Russian River Valley – California’s Viticultural Melting Pot

Wine regions throughout the world are identified by geographical appellations – where do the grapes originate? In France this is the appellation d’origine controlée system (AOC). In Italy, wines of a specific origin are labeled as DOC or DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata or denominazione di origine controllata e garantita). These designations let the consumer know that wines labeled in this manner are produced from specific varietals from a specific area, as well as several other regulations.

The United States has its own system of origin for wines; known as American Viticultural Areas (AVA), there are more than 90 alone in California. Some of these, such as Stags Leap District and Rutherford in Napa Valley are famous, while others such as Cienega Valley in San Benito County or Hames Valley in Monterey County are rather obscure.

Sonoma County, to the west of Napa, has 19 AVAs, including well-known appellations such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley and Chalk Hill. Arguably the most famous is Russian River Valley, and whether or not one considers it the finest, it is certainly the most diverse, home to numerous varietals, each of them the source of some of California’s most distinctive wines.

Named for the river that runs through it, Russian River Valley is most famous for its world class examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; a good portion of the appellation is quite cool, with fog from the Pacific Ocean blanketing the vineyards, limiting sunshine hours, and preserving natural acidity in the grapes. There are dozens of producers here that have become famous for their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs; a few examples include Rochioli, Gary Farrell, Dehlinger and Dutton-Goldfield.

Yet to identify Russian River Valley as merely a paradise for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would be a serious mistake. Numerous varietals, ranging from Gewürztraminer to Sauvignon Blanc to Petite Sirah are planted here with excellent results; as the appellation covers over 14,000 acres, there are various soil types and micro-climates that encapsulate Russian River Valley.

I recently tasted six Russian River Wines that are not Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to get an overview of the variety this territory offers. The results were somewhat surprising to me, not quality wise, but more to the point of the lack of awareness about Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah or Pinot Gris from Russian River Valley. Hopefully, the word will spread that Russian River Valley is far more than just two varietals.

Balletto Gewürztraminer 2022 – Pretty aromas of yellow roses, lanolin and delicate hints of lychee. Medium-bodied, there is good acidity, significant varietal character and very good harmony. I’d like to see more persistence (the finish is short, but it may lengthen with time) and the wine is straightforward and not overly complex (I miss the varietal spice of the grape), but I like the elegance and appealing young fruit with this wine. Enjoy over the next two to four years. (88)

Taft Street Sauvignon Blanc 2022 “Garagistes” – Elaborate aromas of yellow pepper, spiced pear and saffron. Medium-full with impressive concentration. Very good acidity, beautiful varietal character, notable persistence; the finish offers notes of orange zest and a hint of white pepper. Excellent complexity- quite stylish! Enjoy over the next three to five years (perhaps longer) with grilled calamari or scallops. (93)

Inman Pinot Gris 2021 – Aromas of honeydew melon, pear and lily. Medium-full, there is impressive texture, very good acidity, and excellent varietal purity. The finish offers notes of mango and a distinct saltiness. Enjoy with Oriental cuisine over the next two to five years. (90)

Bacigalupi Petite Sirah 2019 – Bright, medium intense purple; aromas of ripe black plum, black raspberry and black orchid. Medium-full with very good concentration. This is ripe (very much so) and forward, with good acidity, medium-weight tannins and very good persistence. The oak notes are a bit strong, but otherwise this is well made. Give some time to settle down, as the wine is a but jammy at present; peak in five to six years. (90)

Merriam Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon “Windacre” 2018 – I was not familiar with this producer before I tasted this wine; I am very glad I did! Bright, medium-intense purple; aromas of cassis, purple iris and camphor. Medium-full, this is an appealing young Cabernet Sauvignon with excellent ripeness, round, medium-full tannins, excellent varietal character and very good persistence; there are notes of black plum and sweet chocolate in the finish. While this is tempting to enjoy now, this will reveal greater complexities over the next few years, with peak in 8-10 years. (92)

Martinelli Zinfandel Vellutini Ranch Vineyard 2020 – Intense ruby red; aromas of raspberry, oregano, grilled meat and vanilla. Full-bodied (16.4% alcohol!) this is quite ripe, with ample wood notes, medium-full tannins that are a bit sharp, balanced acidity and very good persistence. This is a style that will appeal to some for its showy qualities, but the wine is clearly over the tops and lacks finesse. Perhaps time will help. Peak in 6-8 years. (89)

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