Terroir is a difficult concept to fully understand. It has come to define what we mean by quality wine. When we taste a distinctive wine, it is usually the taste of terroir that makes it distinctive. Yet, for most ordinary wine lovers it’s hard to grasp and articulate what those distinctions are. One problem is that many AVA’s are so large and diverse that identifying the AVA as the origin does little to explain what’s in the glass. But the second problem is that recognizing the flavor identity of one vineyard as distinct from another is devilishly difficult unless you constantly taste and compare. That requires more time and wine than most of us have access to.
The Russian River Valley Winegrowers have set about trying to solve both problems with their Neighborhoods concept. With help from the viticulture scientists at UC Davis, they’ve identified 6 neighborhoods within the larger AVA that exhibit distinctive features. (Here is a link to a map and descriptions of the Neighborhoods.)
Several wineries who specialize in single vineyard bottlings have begun to offer tastings based on the concept. Narrowing the geographical scope to a neighborhood helps explain some of the differences among wines found in the larger RRV AVA, and focusing on neighborhoods rather than individual vineyards helps make understanding the region more manageable, at least in theory.
The theory is sound. Discovering differences is more fun when it is accompanied by knowledge of what one is discovering. Whether it ends up simplifying terroir or making it more complex is, I suppose, an open question. It could end up burying the distinctiveness of each vineyard by giving the impression that all wines from a neighborhood should taste the same. It is nevertheless an intriguing concept.
Gary Farrell is one of the Sonoma wineries offering tastings around this concept and I participated in a recent Zoom session conducted by their winemaker Theresa Heredia. I found it fascinating if only because it’s clear from the tasting that there are distinct differences between these neighborhoods (and of course the wines are delicious.) If you want to dig deeply into the Russian River Valley I recommend their Russian River Neighborhoods Hidden Gems tastings. They are now being conducted online but when wine tasting opens up again they will offer it onsite as well.
Here is a list of the wines we tasted and their “neighborhood.” Each Pinot Noir had the same oak treatment allowing the fruit signature to shine. Same with the Chardonnay.
Santa Rosa Plains—On the flatlands between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa
Gary Farrell, ‘Olivet Lane’ Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley 2017 : Apple and pear, floral with minerality
Gary Farrell, ‘Martaella’ Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2017: Highly structured, a delicious powerhouse, see my full review.
Laguna Ridge—South of the Russian River near Forestville, low elevation with undulating hills, relatively cool temperatures
2017 Gary Farrell, ‘Ritchie’ Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley 2017: Quite citrus focused with stony minerality.
Green Valley—North of Sebastopol, on the Western side of the valley. Sandy soils and fog, quite cool
2017 Gary Farrell, ‘Hallberg’ Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2017: Darker fruit, earthy with herbal notes, also lively with crisp acidity.
Sebastopol Hills—The coolest neighborhood, pulling fog and sea breeze through the Petaluma Gap.
Gary Farrell, McDonald Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2017: Bright fruit, with lots of spice notes, very lively acidity, tart finish
Middle Reach—The northern part of the region, near Healdsburg and Dry Creek. Tends to be quite warm. Textured with ripe flavors, lush and tropical
Gary Farrell, ‘Rochioli’ Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley 2017: Rich, fleshy fruit with a mineral seam, less acidity
Gary Farrell, ‘Bacigalupi’ Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2017: Lots of earth and spice, juicy with soft tannins
Eastern Hills was not represented.
Notes based on industry samples