By Celia Strong
Oh, no. Another new wine. What are we to do? I’ll tell you what: We clap our hands for happy, lucky us, do our lesson and get to it as quickly as we can.
For geography, we are in California, Sonoma County, the Russian River AVA. We have discussed this AVA before. Last time I remember talking about the Russian River it was for a Pinot Noir, one of the two grape varieties that the Russian River AVA is really known for. The other, Chardonnay, is our grape for this week’s wine.
The Russian River AVA was established in 1983, and enlarged in 2005. The Russian River Valley is way larger than the AVA, which is located between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa on its north and Forestville and Healdsburg on its south. Viticulture in this area dates back to the 19th century. Immigrants from Mediterranean countries came here and planted the first vines. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were nearly 200 wineries. The valley has a cool climate and is heavily affected by fog from the Pacific Ocean. The Russian River Valley Winegrowers trade group claims that 42 percent of the grapes grown here are Chardonnay; Pinot Noir is 29 percent. Chardonnays grown here are distinctly different from those grown in nearby areas like Alexander Valley AVA and Dry Creek Valley AVA. The region’s cool climate produces more grapes with higher acidity. The wines tend to be more balanced than the fatter, creamier style from their neighbors in the Alexander Valley.
Our winery, this week, we have also visited before — Valley of the Moon. This winery is located in the Glen Ellen area. (Yes, that is a place in Sonoma County.) It is the longest operating winery there. Actually, Valley of the Moon has been operating as a winery since 1863, just not with its current name. There are stone buildings at the winery, still being used, that date back to the 1880’s. They also built a new winery in 1998. It is this combination of history and modern technology that drives Valley of the Moon today. We should note, because it is a fun fact, the winery name is derived from the native American word for Sonoma, which means “valley of the moon.” The ownership of Valley of the Moon has changed several times over the years. Like so many other wineries. Currently, long-time vintners and good friends Dan Zepponi and Tony Stewart are the owners.
At Valley of the Moon, the quality of their wines begins in the vineyards. Different varieties are matched with the different Sonoma micro-climates and soils where they will do their best. Sustainable farming is a long-standing practice. Their winemaking philosophy is focused on letting each variety show its personality. Each lot of grapes, like our Chardonnays, is handled separately, pressed as whole clusters, and blended only after the wines are made. I would tell you, because it’s true with other wines from Valley of the Moon, that each lot of grapes, after fermentation, is barrel-aged separately as well. But, our Chardonnay is “unoaked,” so barrel aging of the different lots of wine doesn’t apply.
When a Chardonnay wine is unoaked, the winemaker has decided to make that style of wine. Sometimes, the decision is made because this is the traditional style of an area. Like Chablis, in the northern part of the Burgundy region in France, has this tradition from their centuries of making Chardonnay wines. In California, it’s not tradition, but a style choice for the winemaker. Chardonnay, in the world of winemakers, is considered to be a fairly neutral variety. They love playing with this variety because the neutrality lets them develop different aromas and flavors, and textures too, by what they do. Fermenting in oak, aging in oak, American versus French oak, and on and on. Chardonnay is an easy grape to grow, in a lot of different soils and climates. (Just look at how many there are from almost every country that makes wine.) Malolactic fermentation is also a choice. When aged in barrels, this secondary fermentation takes place almost automatically. The resulting wine has a smoother, rounder texture. Because they don ‘t go into barrels, many unoaked Chardonnays have crisper acidity. But, again, this is a choice and the malolactic fermentation can be done for unoaked wines. Either way, without the oak, we taste more of the basic flavors of this grape — green apple, lemon, sometimes pineapple.
Here’s another point in our favor with unoaked Chardonnay wines. Those barrels are not cheap. One new barrel runs over $500, way over. Each barrel loses some of its flavor every time it is used. Two, maybe three times, and it’s pretty much retired. (Really, they are passed on to use for less expensive wines, sometimes even chopped up into chips and tossed into the big vats of much less expensive wines. There’s a big difference between “aged in oak” and “aged with oak.”) So, as we look at bottles of Russian River AVA Chardonnays, the majority of which are given some time aging in barrels, we have to notice that we are paying for that process. Of course, we do love that style, so we pay what we have to to get them.
But, lucky us, we have the chance to taste Chardonnay from the Russian River AVA, as great a spot as it for the variety, all by itself. The Valley of the Moon Unoaked Russian River Chardonnay is delicious. It has nectarine, orange flower blossom and mineral flavors. And, yep, apple too. The long ripening period from the cool climate in the AVA makes layers of flavors, complex and bright. In particularly cool years, like 2011, the really high acidity level of the wine is tempered by a malolactic fermentation in about 80 percent of the wine, before blending. The wine is fermented in stainless steel, in its small lots, and aged in steel tanks for about five months. This malolactic fermentation gives the wine a smoother texture in the middle of your mouth, but leaves enough acidity on the sides of your tongue for a clean, crisp finish with lime and tangerine notes. This wine is 97 percent Chardonnay, with 2 percent Pinot Blanc and 2 percent Muscat Canelli. All for $15.99. My suspicion is, as we go into warmer weather, unoaked Chardonnays might be more enjoyable. Having tasted this Valley of the Moon, I know there will be some at my house. Enjoy.