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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carciere

Russian River Valley

Located in the heart of Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley AVA is commonly accepted as California’s premiere Pinot Noir growing region. With over 15,000 acres of vines planted and 70 wineries in operation, the dominant varietals planted are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with small yet respected plantings of Syrah and old-vine Zinfandel.

This appellation is an essential stop along the California wine trail due to its rich history and trend-setting New-world style. Located just 55 miles north of San Francisco and 10 miles from the ocean, it was approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1983 and encompasses the area from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Guerneville, and Healdsburg.

Commercial viticulture in the region began in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when landowners began to plant vineyards focused on producing high quality wine. With wine giants E & J Gallo and Kendall-Jackson leading the way, the region is now home to some of the most prestigious wineries in North America. Traveling through the region is a trip through California history, with notable wineries like Korbel and Russian River Winery dating back as far as the 1890s.

With parts of the region located within 10 miles of the Pacific Ocean, cool ocean breezes and heavy fog are the key climactic influences that make this AVA a prime location for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A consistent afternoon fog bank builds just west of Sebastopol and flows in through the Petaluma gap, causing temperatures to drop by as much as 35 degrees from their daytime high. The fog lasts until mid-morning, burning off to return a gentle yet dry heat. This swing of temperature gives the region an advantageous diurnal shift, essential for retaining freshness and acidity in the grapes. As delicate Burgundian grape varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in this unique climate.

This ideal microclimate is paired with distinctive soils generated by millions of years of tectonic and volcanic activity. This dynamic activity created a soil type unique to the appellation called Goldridge soil. Some of the area’s highest regarded vineyards are planted along deposits of this exceptional soil. A secondary soil type is known as Sebastopol soil, characterized by more clay and alluvial deposits.

As the central feature of the AVA, the Russian River is a rain-fed waterway that provides vital irrigation to the region’s agriculture. Deep soils composed of moderate amounts of clay combined with the cool influence of the ocean allow the vineyards of this region to limit the amount of irrigation needed, relative to other parts of California.

Despite having a recognizable style as a whole, the appellation is organized into six sub-regions known as neighborhoods, each with its own unique flavors and stylistic influence.

Middle Reach is located closest to the Russian River just south of Healdsburg. It is known for having some of the oldest fruit-bearing vines in the appellation. The reds from Middle Reach typically have firm textures, ripe flavors, and more subdued aromatics. Located within this sub-region is Bacigalupe Vineyard, whose Chardonnay grapes were a part of the famed 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Château Montelena’s Chardonnay was ranked above world-renowned French wines, which was a major turning point for the American wine industry.

Santa Rosa Plains is located closest to Santa Rosa, and is most recognized for its old-vine Zinfandel. The flat topography and soils composed of shale, sandstone, and clay create Zinfindels driven by spice and raspberry flavors. This sub-region is home to Rodney Strong Vineyards, one of the pioneers of Sonoma County wine.

Laguna Ridge is located south of the Russian River near Forestville. Known for its silky yet structured Pinot Noirs grown in Goldridge and Altamount soils.

Green Valley is the only sub-region granted as its own AVA. It is located between Forestville and Sebastopol and the wines are recognized for their opulent style and high acidity.

Sebastopol Hills is the coolest of the sub-regions and spans the southern part of the AVA near Sebastopol. The wines are marked by this cool climate and retain firm structure and medium acidity.

Eastern Hills is located on the west facing slopes of the Mayacamas range. As the most eastern region within the AVA, it receives the least amount of fog and is exposed to higher afternoon temperatures. The wines are recognized as the most ripe and powerful within the region.

With its rich history, distinctive wines, and world-class restaurants, the Russian River Valley provides endless opportunity to discover what makes Northern California truly special.

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