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Update on Russian River Valley Neighborhoods Initiative

I know many of my readers are fans of Joseph Swan vineyards wines and probably saw this piece written by winemaker Rod Berglund in the latest newsletter, but I am passing on an abbreviated and annotated version for those who did not see the newsletter.

“When the Russian River Valley AVA was established in 1983, the amount of planted Pinot Noir acreage was very small. Zinfandel and French Colombard accounted for more acres. The notion that wines made from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley expressed different nuances depending upon where they were grown was not yet realized. As vineyard acreage increased, descriptions of sub-regions began to be used. The Middle Reach was the area along the Russian River south of Healdsburg. Green Valley became its own AVA. The Santa Rosa Plain and Laguna Ridge areas became common geographic descriptors.”

“A little over 10 years ago, a group of winemakers began to realize that if the Russian River Valley had one signature grape, it was probably Pinot Noir. The group began to assemble on a regular basis to taste Pinot Noir blind from the Russian River Valley along with ringers. Pinot Noir was chosen not only because it was widely planted, but it was more likely to be able to study a large number of wines from sites that were fermented separately. Pinot Noir is also a grape that is ‘transparent,’ meaning the effects of site can be tasted in the wine. A more literal definition is that the site can be tasted through the wine.”

The goal was to see if the Pinot Noirs from Russian River Valley grapes had a relatively consistent aroma profile that differentiated them from other Pinot Noir growing regions. The tastings were done using criteria that was consistent with what research panels would do. The group learned several things.”

“(1)The average age of the vines was fairly low so it was difficult to determine if the results reflected vine age or were truly characteristic of site. (2) Only finished wines were tasted to look beyond winemaking to see the naked fruit underneath. (3) Winemakers that worked in a particular area of the Russian River Valley were often able to identify where particular wines came from. (4) There seemed to be a common thread between the wines that spoke to the Russian River Valley appellation as a whole but there were differences between them as well.”

“The Russian River Valley Winegrowers have now launched a research project. This last winter a large number of newly released Pinot Noirs were tasted blind by a large and very serious group of winemakers. Each wine was evaluated for certain sensory characteristics that were derived from the grapes rather than the winemaking. The tastings will be ongoing.”

Russian River Valley Neighborhoods: Current Beliefs

“Sonoma County has more soil types that all of France. There is also widely differing climatic conditions based on, among other things, proximity to the ocean, elevation and the side of a range of hills where the vineyard is located. Despite this, at least five distinct “neighborhoods” have been identified within the Russian River Valley appellation. They are: the Santa Rosa Plain, Sebastopol Hills, Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and The Middle Reach.” The map below also shows Freestone and Windsor Hills which have been proposed subregions of the Russian River Valley appellation in the past.

Santa Rosa Plain

“When driving north from Petaluma on Hwy 101, you climb a hill before descending into what has historically been known as the Santa Rosa Plain. The hill separates the Russian River Valley AVA from the proposed Petaluma Gap AVA. As you drop down into the area from Sonoma Mountain to the East and the first ridge of hllls to the West (Laguna Ridge), there is a broad flood plain. Over the last several million years, material from the volcanics to the East, Franciscan shale and sandstone in the Northwest, and decomposed sandstone on the West have eroded and filled the valley floor with a host of soil types. In the middle was once the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a series of freshwater lakes that drained the valley from Cotati north to the Russian River. Because the area is lower lying than the surrounding areas, the temperatures in the spring tend to be lower at night than the surrounding areas as cold air sinks. Bud break tends to be a little later and frost danger greater. Vine vigor, due to the richer soils and water availability tends to be higher. Pinot Noir from here is often described as pretty with vibrant red fruit.”

Sebastopol Hills

“This area was added to the Russian River Valley AVA a few years ago. Until recently, it was almost exclusively the domain of the apple. With the downturn of the apple industry due to competition from places where land is cheap and labor is not an issue, some of the old orchards have been converted to vineyards. The effect of the wind funneled through the Petaluma wind gap can be fairly persistent. Fog, breezes and cool temperatures result in later harvests. Pinot Noir from this region is usually red fruited with an edge, higher in acid, a bit leaner and very age worthy.”

Green Valley

“This AVA was approved the same year as the Russian River Valley (1983). Officially it is known as the Green Valley of Russian River Valley. The hallmark of Green Valley is its fog which often persists after other areas are bathed in sunshine. There are, however, some disparity in the growing conditions within the Green Valley AVA. Winemaker Dan Goldfield talks about two separate growing regions in one - the hilltops and the valley floor. Green Valley is close enough to the ocean to be one of the last areas to lose the fog but it will clear much earlier the higher the elevation you are. The soils here, like the Sebastopol Hills, tend to be Goldridge, a fine grain sandy loam derived from the exposed volcanic ash sandstone that was once at the bottom of a shallow sea. Pinot Noir from here tends to be high in acid, if not as high as Sebastopol Hills. Bright, firm red fruits, often including cranberry and rhubarb, are often found. the wines are more linear than all but the Sebastopol Hills and are particularly food friendly.”

Laguna Ridge

“Situated between the Santa Rosa Plain to the East and Green Valley of Russian River Valley to the West, this ridge is a north to south line of hills. The soils are almost all Goldridge or variations of it. The weather is greatly influenced by the drainage of air from the western hills to the valley floor. This drainage results in milder weather in the spring allowing the soils to warm earlier resulting in earlier bud break than much of the surrounding areas. Frost is less of a problem due to the air drainage. With an earlier bud break, hang time is often extended. This softens the acidity and results in rounder, softer tannins. The fruit profile in Pinot Noir ranges from deep red to sometimes darker fruit, often with a hint of black tea and sometimes oriental spice.”

Middle Reach

“This region of the Russian River Valley was the first to gain widespread fame due to the early plantings by the Rochiolis, Bacigalupis and others. This is the warmest of the neighborhoods, yet is still considered a cool area. The Pinot Noir here is most often the first to be harvested in the Russian River Valley. This area stretches from below Healdsburg, flanking the Russian River on both sides. Just how far in each direction is open to interpretation as is the southern boundary. Some would say it stops where the river makes its turn and heads toward the ocean, while others would have it continuing along Westside Road until it reaches River Road, a few miles east of Guerneville. The soil types are quite varied and often change within vineyards. Pinot Noir from here tends to be described more by texture than aromatics. Aromas tend to be red cherry dominated. The acidity tends to be lower and the tannins quite pronounced, but they tend to have the lushest mouthfeel of any of the neighborhoods.”

“There is some general agreement about Rod’s descriptions of the five neighborhoods. However, winemaking plays a big role in the final wine presentation. Even from the same vineyard, different winemakers are likely to make different wines. In spite of this, we feel the general personalities of each of the neighborhoods will emerge. So, the next time you are tasting wine in the Russian River Valley, ask if they know which neighborhood the wine is from. Hopefully, you will join us on the voyage of discovery. Not to discover ‘the best,’ but simply to be intrigued about all the diversity this special place has to offer.”

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