Wine tasting visit to the Russian River Valley in California

A trip to the famous Russian River Valley AVA in Sonoma County, California during late November 2017 and a chance to try some great wines. Fortunately, the wineries in the area were largely unaffected by the recent fires in Napa. 

The vineyards are planted around the Russian River and lie between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in the south, and Forestville and Healdsburg in the north. The area has a relatively cool climate because of fog from the Pacific Ocean and there is an undulating landscape with views of Mount St. Helena in the North. The area is known for its  cool climate Pinot noir and Chardonnay in particular but many grape varieties are grown.

Surprisingly the area is heavily forested and very rural around the Russian River with giant trees everywhere and vineyards planted nearby. I stayed in a very pleasant Airbnb on Laurel Avenue in Forestville, which felt like you were staying in the wilderness. 

Laurel avenue, forestville

After arriving in Forestville, we grabbed dinner at Russian River Vineyards Restaurant & Farm (5700 CA-116, Forestville) to sample some wines and eat some farm fresh food. Surprisingly, Russian River Vineyards is the only winery-based restaurant in the Russian River Valley. It was a great experience though not cheap ($200 for two). The food was prepared using fresh ingredients and very imaginative and the server was very knowledgeable about the wines from the area plus very friendly. A chance to try some of the winery Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and the wines were high quality e.g. Two Pisces Pinot Noir 2014. Eating in the 1890s farmhouse was also special with good ambience. Definitely recommended if you want quality fare.

Russian river vineyards restaurant and farm

Before wine tasting the following day, a trip to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve with 805 acres of coast redwoods just north of Guerneville. An amazing up and down walk on the East Ridge trail to get some steps in with the fog enveloping the valley in the morning as the sun rose over the trees.

Armstong Redwoods state park East Ridge trail

Visit to Iron Horse Vineyards (9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol)

iron horse vineyards sebastopol

After a nice strenuous hike off to a specialist in sparkling wine, Iron Horse Vineyards in the Green Valley AVA which is down in the South West of the region. The winery served sparkling wine at the Reagan - Gorbachev Summit Meetings, which ended the Cold War and the Russian Cuvée commemorates the style.

Pascaline Patisserie Sebastapol

Pascaline Patisserie Sebastapol

Before tasting a little calorie recharge at the local deli, Pascaline French Patisserie on 4552 Gravenstein Hwy N, Sebastopol. Very tasty bakery and cake items and just a few minutes from the winery. 

Iron Horse has approximately 160 acres in vine, planted exclusively to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with views to Mount St. Helena.  The predominant soil-type is called “Goldridge”, a sandy loam that has excellent drainage. The estate is divided into 39 blocks, each vinified as a ‘single vineyard’.

The Chardonnay grapes are whole-fruit-pressed to develop high-point fruit flavours and richness comes from rigorous lees stirring. Iron Horse vintages rarely go through malo-lactic fermentation. The Pinot Noir is cold soaked for a week to ten days (using dry ice), then gently pressed from the skins before transferring to French oak barrels.

Wines tasted:

Sparkling: 2013 Ocean Reserve, 2013 Wedding Cuvee, 2012 Classic Vintage Brut

Pinot Noir: 2015 Deer Gate, 2015 North Block Pinot Noir, 2015 Thomas Road Pinot Noir, 2015 Home Block Pinot Noir

On the whole the tasting was a disappointment for the Pinot Noir. At the price point of $85, the price/quality was poor with excessive acidity from some blocks and a lack of finesse on the palate. With 2015 vintages, clearly plenty of further ageing was needed to soften and balance the wines. There are better examples of Pinot in the valley for a lower price. But for sparkling wines, Iron Horse isa  good place to visit. I was a little surprised that there was no opportunity to taste with food and spittoons were even not provided. The winery has very good Tripadvisor ratings and the hillside overlooking the vineyards is spectacular but the experience was not optimised. 

Visit to Gary Farrell Winery (10701 Westside Rd, Healdsburg)

Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery

Gary Farrell is an impressive tasting experience with a modern building set on a hilltop with vistas of the area. Kevin, our tasting guide was professional and knowledgable. The wines were served with cheese (Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper made in Holland and Vella Cheese Co. Dry Monterey Jack).

Gary Farrell vineyards

The Chardonnays are whole-cluster pressed to tank and settled overnight if necessary. Then the juice is racked off the heavy solids, taking only the desired percentage of light, fluffy lees. After the juice is fermented 100% in French oak barrels and puncheons, it goes through full malolactic fermentation, and is aged on primary lees, with weekly stirring during fermentation and monthly thereafter, for 7 to 8 months before bottling.

After an extreme sorting process in both the vineyard and winery, the Pinot Noir clusters are de-stemmed. The grapes are then gently conveyed from the sorting table to tank without any pumping into small (4- and 7-ton) jacketed open-top fermenters with a 5-7 day cold soak, which is followed by a slow, cool fermentation with two to three daily punch downs. After fermentation is complete, the new wine is then drained, the remaining solids are gently pressed settled and racked, malolactic bacteria is added and the wine is transferred to light- and medium-toast French oak barrels from our top Burgundian coopers. The Russian River Valley Selection typically ages for 10 months in barrel while the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs may spend up to 15 months in oak. In both cases, the wines are racked only once before bottling.

Tasted wines:

Chardonnay: 2014 Rochioli-Allen, 2013 Westside Farms

Pinot Noir: 2014 Fort Ross Vineyard, 2014 Martaella Vineyard, 2014 McDonald Mountain Vineyard

I love the wines of Winemaker Theresa Heredia who started producing wines for Farrell in 2012. Great balance in the reds with minerality and acidity in the whites. Very powerful bouquet in the Pinot with earthy notes and spice on the palate. The McDonald Mountain from the south was very complex indeed. A very enjoyable tasting experience with great surroundings, a friendly service and lovely wines.

Shame that I only had the chance to sample three wineries but now off to Napa Valley to taste the Cabernet Sauvignon's at Inglenook etc. Russian River is a beautiful, rural area just two hours from San Francisco and well worth a visit for quality wines. Compared with Napa Valley, the area is relatively undeveloped food wise with a limited choice of top quality restaurants with a few exceptions. The Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley is very special.