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Monday, April 20, 2015

Sonoma County Appellations: Russian River Valley

Sonoma County has many legally designated wine-growing regions (appellations). Some are well-known like the Russian River Valley, some maybe not so well known like Moon Mountain. Here we'll talk about the Russian River Valley appellation. There really were Russians! Then there was lumbering of old growth Redwoods then dairy and apples and now world-famous wine grapes.


The area takes its name from the Russian River flowing through the northern part of Sonoma County. The name comes from a Russian settlement on the Sonoma coast two hundred years ago.

The Russians at Ft. Ross and the Mexicans at the northernmost mission in the town of Sonoma planted wine grapes in the early 19th century. Later that century wine was big business throughout Sonoma County, but died off with Prohibition. The Russian River Valley didn't really take off again until the 1960s when a study by the University of California said the RRV was the place to plant the cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Foppiano and Korbel are a couple RRV wineries founded in the 19th century that are still operating today.

A hop-drying kiln from the early 20th century
Now a winery, of course


The actual Russian River influences only a small part of the 150 square miles making up the RRV appellation. The driving force behind the weather during the growing season is the cool air coming in from the Pacific Ocean. The area is characterized by cool evenings and mornings with warm afternoons topping out at about 80 degrees.

Looking west towards the Pacific and that cool marine layer


The Russian River Valley is home to grape varieties liking a cooler climate and is best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there's also Sauvignon Blanc , Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and others. Chard and Pinot make up 70% of the grapes grown here.

This is a great area for sparkling wines, also, from places like Iron Horse, J Winery, and Korbel.

Dormant Russian River Valley vines in the winter

The Appellation

The Russian River Valley appellation became an official grape growing region in 1983. In 2005 it was expanded to the south farther away from the river itself, but still in an area influenced by the cool winds off the Pacific.

The RRV contains the sub-appellations of Green Valley and Chalk Hill.

Look for Russian River Valley on the label


The biggest and more well-known wineries are Korbel, Kendell-Jackson, and Sonoma-Cutrer. There are many other not-to-be-missed wineries including Balletto,  DeLoach, Dutton-Goldfield, Gary Farrell, Hartford, Inman, Iron Horse, J, Lynmar, Merry Edwards, Russian Hill, and Twomey. Whew! There are many more I could have listed, but you get the idea. The best place to find a comprehensive list is with the Wine Road.

Sparkling wine at Iron Horse