Guide to Russian River Pinot Noir

Approximately 16,000 acres of vineyards (many owned by small-production wineries) comprise the Russian River Valley AVA, which has been an American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1983. The Russian River Valley AVA lies in the heart of Sonoma Valley (and, fittingly, is shaped similar to a human heart) and takes its name from the Russian River, which runs its last 25 miles in this AVA. 

Guide to Russian River Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in the Russian River Valley AVA, which is known for its moderate climate and cooling fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean in the evening. This fog, along with the region’s sandy and loam soils, creates balanced, sophisticated wines with surprising body and richness. 

Russian River Pinot Noir at a glance

Pinot Noir originally gained acclaim in France, where it is used to produce the Burgundy region’s prized red wines. Today, it is used throughout the world (notably California, Oregon, and New Zealand) to craft some of the world’s most elegant expressions of this grape. 

Pinot Noir grapes are thin-skinned, which makes them susceptible to rot and mold (and prone to produce wines with lighter tannins). When young, Pinot Noir wines have brighter red or violet tones; as the wine ages, it often takes on a brick red hue. Pinot Noir is commonly used in sparkling wines (in fact, it is one of just three grapes permitted in Champagne). 

Pinot Noir will exhibit different aromas, textures, and flavors depending on its terroir. In general, the wine is light to medium-bodied, with red berry and earthy characteristics. Old World wines are often described as having “mushroom” and “forest floor” notes alongside truffle and tart, red cherry notes. New World wines may have richer red fruit and blackberry notes, as well as hints of sweet and savory spices and herbs. 

Flavor Profile of Russian River Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley AVA tend to have notes of wild strawberries, black cherries, smoke, and earth. However, even within the Russian River Valley AVA, there are many unofficial subregions that produce wines of varying expressions of fruit, acidity, texture, and tannins. 

Regions within the Russian River AVA

The Russian River AVA is often broken into the following subregions or “neighborhoods”:

  • The Middle Reach 
  • Laguna Ridge
  • Santa Rosa Plain
  • Green Valley AVA
  • Sebastopol Hills

Middle Reach 

The northernmost of the AVA’s neighborhoods is also home to some of the area’s oldest plantings. The Middle Reach’s Pinot Noir is known for its ripe fruits and dark, meaty texture, which is followed by a long finish with supple, firm tannins. The herbal aromas and vegetative qualities that are often present in Pinot Noir are not common in wines from the Russian River Valley AVA’s Middle Reach. Instead, the wines exude cola, dark fruits, earth notes, and a lushness thanks to the dense summer fog, which allows ripening at a slow, steady rate, sans any spikes in sugar concentrations that could lead to imbalances in the wine’s acidity and structure.  

Laguna Ridge

Laguna Ridge lies south of the Middle Reach and is known for its well-draining, sandy soil. Wines from this region are not as rich as the wines from the Middle Reach, and rather display moderate levels of acidity, and fruits such as strawberries, blackberries, plums, and nectarines alongside spice notes and cocoa. The wines are lush, with a balanced mouthfeel that is characteristic of the region. 

Santa Rosa Plain

The flat land close to the city of Santa Rosa is home to the Santa Rosa Plain, which hosts the majority of the AVA’s Zinfandel. Pinot Noir from this region is most often planted on the region’s clay and clay/loam soils; the region is also home to the majority of the area’s Martini clone of Pinot Noir, which has large berries. The wines exhibit juicy black cherry and cola notes and higher levels of acidity, making the wine accessible, easy-to-drink, and food-friendly. 

Green Valley

An AVA within the Russian River AVA, Green Valley (full name: Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA) is near the towns of Graton and Occidental and surrounded by redwood and fir trees, which shelter some of the vines in this high-elevation region and help regulate the temperature of the area. 

Pinot Noir from Green Valley thrives in the area’s Goldridge soil. Its wines are crisp, clean, dense, and have intense, ripe tannins. They are full of red fruits, such as cranberries, pomegranate, and tart cherries. 

Sebastopol Hills

The coolest region of the Russian River AVA is Sebastopol Hills, which overlaps into the Green Valley. The cooler climate provides some of the same red fruits that wines from Green Valley exhibit; it also allows for an expression of dried herbs and black tea. Wines tend to have more blueberry notes and higher acidity, which makes for a surprisingly fuller-bodied wine. 

Pairing Russian River Pinot Noir 

Although lighter in body, Pinot can still stand up to some meat dishes, such as duck. It also works incredibly well with mushrooms, truffles, and herbs such as thyme and oregano. Its balanced acidity also makes it a perfect accompaniment to creamier dishes such as mushroom risotto or polenta with mushroom ragu.

Try Russian River Pinot Noir with some of these other flavors and food combinations. 

Cheese/nuts: Goat cheese, brie, walnuts

Meat/poultry: Lamb, duck, chicken, milder sausages (or sausages with mushrooms and thyme)

Seafood: Ahi tuna, salmon

Fruits and Veggies: Mushrooms, figs, strawberries

Herbs and Spices: Truffle, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, thyme, rosemary (in small quantities) 

Sauces: Mushroom sauces, light cream sauces

Desserts: Creme brulee, white chocolate