Some of the finest wines of California come from the Russian River Valley AVA. There are about 15,000 acres of vineyards planted with the majority being Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are also the region’s specialties. The Russian River Valley AVA is located in Sonoma County, west of Napa, in the heart of Californian wine country. Its wines have been praised for their purity of flavors and remarkable aging potential.
In this blog, we will explain exactly what an “AVA” is, dig deep into the characteristics of the Russian River Valley AVA, and outline the characteristics of the most popular varietals of the region.
What is an “AVA?”
AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The AVAs are officially determined areas that help identify the origin of a wine. For instance, if a wine comes from the Russian River Valley AVA, the grapes must be grown within the agreed-upon geographical area. While AVAs are found all over the United States, most of them are located in Northern California and characterize high-quality products.
Europe also has its own version of “AVAs” which are named “European Protected Designation of Origin,” or PDO. A key point of distinction between European PDOs and AVAs is that PDOs have strict limits on the grapes allowed as well as the wine styles the producers can make. AVAs don’t have that limitation. Europe uses PDOs to protect the historical wine styles and varieties. In the United States, wine history is still written as we speak, so producers have the freedom to experiment with any variety and style they want to produce. As long as the grapes are grown within the limits of the AVA, the wine can showcase its origin on its label. In some cases, the grapes and style are tied to the AVA, as is the case with Napa and Cabernet Sauvignon, or the Russian River Valley AVA and Pinot Noir.
Where is the Russian River Valley AVA located?
The Russian River Valley AVA is located in Sonoma County in Northern California, north of San Francisco. It gets its name from the Russian River, which crosses the region from east to west, flowing into the Pacific Ocean. The viticultural area extends approximately between the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Forestville, and Healdsburg, right in the heart of Sonoma. The strategic position of the Russian River Valley AVA and its importance for the Sonoma wine industry becomes even more obvious, considering it is a sub-AVA of the Sonoma Valley AVA, Sonoma Coast AVA, and the Sonoma County AVA!
The Climate of Russian River Valley AVA
Foggy mornings are the characteristic of the Russian River Valley AVA. Its climate, like the climate of neighboring AVAs, like Napa AVA, Carneros AVA, and Petaluma Gap AVA is considerably affected by the cold Pacific Ocean, which lies only a few miles to the west. While the coastal mountain ranges protect the region from extreme weather conditions, cold fog still enters the through mountain valleys into the Russian River Valley in the evening and typically only retreats late the next day.
Therefore, the climate of the Russian River Valley AVA is among the coldest of California. Cool climate varieties, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, thrive in this region. Once the fog is gone, however, the vines get to enjoy the warm California sun, which ensures grapes achieve perfect ripeness at the time of harvest.
Overall, the climate is considered to be “Mediterranean,” since rain only falls in the winter, and the summers are often extremely dry. This attribute dramatically reduces disease pressure so there is often only a limited need to eliminate pests from the vineyard.
The Soils of Russian River Valley AVA
The Valley has been formed by the Russian River, so the soil is sedimentary, which means a high percentage of sand is found in the soil. Sand holds little water and doesn’t carry many nutrients, so in combination with the dry summers. As a result, the region produces high-quality and concentrated grapes.
Another property of sandy soils that is often overlooked is the soil’s ability to store heat during the day and release it at night. This heat helps ensure grape ripeness in the cool conditions of the Russian River Valley AVA.
The Main Grape Varieties of Russian River Valley AVA
Chardonnay is the most planted grape of the Russian River Valley AVA and accounts for about half of the plantings. Chardonnay has found its second home outside of Burgundy, France, in the Russian River Valley. The cooling fog combined with the warm afternoons creates a unique grape growing environment. The grapes achieve perfect ripeness in their flavors, while the acidity on the palate is crisp and inviting, giving it a characteristic Chardonnay taste. Just like with our 2019 RUSSIAN RIVER CHARDONNAY, oak fermentation is used in the region to increase the complexity of the wines with vanilla and cloves characters, and malolactic fermentation is done to mellow the cool-climate acidity and add light buttery aromatics.
The second most popular grape of the Russian River Valley AVA is Pinot Noir and is perhaps what the variety is most famous for. Just like with Chardonnay, the climate is what allows this second Burgundian grape to flourish in the Russian River Valley AVA. Some of the best Pinot Noirs of the world are produced here, rivaling even Burgundy. In the Russian River region, Pinot Noir shows a darker color due to the bright sunlight. Its aromas are often of blackberry and raspberry. The best Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs have well-integrated oak aromas coming from aging in oak barrels. Our 2019 RUSSIAN RIVER PINOT NOIR has also been matured in French oak and has gained those attractive sweet spices and cocoa, which adds complexity to this elegant variety. The Pinot Noir of the Russian River Valley AVA can be enjoyed young, but also after a few years of aging.
Which are the main sub (or child)-AVAs?
Chalk Hill AVA
Chalk Hill AVA is one of the warmest areas of the Russian River Valley AVA, and that’s why it is uniquely capable of being its own AVA. It is located on the eastern part of the parent Russian River Valley AVA, so the fog reaches the region last at night and disperses first in the morning. The vineyards enjoy much more sunshine in the Chalk Hill AVA than in the Russian River Valley AVA, so the wines are riper. Here, Pinot Noir is not as widely seen, and most of the vineyards are planted with Chardonnay and warmer climate varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.
Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA
The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA is the exact opposite of the Chalk Hill AVA, in terms of climate. Located on the westernmost part of the region, it is the first area reached by the fog at night, and the last area to have a clear sky during the day. This makes it the coldest subregion of the Russian River Valley AVA. The wines often carry a lighter color and higher acidity than the rest of the region, so a few sparkling wines are also made from this area.
What makes wines from the Russian River Valley AVA special?
Russian River Valley AVA is one of American’s most cherished winemaking regions. Its cool climate is perfect for grape growing and experienced winemakers bring the wines to the next level. The most-planted varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are considered some of the best varieties in the world, so if you consider yourself to be a wine lover, the Russian River Valley AVA is certainly a region to get to know.
Located at the heart of Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley AVA produces some of the finest wines in the United States. Be it Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, the wines offer great elegance and complexity, together with ripe fruity aromas and crisp acidity. Wines of the Russian River Valley AVA are a great choice for any occasion.