Return to Sonoma – the Russian River Valley

I have been hugely impressed and very excited recently by an array of wines from California’s Sonoma Valley.

The wines that I tasted were all very good and the people who made them interesting and dedicated, but what also made them fascinating to me was the chance it gives to really get to grips with understanding wine, winemaking and growing conditions.

This is because as a European I can look at the variety from Sonoma with a much more open mind than I can Burgundy, for instance. I can taste the wines and really get a grip on what makes them different and why – with no preconceptions as to what they should be like.

Like a great many things, growing grapes and making wine is work in progress. There is no one definition of the correct results to an enormous array of choices and questions that present themselves to any budding wine maker. Therefore the search for perfection is ongoing year after year – however good your wines become.

Many decisions made along the way can alter or nuance a wine for better or worse.

However, the most fundamental questions are those of location of your vineyard and what grape variety to grow.

I am sure that sometimes, perhaps more often than not, these can be made for you by there simply being only one piece of suitable land. Failing that a long and exhausting search of virgin territory and exhaustive geological tests will be the lot of the aspirant vigneron.

So, when you have your land, I have often wondered how you decide what varieties to plant?

Whim? Desire? A hunch? Copying your neighbours? What sells?

It must be much easier now in a place like Sonoma, where there is some 30 years of evidence to support the use of certain grapes in specific areas, but just imagine how daunting it must have been in the past. Not only had no one else done it before you, but these things were much less understood than they are now. So I was thrilled recently to get a little insight into those early days in Sonoma and how the early days of a wine region work.

True Sonoma has a much longer history than I had imagined, stretching back to the middle of the nineteenth century, but in those less scientific times knowledge was patchy about grape variety and what to plant where. So, in a sense we can still talk about the early days of Sonoma stretching for over 100 years to the 1960s and the modern California pioneers.

Joseph Swan Vineyards is a true pioneer, created in 1967 by the man whose name it bears. Swan was especially interested in Pinot Noir – to the extent that there is now a Swan clone – actually a selection rather than true clone – of Pinot that originates in his vineyards, but is now in wide use.

1967 does not seem that long ago really, not compared to Burgundy, but it was a very different world. California was not yet famous for great wine, varietal labeling was only just starting, Robert Mondavi had only opened his Napa Valley winery the year before – an event whose importance to modern wine can hardly be over estimated. At the fine wine level France had almost no competition.

Somehow, a group of these pioneers saw the possibilities and transformed Sonoma and the exciting sub-region of the Russian River Valley into one of the most important wine regions in the world today.

Joseph Swan is now run by Rod Berglund who started making wine at La Crema and who joined Joseph Swan in 1987. At first he helped Joe to make his wines before becoming the chief winemaker a year later.

So, Rod has been at it some time, but he still seems to have the enthusiasm and excitement of a pioneer – as did all the Sonoma winemakers that I spoke to recently.

In the UK we are so used to thinking about generic California wines that it is really exciting to hear someone talk in detail about a specific place. Having been brought up on a diet of Hollywood films and California cop shows – Chips anyone? – I still find it hard to imagine any bit of California as being cool and the fog patterns that go some way to causing those cool conditions are amazing to someone as unscientific as me.

The Russian River Valley is inland, but there is a gap in the mountain ranges that funnels the cooling fogs from the ocean straight into the area – it is this that helps cause the big nighttime temperature drops – up to 20ºC – that create wines with good ripeness, but also the elegant acid levels that set them apart from more ordinary wine.

Listen to Rod talk about the Russian River Valley, the suitability of Pinot Noir and the history of the place:

Joseph Swan wines:

2007 Joseph Swan Vineyards Trenton Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma

The look was quite deep, almost black cherry and slightly earthy.
The aromas were earthy too, with black cherry, spice and miso soup notes.
The palate was rich, round and sumptuous whose supple texture and inherent sweetness was balanced by the pure savoury quality and feeling of fragility that is classic Pinot. There was balanced oak spice, red and black fruit, a bite of tannins came in quite late, just before the long finish that was by turns umami and fruity, but always smooth and lovely.

I was seriously excited by this wine, it was complex and wonderful – 96/100 points.

I have often heard it said that Syrah could produce interesting results in Burgundy – well Beaujolais anyway. With French regulations being what they are we will probably never get to find out, so I was really interested that as well as a superb Pinot Noir – that had a really Burgundian feel to it – I got to taste a Syrah too:

2004 Joseph Swan Vineyards Trenton Estate Vineyard Syrah
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma

Light ruby colour with just a touch of gamey tawny at the rim.
The nose offered meaty consomé and mushroom notes and was fresh and lively with deep cherry characters, dry, pepper spice and little hints of black fruit.
The palate was smooth and elegant with raspberry and blackberry fruit balancing the gently chalky tannins and kept fresh and lively by a little touch of fine acidity. The wines is medium-bodied, vibrantly, if elegantly flavoured with a classic savoury feel to the long finish.

Another thrilling wine – 91/100 points.

2005 Joseph Swan Vineyards Mancini Ranch
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma

That wasn’t the end of the diversity on offer by any means – Rod also had a superb Zinfandel for me to taste and we tasted it together while he told us about the conditions for Zinfandel in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley:

Again this was a magnificent wine that simply, but elegantly, reinforced how exciting Russian River Valley and Sonoma wines can be – it really made me want to learn more about this region that seems to be deserving of more attention here in the UK.

I loved listening to Rod, I found it really interesting to hear from a guy who made such wonderful and accomplished wines. It was fascinating to learn about a small place like the Russian River Valley that is capable of making great wines from such seemingly different grape varieties. For me it was especially interesting to learn from someone who is a real link to the, albeit recent, pioneer days of the region when there must have been a real sense that wine-wise it was virgin territory. Well, they certainly lived up to the possibilities.

Joseph Swan Vineyard wines are imported into the UK by Richards Walford.

One thought on “Return to Sonoma – the Russian River Valley

  1. Pingback: California Syrah – a winning speciality | Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

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