Since the Russian River Valley AVA was established in 1983, local winemakers and farmers have realized that Russian River Valley wines possess different nuances depending on where the grapes from which there were made were grown. Zinfandel or Chardonnay grown in the north near Healdsburg was understood to be different from that grown near Fulton or Occidental. Pinot Noirs made from grapes grown near Freestone, Forestville, Fulton or Healdsburg were also understood to express themselves differently based on vineyard location. Sensory characteristics such as aroma, flavor and structure were cited as being effected.
Traditionally, these distinctive characteristics were associated with historically recognized Russian River Valley neighborhoods, such as the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, Santa Rosa Plain, Green Valley and Sebastopol Hills. But, were the distinctions really pronounced, or even there at all or just part of the perceived lore of our historic Russian River Valley AVA? Moreover, as Pinot Noir plantings in the Russian River Valley have expanded to areas not previously planted, do the historical views hold?
In 2013, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers began a research project, which we call the “Neighborhoods Initiative,” that seeks to answer the question: “Are there specific wine sensory characteristics, including unique aromas and textural attributes, that can be consistently identified as originating from a particular Russian River Valley neighborhood?” At its core, the Neighborhoods Initiative is a systematic exploration of the diverse terroirs that make up the 150 square miles of the Russian River Valley AVA.
We’ve begun by focusing on Pinot Noir, thought to be the varietal that most transparently reflects the site on which it was hosted. Through the 2014 and 2015 vintages, we’ve tasted more than 200 unfinished wines, each from unique vineyard sources. Over time, we expect to include other varietals.
Our exploration is undertaken in a way that is scientifically valid and without preconception or pretext. Recognizing that winemaking style is a major contributor to finished wine characteristics, we taste unfinished wines. We taste them blind and we evaluate the results using standard sensory analysis techniques. We do not make judgments about which wine is “best or better,” but instead seek to understand the diversity of wine characteristics that are possible in our AVA. Because grape characteristics vary year by year based on growing conditions, our data is collected for analysis, using recognized statistical techniques.
We are far from reaching any conclusions, but the exploration has and will continue to engage and benefit us by increasing our understanding of the Russian River Valley. Through understanding the unique contributions of each corner of the Russian River Valley we will be better able compose the beautiful wines that make our home justifiably famous.
Wine Enthusiast Article – June 2015
Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast – “Making Sense of the Russian River Valley”