By Celia Strong
Such pressure. Right on the heels of choosing great wines to end the old year, we have to find an appropriate wine to start the New Year. Fortunately, I think we’ve got one that will fit the requirements. Even if it isn’t up to filling all of our wine needs, this week, it is a spectacular wine. With a bit of a price reduction just to help us like it even more.
Our lesson is on the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. We, hopefully, remember that the Russian River runs north to south, from way up in Mendocino County to its end in San Francisco Bay. (Also, let’s hope we recall that the name given to the valley was from a Russian immigrants’ trading post on the river’s banks.) The Russian River AVA, established in 1983 and enlarged in 2005, does not cover this whole area. The AVA has more than 10,000 acres of vineyards –about one sixth of all the vineyards in California. In particular, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the basis of the AVA’s reputation. This is because the geography and climate, “terroir” to those of us who have been indoctrinated into some fancy wine terms, is right for these two.
The geography of the Russian River Valley was formed by collisions between the North American and the Pacific tectonic plates and volcanic vents that deposited layers of ash on top of eroded bedrock. All millions of years ago. Much of the soil in the valley is now “Goldridge soil,” or sandy loamy soil. The soil around the town of Sebastopol has more clay in it, washed down from the Sonoma Mountains. “Sebastopol soil” works especially well for Pinot Noir grapes because it holds less water than “Goldridge soil.” Close to the river itself there is a third soil type, mostly alluvial.
Climate in the Russian River AVA is influenced by the Pacific Ocean. Parts of the AVA are less than 10 miles from the ocean. In the early evenings, a cool fog starts to come in over the land, meaning the vineyards. It lingers overnight and, then, burns off during the next day. (Any evening outdoor activities, even in the middle of summer, include sweaters.)
The cooling caused by the fog lets the grapes grow in temperatures that can vary as much as 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This warm, cool, warm, cool cycle develops much more complexity (layers of flavors and textures) in them and the wines made from them. And maintains good acidity levels. It is actually a longer, slower ripening season. The western part of the AVA tends to be cooler, because it’s closer to the ocean, which means “perfect” conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Our wine this week is a Chardonnay. In the past, we have talked about Old World styles of wine and New World styles. With Chardonnay, Old World is the wines of Burgundy, France. These Chardonnays have lean fruit flavors (apples, pears), citrus notes (lemons, limes), good acidity and minerality. From the New World, Chardonnays are riper, richer, fatter and heavier. From the Russian River area, Chardonnays are a combination of these two styles. They show plenty of rich, ripe fruit flavors; they are full in your mouth, but focused with good amounts of bright acidity. Also, the rich and ripe fruitiness of these wines makes them good candidates for some barrel aging. Oaky flavors. Mmmmmm.
Hartford Court is our winery. Founded in 1994, by Don and Jennifer Hartford. They lived in Forestville, in the Russian River Valley, surrounded by vineyards. Today, their winery is still in Forestville, 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Don came from Massachusetts and he paid for college by working on a tobacco farm. He met Jennifer in 1979, at Santa Clara University in Northern California. Don became a lawyer, like Jennifer’s father – Jess Jackson. Yep, the same Jess Jackson who started a small-ish winery called Kendall-Jackson. And, the rest is history, as they say. Hartford Court released their first wine in 1996. Since then, their wines have consistently received awards and high ratings. All the time, maintaining their hands on management and quality control. The 2013 Russian River Chardonnay, our wine, has subtle citrus, jasmine, ripe apple and pear aromas. The flavors echo these and add in kiwi, lemon drops, and more apples. The palate is full and finishes with mineral notes and crystallized ginger. Baking spice (cinnamon, nutmeg) flavors come from barrels. Yum! This Chard is great with all kinds of seafood. Usually, this wine is priced in the upper twenty dollar range. Like most good Russian River Chardonnays. But, just so we can start the New Year right, we have a deal. It’s $19.99. Tastes better already. Enjoy.