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California's Russian River Valley Produces Great Pinot Noir

We could argue until we’re blue in the face about the best region in California for pinot noir. Among the places we would consider include the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Sta. Rita Hills. They all produce good pinot noir – but different pinot as micro-climates and soil combine to make wines with unique flavor profiles.

We like the pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley because the cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean – just 10 miles away – moderate the heat in the vineyards and extend the growing time. It’s like making a beef tenderloin at low heat for a long time instead of roasting it at a higher temperature for a short period of time.

The Russian River Valley’s balanced climate and the soil make great partners in creating expressive aromatics and special flavors -- mushrooms, forest floor, and spice -- to add to the varietal red berry flavors. The wines are generally light in color, but that shouldn’t discourage consumers. Light-colored pinot noirs can be just as expressive and elegant.

We recently tasted a group of Russian River Valley pinot noirs. Here were our favorites:

  • Balletto BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($46). The earthy and spice characteristics of the region are especially pronounced in this delicious pinot noir with a velvet texture.

  • Cartograph Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($68). This is Cartograph’s first estate-grown pinot noir and it’s a beauty. Hints of mint and citrus mingle with strawberry and cranberry flavors. Long in the finish.

  • Emeritus Vineyards Hallberg Ranch Wesley’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2016 ($75). At this price you get a lot more complexity from selectively picked grapes. Black cherry flavors are supported by the mushroom notes made famous in the Russian River Valley.

  • Amici Russian River Pinot Noir 2017 ($40). Fresh black cherry and earth aromas mingle with raspberry and cherry flavors with hints of spice. Medium body but tasty.

  • Merry Edwards Coopersmith Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($66). Now under the guidance and ownership of the Champagne house of Louis Roederer, this respectable pinot noir producer is turning out some interesting wines. We liked this single-vineyard pinot noir for its jammy blueberry and cassis flavors. Hints of allspice and cocoa, plus some firm tannins to give it ageability. New to the producer’s pinot noir lineup is the 2016 Bucher ($63). It has more generous aromas – floral and blueberry. Dark fruit flavors with a hint of figs and fine tannins.

Ice wines

Has the summer heat got you down in the dumps? Chill out with ice wine. This delicacy originated in Germany as eiswein but has been made more famous in Canada where the colder climate is ideal for late-harvested grapes.

The process to make this wine is fraught with stress. Grape growers leave the grapes on the vine far past normal picking dates. They are harvested in the dead of winter at about 20 degrees F. and then crushed when they are as hard as steel pellets. Only a small portion of the juice is used because of its extreme sweetness. Fermentation can take a month or longer.

But, once bottled, ice wine is intensely concentrated with generous aromas and flavors that just go on forever. It is best paired with peaches, cheesecake or fruit pies, but we like it all by itself. You only need a small glass of it to be satisified.

Common grape varieties for ice wines include: riesling, cabernet franc, vidal, gewurztraminer, and chenin blanc.

Expect to pay a lot for these labor-intensive and low-yielding products. Generally, they come only in half bottles (375ml).

We’ve enjoyed the ice wines from Inniskillin, a producer who has property on Canada’s Niagara Peninsula. The Inniskillin Riesling 2017 ($80) has delicate lime and white peach notes with a long finish while the 2017 Cabernet Franc ($100) is an incredible display of red fruit flavors: cherries, strawberries and rhubarb. Creamy in texture, this red ice wine would be the frosting on a chocolate-based dessert.

Wine picks

  • Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah 2015 ($47). Blended with syrah, grenache and mixed Rhone varietals, this hardy petite sirah has the inky color and dense plum and black cherry flavors we expect from these wines. Broad aromas of spices and cedar make for a serious but approachable wine.

  • Girard Artistry Red Wine Napa Valley 2015 ($40). This blend of Bordeaux grape varieties offers a wide array of aromas ranging from plums to cedar and spice. A melange of flavors include blackberry and cassis with a good dash of cinnamon. A delicious wine to drink now or age.

  • 1000 Stories Cabernet Sauvignon Prospectors Proof Bourbon Barrel Aged 2017 ($20). Bourbon barrel aged wines are all the rage, and tasting this example explains the phenomenon. Rich round, and smooth in the mouth with intense dark cherry fruit and no overarching flavor from the bourbon barrels, just a hint of vanilla. A terrific beverage wine.

  • Three Finger Jack Cabernet Sauvignon East Side Ridge Lodi 2016 ($22). This is a pretty complex cabernet sauvignon from the hot Lodi growing region more noted for its zinfandel output. Robust cassis and chocolate cherry notes are evident as well as a hint of black pepper. A pleasant cabernet sauvignon at a fair price.

  • Left Coast Orchards Pinot Gris 2017 ($18). Mostly fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, this refreshing and juicy pinot gris from the Willamette Valley has green apple flavors with s hint of tea.

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