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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

The Russian River Valley appellation of Sonoma County is best-known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but also puts out some great Syrah and Zinfandel. About one-fifth of all the Pinot planted in California is here. The Russian River Valley AVA extends from the town of Healdsburg south through Santa Rosa to Cotati and west to Guerneville. It's a large appellation with many different soils and micro-climates. You can get more info from the Russian River Valley winegrowers site.

Sonoma's wine-growing appellations

So RRV sits between the coast and Santa Rosa with its climate defined by the "natural air conditioner," the Pacific Ocean. The growing season weather is controlled by cooling influences from the water. Midday temperatures usually warm into the 80s but start cooling rapidly in the early evening and can drop 30 degrees overnight. Things often don't warm up again until the noon hour. The shorter daytime hours of heat lengthens the growing season.
The cooling fog is what defines the Russian River Valley
Image from russianhillestate.com

What's with all these Russian names like Russian River, Ft Ross, and Mt. St. Helena?  Two hundred years ago the Russians came down out of Alaska and built a permanent settlement on the coast in Sonoma County at Ft. Ross.  At this time the northernmost Spanish mission was in the town of Sonoma. This is the area where they held each other's expansion plans in check.

Pinot is a finicky grape in that it can only grow well under certain conditions and the Russian River Valley just happens to be one of the places in the world where it does well. The bright red fruit flavors and richness of the wines distinguish it here.

A typical descriptor for RRV Pinot is cherry cola, certainly cherry anyway, whereas Pinot from the nearby Carneros area is more dusty tasting with less pronounced fruit--more of a cranberry fruit. When I look for RRV Pinot I watch out for those wines that can be a bit hot from high alcohol and low in acid with big, sweet cherry flavors. Some people like this style or there wouldn't be so many around, but I prefer wines with a different balance of fruit and acid.

There are some well-known producers recognized by wine aficionados that are in very limited supply such as Dehlinger, Kosta Brown, Paul Hobbs, Rochioli, and Williams Selyem.
Image from nallewinery.com

Some of my favorite RRV Pinot producers that are a bit easier to find in the market are Balletto, Benovia, Davis Family, Dutton Estate, Dutton-Goldfield, Freestone, Gary Farrell, Inman, Merry Edwards, Nalle, Papapietro-Perry, Russian Hill, Siduri, and Twomey.  Yes, it's a long list plus there are many other topnotch Pinot Noir producers in the area from Alysian to Zmor.  And yes, some of these producers tend to be more fruit-forward like Papapietro, and others much more restrained such as Freestone, but all show proper balance.

What I love about Pinot Noir is its versatility in matching with food. It's a red wine that can go with "white wine meals," such as many seafood, chicken, and pork dishes plus anything from burgers to pizza to filet mignon. Meals with mushrooms, cloves, a plum or cherry sauce, or smoked meats usually match well with Pinot Noir.