage cuvées, <i>Natural</i> (about 45,000 cases) and its toasty, small-volume (2,000 cases) <i>Brut Premier</i>, are both made with grapes sourced exclusively from the appellation. Gallo has a strong presence in the appellation, with their Laguna Ranch, MacMurray Ranch (450 acres of Fred MacMurray’s cattle ranch are now vineyards), and other properties, the sources for the value-packed Frei Brothers Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the complex MacMurray Pinot Noir. Two of Jackson Family Wines’ prestigious labels, Hartford Family Wines and La Crema, have received consistent praise for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Hartford specializes in small-lot, mostly single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from estate-owned, cool-site vineyards in the Green Valley. La Crema’s output is larger and appellation based; talented winemaker Melissa Stackhouse makes moderately priced, high-value Chardonnay and Pinot Noir by blending fruit from company-owned RRV vineyards. Arrowood, a recent Jackson Family Wines acquisition, makes an elegant and flavorful Chardonnay among its RRV cuvées.

The majority of 1,100 vineyard acres farmed by the Dutton Ranch are Green Valley properties within a short drive of the original 35-acre ranch purchased by Warren and Gail Dutton in 1964 and are planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Today Gail and her sons Steve and Joe sell grapes from vineyards they own or lease to more than 50 producers. In addition, the sons also are accomplished wine producers; Steve is a partner with winemaker Dan Goldfield in Dutton-Goldfield, and Joe owns Dutton Estate/Sebastopol Vineyards. Both lease vineyard land from the Dutton Ranch for their own wines. 

Richard and Saralee Kunde own six vineyards and farm 18 wine-grape varieties on more than 500 acres. The Kundes’ highly sought-after grapes were sold to 45 producers for the 2009 harvest.

 

RRV Sparklers

The appellation is home to consistently good sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, together or alone. Besides Korbel, the first and largest RRV sparkling wine producer (see “RRV Winegrowers” above), Iron Horse, founded by Barry and Audrey Sterling in 1976; J Vineyards & Winery, established by Judy Jordan in 1986; and Piper-Sonoma, a Rémy Cointreau USA brand made by Winemaker Rafaël Brisbois at the winery that was sold to J, all have their fans. 

Joy Sterling, president of Iron Horse, and Judy Jordan are two of the most dynamic, engaged, take-charge women wine producers that you’ll find anywhere in the wine world. Both have improved their respective wineries’ sparkling-wine portfolios and expanded their range of still wines. Iron Horse bottles nine different cuvées, all vintage dated except the small-lot multivintage <i>Joy</i> (50 cases), a <i>tête de cuvée</i> sold in magnums and aged on yeast lees for at least ten years. J Winery sells five different cuvées made by Winemaker Hollis Price; their <i>Vintage Brut, Late Disgorged<i/> is their top-of-the-line sparkler. Piper Sonoma markets two nonvintage bottlings, a Brut and a Blanc de Blancs. 

 

RRV Wine Value

The region’s Chardonnay is a better value than the Pinot Noir. Quality Pinot Noir requires lower yields and more work in the vineyards, and these two factors necessarily raise the overall cost of the wines. When considering the entire spectrum of prices for American wines, small-lot, single-vineyard RRV Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are expensive—too dear for many restaurant guests, who will spend only so much for a bottle of wine. As a group, however, these wines are among the most coveted Californian Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs; diners with deep pockets order them, often because they are highly allocated wines they cannot purchase elsewhere. 

On the other hand, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir <i>appellation<i/> wines—not vineyard-designated wines—are often excellent values on restaurant wine lists. These wines will be less expensive and also more consistent from vintage to vintage because many are blended from a number of different vineyards within the expansive appellation. The appeal of RRV fruit cannot be denied, and both mainstream and ethnic restaurants list these popular RRV wines.

 

 

 

What Are Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

Chardonnays from cooler areas express citrus, tart and ripe apple, and stone fruit aromas with floral and baking spice notes; the wines from warmer areas show rich ripe apple, citrus, and peach flavors with baked apple, piecrust, and crème brûlée notes. In general Pinot Noirs from the cooler vineyards are elegant and ageworthy and express lifted, focused, and complex savory and berry aromas and flavors. Pinots from warmer areas show greater weight on the palate, have broader and less-focused aromas and flavors, and often express a cola note; they are lush and hedonistic.

 

Aging

Most RRV Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are ready to drink when released. The best wines from cooler vintages and sites will reward cellaring up to eight years, possibly longer.

 

Recent Vintages

2005 — Excellent. Complex, harmonious wines.

2006 — Good to very good. Rain during harvest caused some dilution.

2007 — Very good to excellent. Warmer than 2005 and 2006. Rich, viscous wine.

2008 — Very good. Small, ripe berries, despite frosts, heat spikes, and an early harvest.

 

 

 

 

 

RRV on the List

Chase Dubay, sommelier at the acclaimed Cyrus in Healdsburg, California, oversees a carefully chosen international list with nevertheless a good selection of wines from Sonoma appellations, including the Russian River Valley. He rates the region’s wine quality as “very high” and prefers to stock small-lot producers such as Lutea, Ceritas, and Porter-Bass, which are “producing wines of depth, with great balance and elegance.” Dubay adds, “These wines are uniquely Californian but take cues from their old-world cousins . . . [and are] made in a more restrained style. The fuller-bodied style of Russian River Valley wines is currently more popular and, therefore, more expensive.”

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect Pairings

Chase Dubay suggests the Lutea 2007 Pinot Noir, RRV ($18/glass) with Autumn Bean Ragout, Vin Santo Glaze.

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