Russian River Valley
In the heart of the Sonoma Coast region of northern California, sits a small, but very important wine region known as the Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). The region takes its name (funnily enough) from the river that runs along its northern border, which took its name from the original Russian settlers who claimed the area during the Age of Discovery. In the late 17th century, Russia owned parts of Alaska and the coastal sections of Washington and Oregon, using small outposts as fur-trapping sites, with Fort Ross, which sits on the banks of the Russian River, the southernmost outpost of what was then known as the ‘Russian-American Company’. As America gained its independence from all its parent countries (Spain, France, Holland, Russia and of course England), some names, such as Russian River, were kept as an homage to the past.
This region is classified as one of the coolest regions in all of California, and is by far the foggiest. This fog is the defining characteristic of the region, as it leads to a reduction in extreme temperatures (both cold in winter and heat in summer), and a long, even growing season, where grapes mature slowly and evenly. This promotes complexity and balance in the wines, and allows the region to specialise in the production of cool-climate grapes; 80% of wine produced in this region is Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or a blend of the 2 to make sparkling wine. The fog, more common during the summer months, is of great importance to the region; during the day, the surface of the Pacific Ocean is heated, and when this meets the incredibly cold water flowing south-east along the coast from Alaska, moisture forms in a layer on top of the water. In the warm evenings, this condenses into a cloud-like fogbank, which is pushed into the gaps between mountain ranges where the rivers meet the ocean by the constant cooling breeze, rolling up into the Russian River Valley area and dropping overnight temperatures drastically (up to 40 degree Fahrenheit a.k.a. 22 degree Celsius!), which retains berry acidity- broken down in the berry when overnight temperatures are too high. This fog is also significant in the mornings, where it shades the vines from the morning heat without preventing photosynthesis from the sun, and when combined with the cool ocean breeze, allows for a delayed ripening period (known in these parts as ‘hang time’) in the summer, which results in very complex berries that have retained bracing acid due to never having been under too much heat stress.
Whilst known for quality today, it was not always so; up until the early 70s, the area was mostly known for growing hops and prunes! In fact, the Russian River Valley was not awarded its own AVA until 1983. Today however, some of the biggest names in the American wine industry (and other industries!) have settled here including Seghesio, who make a world-class Zinfandel, Ridge Vineyards, who famously came second in the “Judgement of Paris”, beating all the top Bordeaux producers. In this region you can also find an arm of the Gallo Family and Hollywood producer Francis Ford Coppola’s winery. As the region becomes busier, several sub-AVAs have been created within Russian River Valley to distinguish them, and create a Burgundy-esque method of defining differences in wines due to precise location, so consumers can choose between the different styles of wine the different regions produce. For example, in the north east of the region is Chalk Hill sub-AVA, which is known for more full bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and heavier, almost tropical-flavoured Chardonnays due to it being furthest from the fog rolling up from the south. In comparison to this is Green Valley of Russian River Valley sub-AVA (say that 3 times fast!), which is near the southern edge of the region in a part most affected by fog, and is known for steely, crisp Chardonnay, complex and brooding Pinot Noir and some Sancerre style Sauvignon Blancs. All in all however, this region puts quality first, so if you’re a Pinot fan and haven’t tried anything from the Russian River Valley, they are definitely worth a look!
Wine Sales Manager