Most everyone is familiar with the names of the big wine regions in California: Napa, Sonoma, Central Coast, etc., but what about the smaller AVAs (Approved Viticultural Areas)? Within Sonoma lies a little AVA called Russian River Valley, which is known for producing some of the finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in California.
Russian River Valley is pretty much smack dab in the middle of Sonoma, and (surprise, surprise) the Russian River runs right through it. Since it empties into the Pacific Ocean, the Russian River serves as a channel for cool fog from the ocean to roll into the valley. Because of this fortunate geography, the area is a good bit cooler than its neighbors.
Sonoma-Cutrer is a legendary producer that focuses primarily on Chardonnay, though they do make Pinot Noir in very limited quantities. This winery uses French methods and philosophy, making their wines truly special vintage after vintage. The fantastic Russian River Ranches Chardonnay (around $19) is always a favorite of mine. Somewhat reminiscent of Burgundian Chardonnay, this wine displays hints of mineral and earth, but with layers and layers of unexpected flavors such as kiwi, honey and spice.
Kenwood Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is a really great wine at a very reasonable price (around $15). Kenwood is probably best known for its intense (and pricey) Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon and its Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. From their Sonoma series, however, this Pinot Noir is nothing to scoff at. It is surprisingly full-bodied, with lots of fresh ripe red cherry and strawberry fruit flavors, with a touch of the signature earthiness one finds in Pinot Noir. It's a good "first Pinot" to try if you've never had one.
J Vineyards, an off-shoot of legendary Cabernet and Chardonnay producer Jordan Winery, makes their wines from 100 percent Russian River Valley fruit. They certainly gained their reputation from their delicious J Vintage Brut Sparkling wine (around $30). Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this is one of the tastiest bubblies on the market. Rich and slightly creamy, this wine shows fresh pear and tangy citrus flavors, along with a bit of toasty oak. This one can be enjoyed at any point during a great meal, or even happy hour.
If you're looking to spend some money (wisely, that is) check out Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (around $42). The grapes for Paul Hobbs wines are harvested and sorted by hand, and are later bottled unfiltered and unfined, resulting in more intense wines. This Pinot is a knock-your-socks-off kind of wine. With rich blackberry and plum fruit, mushroomy earthy notes and medium tannins, this wine will stand up to a big steak or even some game meats.
Another tasty way to spend a little money is with Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (about $28). This great little winery produces only Pinot Noir. Like Paul Hobbs, their wines are always bottled unfiltered and unfined, so that no natural flavors or textures of the wine are removed. This wine offers the best of Russian River Valley: floral and tobacco notes, along with rich ripe black cherry and vanilla flavors.
If you're into the great Burgundian varietals, you should really find something to love from Russian River Valley. Truly unique wines from a truly unique region.