Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley has been producing wines since the 1800s. Today, it is one of the most acclaimed regions in California (and the world) and is known for its quality Burgundian varietals. What do you know about this historic, award-winning wine region?
Guide to Russian River Valley Wines
The Russian River begins its run in Mendocino County; its final 25-mile stretch is home to the Russian River Valley AVA. The area is known for its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which offers cool breezes and coastal fog. These conditions lead to long, cool growing seasons that produce balanced and complex wines.
Don’t know what an AVA is? Check out our article on the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation system!
Russian River Valley Fast Facts:
- The region’s name comes from the Russian River, which is the second largest river in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- The Russian River Valley AVA was established in 1983.
- The region is home to 15,000 vineyard acres.
- The Russian River Valley AVA is located in Sonoma County, just north of Sebastopol and Santa Rosa and south of Forestville and Healdsburg.
- The Russian River Valley AVA accounts for ⅙ of Sonoma County’s vineyard acreage.
- Within the AVA are two sub-AVAs: Chalk Hill and Sonoma Green Valley.
Long before the Russian River was synonymous with fantastic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the river itself was an important piece of California history. Throughout modern history, the river has been known by many names: the Southern Pomo called it the Ashokawna (“east water place” or “water to the east”), the Bidapte named it the “big river”, and although the Spanish land grant of 1843 referred to it as the “Rio Grande,” the Spanish called it the San Ygnacio.
The Kashaya American Indians resided on its banks when Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskow, of the Russian-American Company, explored the river in the early 19th century and established the Fort Ross colony northwest of the river’s mouth. They referred to the river as Slavyanka, but it was from these Russian settlers that the river takes its present name.
The region became known for its lumber and mercury mining industries, and continued to grow once the railway extended to the area. European settlers brought with them grapevine cuttings, which they used to begin small vineyards intended for family consumption. From here, the industry grew…until Prohibition nearly destroyed the local winemaking industry. After Prohibition, it would be nearly 50 years before the area received the acclaim it deserves. In 1983, the region became an American Viticultural Area (AVA); its designation is the Russian River Valley AVA.
The Russian River Valley AVA
The Russian River Valley AVA consists of three areas: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, and the Santa Rosa Plain. Each area has different soils and different variations of the area’s characteristic fog.
The Middle Reach, the most northern area and the area with some of the region’s oldest vines, is close to Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley. It is said to have the most dense fog, which shields the grapes from overripeness and leads to more complex wines with longevity.
The second area, Laguna Ridge, is south of the Middle Reach and close to Forestville. It is here that one finds the area’s three signature types of soil: Goldridge, Altamont, and Franciscan Assemblage. Goldenridge and Altamont are well draining, sandy soils; Franciscan Assemblage soil is a mix of various rocks, shale, sandstones, and limestones. With such a variety of soils that yield quality grapes, the area is known as the “Golden Triangle.” The area overlooks the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
East of the Laguna de Santa Rosa (and on a stretch of flat land near the city of Santa Rosa) is the AVA’s third area, the Santa Rosa Plain.The majority of the AVA’s wineries are located here, along with most of the AVA’s old vine Zinfandel.
In addition to these three main areas, the Russian River Valley AVA contains two sub-AVAs: Chalk Hill and Sonoma Green Valley. Chalk Hill AVA, which is near the town of Windsor, contains mostly volcanic soil that is a chalky, white ash (hence the area’s name). The Green Valley AVA (full name, Green Valley of the Russian River AVA) is in the southwestern most corner of Russian River Valley AVA and has the coolest climate. It is known for its exceptional white wines, which thrive in cooler temperatures and chalky soil.
Wines produced in the Russian River Valley AVA
Portions of the Russian River Valley AVA are less than 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This proximity leads to the AVA’s success with its signature, cool-climate varietals (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). The Russian River Valley Winegrowers claims that 42% of the Russian River Valley’s AVA are Chardonnay grapes, and 29% are Pinot Noir.
Russian River Valley AVA’s cool climate creates a Chardonnay with higher levels of acidity, which leads to a more balanced white wine than the heavier, creamy Chardonnay produced in surrounding areas. The grapes also create a fantastic and crisp sparkling wine that sometimes incorporates Pinot Noir or other varietals. Read our Guide to Russian River Chardonnay for more information.
Russian River Valley AVA Pinot Noir accounts for nearly a quarter of Pinot Noir plantings in all of California and 10% of all grapes planted in Sonoma County. The region’s classic Pinot Noir is known for being light in color and having bright acidity, cherry and berry flavors, and “forest floor” and mushroom aromas. In recent years, some winemakers have adopted new trellising methods to produce wines with a deeper color; these viticulture practices also led to a wine that was more full-bodied and often compared to Syrah. Read our Guide to Russian River Pinot Noir for more information.
The AVA also has microclimates that produce note-worthy Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc. The AVA’s central and western areas are the coolest and are almost extensively planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; the eastern parts of the AVA are furthest away from the Pacific Ocean and also the warmest.