The Russian River flows south from the high peaks at Mendocino to reach the Pacific Ocean just a few miles north of San Francisco. The river travels through one of the most exclusive American Viticultural Areas in Sonoma and gives it its name: the Russian River Valley.
The Russian River Valley is larger than life, the extensive area has a cool climate, and the vines here enjoy the refreshing breeze and morning fog coming from the ocean. In such extraordinary terroir, there are few things better to grow than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here’s what you need to know about this exceptional wine region in Sonoma County.
Elegant Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir might be Burgundy’s signature red grape, but it certainly feels right at home in the verdant Russian River Valley. Here, Pinot Noir accounts for 29 percent of the AVA's vineyards, and you’ll find it in the sunniest sites from Healdsburg to Sebastopol.
Pinot is a finicky grape, and it won’t thrive everywhere like others do. Yes, like Cabernet Sauvignon. Only when the soil, orientation and sun exposure are right does the noble Burgundian grape delivers its cherry-scented bouquet with earthy undertones. It turns out the Russian River Valley has plenty of vineyards that fit the bill!
Chardonnay is Pinot Noir’s inseparable partner; it’s actually its offspring! Chardonnay vines are also easier to pamper, so they account for 42 percent of the vineyards along the Russian River.
The queen of white grapes is well known for expressing its terroir or sense of place, and that means there’s more than one Chardonnay style in the valley. Cooler spots deliver vibrant, crisper wine and warmer areas are the source for lush, fruit-forward wine with a creamy mouthfeel. If something all Russian River Chardonnay has in common is its world-class quality, and you’ll be glad to know they offer fantastic value!
Meet the Neighborhoods
You’ll find the Eastern Hills all the way back at the very edge of the Mayacamas mountain range that divides the Sonoma and Napa Counties. This is one of the Russian River neighborhoods with fewer vineyards, but it’s also the warmest.
Here, grapes ripen to perfection consistently, and the wine offers ripe fruit aromas, a bolder mouthfeel and higher alcohol levels. Without the Pacific fog’s cooling effect, vines really struggle here, but that’s when the grape-yielding plant shows its best.
Middle reach is old-vine country. Neighboring the Dry Creek Valley and near to the Russian River, the region’s arid, northern slopes are a source of extraordinary Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
Wine from the Middle Reach vineyards is often recognizable for having a full body and a rich mouthfeel, which goes for reds and whites. Bolder than their southern counterparts, Pinot and Chardonnay here are all about bright fruit flavors and aromas.
Santa Rosa Plains
Running north to south, the Santa Rosa plains are home to some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the country. Along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Zinfandel is one of the region’s winemakers’ darlings.
Soil types change abruptly throughout the valley, and you can certainly feel the colder wind amongst the thick fog that blesses the area. For the cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this is absolute heaven, and they offer some of the best-balanced wines in the Russian River Valley.
The Laguna de Santa Rosa tempers this small neighborhood’s micro-climate, making for a cool spot unlike any other region in the Russian River Valley. Here, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes ripen beautifully, keeping precious acidity for age-worthy wine with a high-end feel.
Laguna Ridge Pinot Noir is often textural and chewy, and Chardonnay shows a refined palate and golden apple aromas held together by mouthwatering acidity.
The southernmost Russian River neighborhood is also the coldest. The harsher micro-climate really encourages Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines to deliver their finest grapes. This is premium wine territory, and you can tell by the impressive list of winemakers that call the Sebastopol Hills home.
The morning fog and chilly oceanic winds keep the temperatures low and the grapes concentrated, resulting in genuinely superb wine.
Closer to the coast, it’s not surprising to know that the Green Valley is one of the coldest wine regions in Northern California. The quality here for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is consistently superior, which led to the subregion getting its own AVA.
The Green Valley’s maritime climate makes for a long, cold growing season, allowing the grapes to develop fully. Pinot’s tannins are soft, and its bouquet is complex. And both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay offer a lively palate blessed by a gorgeous acidic backbone, making Green Valley wines superb at the table.
Explore the Russian River Valley
Taking a Jeep wine tour to the Russian River Valley is hands down the best way of getting to know the Russian River wine region up-close and personal.
Just experiencing the valley’s cool breeze on your cheeks is enough to give you chills, and the experience is much more thrilling with a glass of Pinot Noir in hand.
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