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Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays From California's Russian River Valley Are Unique and Delicious

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

The Russian River Valley has a history of making some of the most seductive pinot noirs and chardonnays in California. Grapes ripen slowly and evenly here because morning and evening fogs cool the grapes and lengthen the season. The climate is ideal for these grape varieties.

There has been a recent focus on what winemakers call the six “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley: Middle Reach, Green Valley, Santa Rosa Plains, Laguna Ridge and Sebastopol Hills and Eastern Hills. The goal of the campaign is to get consumers to understand that not all Russian River Valley wines are the same, but instead, unique wines that vary according to the range of soils.

For Theresa Heredia, pictured right, winemaker at Gary Farrell since 2012, there couldn’t be a better playground for a pinot noir devotee. Farrell makes single-vineyard pinot noirs and chardonnays from some of the most prestigious growers – Rochioli, Bacigalupi and Hallberg to name a few. A recent virtual tasting with her showed the differences a few miles can make.

“My number one goal is to respect these amazing vineyards,” she said. “There are so many great ones with histories. Respecting the fruit is respectful of the wine in the end.”

Heredia favors whole-cluster pressing, which produces more delicate, less bitter wines.

It was hard to choose which of her single-vineyard pinot noirs we liked the best. The Bacigalupi Vineyard pinot from the Middle Reach was delicious for its ripe, juicy character; the McDonald Mountain Vineyard pinot noir in Sebastopol Hills – the coolest neighborhood where vines struggle in the high winds and cold -- had great structure and concentration.

Heredia also makes some incredible single-vineyard chardonnays. These wines are only available on its website, but Gary Farrell Russian River Valley’s blended pinot noir and chardonnay are widely available.

Here are several pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley that we recently tasted and liked:

  • Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($55). Opulent black cherry and ripe blackberry flavors with hints of olive and tobacco.

  • Gary Farrell McDonald Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($70). Fresh strawberry and cranberry aromas with lovely red fruit flavor and hints of licorice and cloves. Elegant and balanced.

  • Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2017 ($45). One of the best pinot noir producers in Russian River Valley, Farrell makes a consistently good and elegant pinot noir. Big red berry and floral aromas are followed by raspberry and cola flavors with a hint of forest floor and clove.

  • Inman Family Russian River Valley Special Blend Pinot Noir 2017 ($68). Kathleen Inman usually makes three vineyard-designated pinot noirs but in 2017 she decided to blend them to see if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Although we remain huge fans of her Olivet Grange Vineyard pinot noir, we find little to quibble with here. Floral, cherry and sage aromas are chased by an abundance of black cherry, raspberry and cranberry flavors with a good dose of fennel.

  • Emeritus Vineyards Wesley’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2017 ($75). Vintner Brice Cutrer Jones and vineyard manager Kirk Lokka planted Hallberg Ranch two decades ago and the fruits of their labor have paid off. Each year we are amazed by the vitality of the pinot noir from this special vineyard. Very rich with dense and savory dark fruit flavors with an underlying foundation in earthy forest floor.

  • J Vineyards Canfield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75). We like the general blackberry and violet aromas in this beautiful wine. Flavors of black cherry, plum and damp forest floor with a hint of cocoa and baking spice.

  • La Crema 40th Anniversary Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($100). La Crema, a producer of outstanding single-vineyard pinot noirs, pulled out the stops for this exclusive anniversary pinot noir from the best grapes in its possession. Founding winemaker Rod Berglund teamed up with a current winemaker Jen Walsh to create this special pinot noir with power and concentration. Raspberry aromas are followed by varietal black cherry flavors and a good dose of cocoa. Aged in French oak for 10 months.

  • Mi Sueno Winery Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($55). Floral aromatics are followed by ripe cherry flavors. Silky and lingering finish.

  • Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($40). Siduri makes pinot noir from several West Coast regions that are reasonably priced. This expressive version from the Russian River Valley is ready-to-drink with bright black cherry and raspberry flavors, medium body and a hint of mushrooms. The Santa Barbara pinot noir is a deal at $30.

  • River Road Stephanie’s Cuvee Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($30). Very reasonably priced, this medium-bodied pinot noir has simple and smooth cherry flavors with a dash of vanilla.

  • Kenwood Vineyards Six Ridges Pinot Noir 2017 ($30). You get a lot of fun in this value-priced pinot noir from the Russian River Valley. Elegant in style, it has fresh black cherry flavors.

Wine picks

  • Hamel Family Wines Isthmus 2017 ($85). This approachable cabernet sauvignon blend from Sonoma has layered aromas of mint, earth, cedar, and raspberry. The flavors showcase the plum and red berry notes. Long in the finish and soft mouthfeel, it is delicious now.

  • Dough Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($19). A collaboration of Distinguished Vineyards & Wine Partners and the James Beard Foundation, Dough Wines is focused on sustainability. This sauvignon blanc from the North Coast offers ripe grapefruit flavors and a nice contrast between bright acidity and mouth-coating texture.

  • Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2017 ($30). We loved this elegant and fruit-forward sangiovese. Bright dark fruit flavors with good acidity and finish. It’s big brother, the Poliziano Asinone ($63) is a bigger wine made from sangiovese in the property’s top vineyard.

Photo by Will Bucquoy

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