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The Different Flavors of Russian River Valley Pinots

Russian River Valley Pinots have many similarities along with many differences.

Does Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley Pinot Noir have neighborhood flavor? A 20-case lot sold at the 2017 Sonoma County Barrel Auction may provide the lucky bidder with some insight to that question.

Three years back, at the annual meeting of the Sonoma County Vintners, winemaker Rod Berglund told the group that winemakers in the Russian River Valley wanted to get a better sense of how — and if — Pinot Noir grapes grown in the different “neighborhoods” of the appellation made appreciably distinct wines. In other words, did they really know what they were talking about — even when talking shop among themselves?

Berglund’s Joseph Swan Vineyards is situated in an area known as Laguna Ridge, for instance: it is not an official sub-appellation, but Pinot Noir grown there is said to differ from that grown in Green Valley, just a few miles away.

It was the first I’d heard of it, and it sounded like a great idea.

At the April 20 preview tasting for the Third Annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction (which broke fundraising records on April 21, 2017, with a $794,500 haul) I had the chance to taste some of the results of that project. Along the way, I asked some of the participating winemakers about the characteristics of their “neighborhood.”

The Preview

The second of two previews, this one for Russian River Valley Winegrowers, Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, and West Sonoma Coast Vintners, was held at Kosta Browne Winery’s still spanking new-looking facility in Sebastopol’s Barlow district.

Kosta Browne’s seemingly “overnight success” story garnered attention in the early 2000s at a time when Pinot Noir became the “it” varietal. Too bad they’re not open for public tasting, because it’s a fine space with a spacious courtyard where the wine started flowing (a cool and savory Chardonnay from KB) and appetizers from Sebastopol’s Pascaline Fine Catering were offered twice before I could find the cellar door.

In the alleys in between the winery’s stainless steel tanks, wooden fermenters, and specialty concrete eggs, samples of auction lots (five, 10 or 20 cases each) were offered on the barrelhead. This is one of those rarer events where the winemakers themselves are the ones pouring tastes and answering questions.

I found winemaker Guy Davis of Davis Family Winery and grape grower Clay Gantz of Gantz Family Vineyards manning the barrels at Russian River Valley Lot #73.

The Tasting of Lot #73

The ideas behind the Russian River Valley Winegrowers “Neighborhoods” Initiative go back a few decades, Gantz tells me. Now that the vineyards are 20–30 years old, however, regional differences may have taken root, so to speak, even more strongly. In the near future, researchers from UC Davis will present findings that may link the various areas of the AVA to mineral solids in the wines.

“This was the first time we’ve done a collaborative blend,” says Davis (left). The lot was for 20 cases of 2016 Pinot Noir, four cases each from five different neighborhoods, made by 19 winemakers. To minimize the effect of individual style, each neighborhood lot was blended from the efforts of three to four winemakers. The wine will age in barrels, none of them new oak, for some months longer before it is blended to approximate the cuvée previewed this April, and finally released to the winning bidder.

Green Valley

The only officially recognized sub-AVA of the lot, Green Valley of Russian River Valley itself has unofficial subregions, depending on whether the grapes are grown in the valley or just above it. Typically, it’s the coldest of the neighborhoods because the chilly fog for which Russian River Valley is famous is most reluctant to leave this little valley in the late morning.

The Green Valley blend is lushly fruited, or “sappy” as winemaker Davis notes, with blueberry, cranberry, and a suggestion of berry liqueur. But while it sticks to the tongue like a fruit roll-up, the tannins aren’t particularly hard.

Sebastopol Hills

The Sebastopol area is fairly hilly in general—these hills lie to the south and west of town, just within reach of the stiff ocean breeze of the Petaluma Gap region. The grapes respond by growing thicker skins, says Gantz, and the wines trend to the savory side.

I’ve just written “savory, cumin” in my notebook when winemaker Kathleen Inman stops by and offers her take on Sebastopol Hills Pinot Noir, mentioning cumin spice without any prompting on my part. “I always say it has a sort of black tea note,” says Inman, adding that the green cardamon and cumin notes go nicely with the Moroccan lamb shanks that she likes to make for her Sebastopol Hills-sourced Sexton Road Ranch Pinot Noir.

Earlier, Balletto Vineyards winemaker Anthony Beckman also tells me that spice is a hallmark of the region, along with tart fruit that never gets “gooey,” or overripe.

Laguna Ridge

In the heart of the Russian River Valley AVA, the light, fluffy soil of Laguna Ridge may look a lot like the sandy, ancient, sea bottom soil of the Sebastopol area, but there’s a difference, according to Davis: there’s also a lot of ash from a volcanic vent that was active in the region millions of years ago. This wine shows brighter, red raspberry aromas and more fruit than the Sebastopol Hills.

Santa Rosa Plain

East of Laguna Ridge, the soils are a bit more loamy, and the local climate also ripens Zinfandel. Davis says to expect a riper, Santa Rosa plum fruit character in the Pinot Noir, which jives with this sample. But there’s less spice here, too.

Middle Reach

The legendary Rochioli Vineyard and Williams Selyem Winery helped make this region famous. But it’s also the warmest subregion of the group. The tannins in Pinot Noir grown here need more barrel time, say the stewards of Lot #73. Indeed, while this sample feels superficially lighter-bodied than, say, the Green Valley, the aroma is closed up and the tannin has a dogged grip on the palate.

In their mission statement about the Neighborhoods Initiative, the Winegrowers say their aim isn’t to create yet more sub-AVAs of the Russian River Valley. But if you’re tasting wine in the region, go ahead and ask about the neighborhood that it comes from—everyone from winemaker to consumer is still just an explorer in this rich and varied region.

Learn more about Sonoma County Wine and the 16 other Wine Region and Appellations

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