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Russian River Valley AVA

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | January 29, 2012

When comparing American Viticulture Areas found in Northern California, the differences that exist between Sonoma County and the Napa Valley are like night and day. And while the AVA creation process is not without its faults, the AVAs found within Sonoma County can be extremely confusing and sometimes illogical. AVAs created within Sonoma County are a veritable hodgepodge of overlapping areas that range from extremely focused and small AVAs to large and somewhat oversized areas that cover thousands of square miles. This is a stark contradiction to other areas where the AVA process--not withstanding the faults of the AVA process--leads to a more organized and logical regional classification system.

The Russian River Valley is an American Viticultural Area located within California's Sonoma County. As the Russian River Valley is part of Sonoma County it falls within the many different AVAs found within Sonoma County. The Russian River Valley is part of the Northern Sonoma AVA and Sonoma Coast AVA and also sports several sub-AVA regions as well. The two sub-regions that exist within the Russian River Valley are the Chalk Hill AVA and the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA.

Geographically speaking, the Russian River Valley exemplifies the topography of Sonoma County. Unlike the Napa Valley where land topography is ideal for winegrowing as well as the presentation of winery estates, Sonoma County's topography makes it difficult for wineries to be anything but off the beaten path. The Russian River has many twists and turns as it flows through the valley creating many pockets of naturally private land. The end result is that while soil types and climate conditions are ideal, the wine estates themselves are hindered by this natural private attitude of the land.

The Russian River valley is naturally contained to the Russian River. It is important to note that the Russian River Valley AVA is not contained to the entire Russian River. Established in 1983, the Russian River Valley AVA is an area with 150 square miles that begins approximately 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean and moves eastward inland following the Russian River.

The climate of the Russian River Valley can be described as cool. With the close proximity of the Pacific Ocean, cool morning fogs flow into the Russian River Valley AVA and dissipate throughout the day. Also, due to the fact that the topography of the Russian River Valley AVA is very diverse and fractured, many different micro climates exist which lend themselves to site specific grape varieties.

Due to the size and nature of the various microclimates found within the Russian River Valley AVA, different types of grape varieties are grown in different areas of the Russian River Valley. Out of all the varieties planted Chardonnay has the greatest percentage of vines planted in the Russian River Valley. This is mainly due to the fact that the Russian River Valley AVA allows for cool microclimates and distinctive soils. Other AVAs in northern California allow for either excellent microclimates or excellent soil breakdowns. In many cases it can be difficult to find an area where both cool microclimates and distinctive soils are present.

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Chardonnay wine production seems to be ideal for the Russian River Valley AVA. Many wineries however have vineyards that do not capture the full potential of the Chardonnay grape. This can be seen in the selection of inappropriate clones for the local environment. Originally, clones were planted that favored warmer conditions than what the Russian River Valley AVA offered. The good news is that from this mistake vintners have learned a lesson. New cool climate clone varieties have been introduced to the Russian River Valley AVA. These new Dijon clones have already resulted in finer Chardonnay's being produced.

Out of all the wine areas in California, the Russian River Valley has a large percentage of Pinot Noir plantings. Again this has to do mainly with the ability to develop areas with cool microclimates and distinctive soils. Because of this fact, the Pinot Noir Variety has met with great success in the Russian River Valley.

Additional wine varieties that can be found within the Russian River Valley AVA include Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer. As far as Gewurztraminer is concerned, plantings are extremely scarce. The popularity of Chardonnay has resulted in many wineries abandoning their Gewurztraminer vineyards. A definite distinction of place is present with Gewurztraminer wines produced in the Russian River Valley AVA. Wines can be described as delicate and containing clear-cut flavoring. The issue with growing Gewurztraminer in the Russian River Valley AVA is that it can be a very difficult grape to grow for quality winemaking. It is for this reason that a scarcity of Gewurztraminer is felt in the Russian River Valley AVA.

Zinfandel wines grown in the Russian River Valley are not as popular as Zinfandel wines grown elsewhere, but they do deserve special mention. Popular Zinfandel wines have an almost dense style and these properties are generally not seen in Russian River Valley AVA produced Zinfandels. However, Zinfandels also respond well to a more supple style of what can be described to be found in Pinot Noir wines. As the Russian River Valley AVA has shown considerable success in the development of its Pinot Noir wines, than it only makes sense that these properties would be available in Zinfandel wines as well. Almost all Zinfandel production comes from old plantings with some wineries creating Zinfandels that have been described as extraordinary.

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