The best kept secret in California wine?

By Celia Strong

We are going to surprise many people this week. Mostly because very few of us are aware that our wine even exists. Before today, when someone sees a bottle of our winery’s red wine on the shelf, we hear “Well, I didn’t know they even made a red wine!” Really, no kidding? Most wine drinkers know about this winery’s white wine. Even if they only have it in restaurants. But, almost none of us have ever had their red. So, being serious students of new wines, we are going to do “the” red this week.

The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County is where our wine comes from. So, our trip this week, takes us back there for another visit. Over the years, even when we have done one of our lessons about a Russian River wine, a few customers have thought that these were Russian wines. From Russia. But they are not. All American wines. In fact, Russian River wines are considered by some to be the very best wines from Sonoma County.

The Russian River, and its valley, has a long history. Native Americans originally called it “Ashokwana” (“water to the East”) and “Bidapte” (“big water”). The expedition of Juan Rodiquez Cabrillo came close to making it as far north as the river in November, 1542. This was a Spanish expedition, led by a Portuguese explorer that came up from Monterey. But bad storms pushed them back south before they actually reached the river. (Cabrillo was the first European to explore the west coast of what became California. In fact, September 28, every year, is Cabrillo Day in California.)

The first European name for the river, Slavyanka, (which means “Slav River) appeared in a Russian-American Company chart that was dated 1817. Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov worked for this company and explored the river in the early nineteenth century. The Russians established Fort Ross, just northwest of the river’s mouth. Between 1812 and 1842, this fort was the center of Russian life in the area. While the Spanish came up from the South, Russian explorers and settlers came down through Canada from Alaska. Fort Ross, which started as a fur trading post, became a center for agriculture and trade of the colony that grew up around the fort. In addition, heavy expenses went to the Russian-American Company to support the fort. Today, the fort itself is part of the California State Parks Commission. And, more closely related to what we are doing today, there is a Fort Ross Winery.

The Russian River Valley is an AVA within Sonoma County. There are about ten thousand acres of planted vineyards. This accounts for about one sixth of all the planted vineyards in Sonoma County. This AVA was established in 1983, and enlarged in 2005. Over the years, the Russian River AVA has become well known for excellent Chardonnays. Forty-two percent of harvested grapes are Chardonnay. Second largest number, twenty-nine percent, goes to Pinot Noir. As of 2008, the Pinot Noir grapes from the Russian River were nineteen percent of all the Pinot Noirs in the state. And ten percent of all the grapes planted in Sonoma County. There are more than one hundred clones of Pinot Noir grown in the Russian River Valley. As a group, these wines have a vibrant but pale color, cherry and berry fruit flavors and earthy mushroom notes in their aromas. Because some consumers and some experts expect good Pinot Noir wines to have deeper colors, some winemakers in this AVA have developed techniques to enhance the colors in their wines. Different trellising systems in the vineyards that allow for more leaf removal so the grapes get more sun and develop more phenol (color producing) compounds, maceration before fermentation, longer barrel aging times before bottling, blending in some Syrah or Alicante Bouschet (a red grape with red pulp). One and even all of these techniques make Russian River Pinots darker and fuller bodied. Having explained all of this, we can move closer to our wine for this week – a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Hooray!

First, though, our winery. Sonoma-Cutrer. Yes, I know, totally known for their Chardonnay. Their Russian River Ranch Chardonnay is the most requested white wine in restaurants across the United States. The winery was established in 1973. In the beginning, they did plant other grape varieties, but the immediate and massive success of their Chardonnay made their reputation. And became their identity. Which explains why some of us didn’t know that they even made red wines. Before today that is!

Our wine, the 2013 Pinot Noir, is just as spectacular of the Chardonnay. It shows Russian River elegance and sensuous red fruits. Its texture is round and silky and elegant, with a juicy-feeling mid-palate. And the finish is really long, typical of its AVA. When you get some in your glass, the aromas are deep and full of dark fruits like blackberry, black raspberry, black cherries mingled with earthy notes and hints of cola, tobacco, licorice and baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Once you experience all these aromas, the flavors are just the same. Plus strawberries, Bing cherries, cocoa powder, dark chocolate.

This vintage, the 2013, is a particularly good one. Fresh and clean and well balanced with terrific structure. That year was one of the more moderate growing seasons in several years. There was a fairly dry spring, with bud-break coming a couple of weeks early. The weather throughout the summer was nearly perfect and just the right amount of fog. The harvest for the Pinot Noir started about a week early, on August 28. And, the weather continued to be perfect through the whole harvest. And, lucky us, the yield was slightly higher for this vintage. It only seems right, if we’re going to find the best kept secret in California wines, we should do it with this good a vintage. Right? So, all we still have to go over is what we should eat with this wine. Easy enough. Duck breast with berry sauces. Roasted poultry of any sort. Seafood, especially salmon and tuna. Mushroom tart. Crisp French bread with aged white cheeses – Gouda, Machego, white cheddar. Oops, now I’m hungry again. Gotta go. Enjoy! For $24.97.

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