Learn more about California's Russian River Valley appellation, the grape varieties gaining attention, plus get ratings and reviews for recommended wines.
By Virginie Boone
This is not a story about new appellations. Nor is it a story about hard and fast lines on a map. It’s about clarifying a set of historically understood subregions within the Russian River Valley. It’s about helping those who love the region’s Pinot Noir to dive deeper into its nuances and sensory points of delineation.
Called the Neighborhoods Initiative, it’s an attempt to gauge whether certain characteristics (aroma and texture, among others) can be attributed to specific areas of the region. While the focus is on Pinot Noir, it could extend to other varieties essential to the appellation, including Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
With approximately 16,000 acres of grapes, the Russian River Valley is comprised of many small vineyards. It’s been an American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1983, with expansions in 2005 and 2011.
Are the nuances imparted by the various subregions recognizable? Most of the local winemakers think so.
“At the most basic level, we all know winemakers and people who love Russian River Valley who think they recognize differences in wines from more coastal sites than those from the Middle Reach,” says Clay Gantz, who farms just under five acres of Pinot Noir in the middle of the appellation, in an area known as Laguna Ridge.
Gantz is VP of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, chairperson of the Neighborhoods Committee and a member of the RRVW Neighborhoods Tasting Panel, which has begun to seek answers via blind tastings among members that include Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyards and Merry Edwards.
Using samples of 2014 Pinot Noir, they’re trying to ascertain if “specific, consistently identifiable sensory characteristics derive from grapes grown in those neighborhoods.”
“We don’t know what the results will tell us, we just think it’s a worthy endeavor,” says Gantz. “We’re a very successful AVA, and people don’t want to mess with that.”
“I’m all about Russian River and about understanding the different regions,” says Merry Edwards. “What we’re looking for is the common theme that tells us there’s something unique about this area.”
Though experience has taught her which clones do best in specific areas, Edwards doesn’t want to be the one to draw the lines. To her, the map should be “real foggy” and have no precisely drawn borders.
“My problem is if you start something, you better know where you’re going with it.”
Unlike many vintners, Edwards has Pinot Noir vineyards in each neighborhood, capitalizing on their differing characteristics.
“Our whole premise is wine’s from a place and has a personality, and you can foster that personality by planting the right rootstock and clone there, and if it’s an enduring profile, that’s something to capture and bring up every year,” she says. “I wanted to have a number of different Pinots from Russian River. I wanted them to be different. And part of that is being in different areas.”
The northernmost neighborhood, closest to Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley, the Middle Reach is anchored by the wineries and vineyards along Westside Road. Among these are J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery, Bacigalupi Vineyards, Flax Vineyard (of Merry Edwards Winery), Bucher Vineyard, Allen Vineyard and Williams Selyem Estate Vineyards.
It’s also home to many of the appellation’s oldest plantings.
The aromatics are less defined. Instead, the wines are about texture and length, and they tend to be broad and expansive on the palate. Acidity is not the defining feature.
Fog brought in by the Russian River, which snakes through the heart of the neighborhood, keeps temperatures cool enough to grow Pinot Noir.
The warmth here tends to develop Pinots that are dark, meaty and built to last. They display firm tannic structure, but also a lushness that keeps them soft. These wines tend to be ripe and full bodied.
Edwards says that of all her Pinots, it’s the ones from Westside Road, particularly Flax, that take the longest to come around.
“Our proximity to the physical river is key,” says John Bucher, of Bucher Vineyard. “It’s a different water influence than the Laguna de Santa Rosa.”
The fog is densest in summer, allowing his grapes to retain acidity at ripening.
“It’s not exceptionally hot, the sugars don’t go up too much, but flavors have time to develop,” says Bucher. “We get cola spice, dark fruit, earthier, darker and richer, lusher notes on the palate, with an acid backbone. The wines are not vegetative, there’s more ripening in the seeds.”
Lynmar 2012 Freestone Pinot Noir; $60, 96 points. This Pinot is caressed in floral aromas and juicy red cherry. The wine is fresh and alive, a back layer of black tea, savory herb and exotic spice meshing in magical ways. The majority of the grapes came from the Sexton Vineyard, with the rest from Umino and Jenkins. Editors’ Choice.
Patz & Hall 2012 Burnside Vineyard Pinot Noir; $75, 94 points. This wine is no shrinking violet on the nose, resplendent in fresh roses and strawberry-raspberry. It confounds in its ability to provide such huge flavor and personality while retaining a freshness and high level of acidity on the palate. A leathery, savory component speaks quietly amid the suggestions of cinnamon and cigar. Editors’ Choice.
Chasseur 2012 Syrah; $40, 93 points. Tannic on entry, this wine evolves softly into balanced overtones of leather and cherry. It represents the more restrained and elegant side of Syrah that’s possible in cooler pockets of the Russian River Valley when the grapes are in good hands. A peppery bite closes the finish. Editors’ Choice.