Russian River Valley Part 1: Exploring Single Vineyard Wines & Neighborhoods

Sonoma County's Russian River Valley is an expansive appellation. The region is comprised of many terroirs, all of which are home to unique vineyard sites that are planted mostly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As the region’s notoriety continues to soar, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley have been recognized as world-class wines.

There is no debate about this region's prestige and to that same extent, no debate about the varied terroir of the appellation. For this reason, esteemed producers bottle many of their wines as single vineyard designates. Providing a window into the uniqueness of terroir, single vineyard bottlings are a fascinating way to taste the distinct expressions that Russian River Valley has to offer.

In line with the recognition of varied terroir, Russian River Valley Winegrowers has organized the Neighborhoods Initiative—a program that champions the diversity of the appellation, and hopes to identify quintessential characteristics in the wines produced in five historically significant ‘neighborhoods’ of Russian River Valley.

These neighborhoods include: Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, Santa Rosa Plain, Sebastopol Hills and Green Valley (a recognized sub-appellation). While Russian River Valley Winegrowers has no intent to divvy up the larger Russian River Valley and file for sub-appellation statuses, their goal is primarily to determine whether there are defining characteristics of wines from each neighborhood that are recognizable in the wines.

I kept this in mind as I visited a few of Russian River Valley’s iconic single vineyard producers: J Rochioli, Paul Hobbs and Kosta Browne. I also intended to include some samples of Russian River Valley single vineyard bottlings that I tasted back at home. However, in attempt to dive deeper into the Neighborhoods Initiative, I have chosen to turn this story into a multi-part series, which will feature five subsequent stories—one for each of the neighborhoods that includes various samples. What follows is my exploration of J Rochioli, Paul Hobbs and Kosta Browne.

J Rochioli Vineyards and Winery
In the Middle Reach neighborhood, J Rochioli Vineyards and Winery is a historic producer. Winemaker Tom Rochioli is the third-generation of his family to work the vines and craft wines in Russian River Valley. A true family man, he hopes to eventually pass the estate to his son and daughter, to usher in a fourth-generation of Rochioli Russian River Valley winemakers. Certainly, we all hope to see that happen. Amiable and truly passionate about his family’s history in the region, Rochioli sat down with me for an afternoon to taste through his single vineyard wines.

Working strictly with estate fruit, his single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottlings are beautiful expressions of his vineyards, many of which have been planted for several decades: Chardonnay blocks dating back to 1972 and Pinot Noir blocks dating back to 1969. And even though this story is not about Sauvignon Blanc, it is worth mentioning that some of their Sauvignon Blanc vines date back to 1959, which Rochioli believes to be some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc planted in all of Sonoma County.

When asked about the terroir of Russian River Valley, Rochioli pointed out that even within his own property, “There’s a lot of microclimates.” In looking at the estate’s incredibly detailed vineyard map, one can see that the east side vineyards are influenced more by the river as a result of its close proximity. “The river fog moderates the temperatures more in the lower vineyards [on the east side], whereas in the Sweetwater vineyard [on the west side], you’ll have maybe two to three degree higher highs, but you’ll also have maybe four to five degree cooler cools. Bigger extremes.”

Overall, “We have naturally very low pH wines with high acidity and that’s got everything to do with the cool weather,” Rochioli says. When I asked him about what characterizes the Pinot Noir from Middle Reach, he replied, “That Christmas candy, that really intense cherry fruit—I think that’s distinct here.”

The Chardonnays are stunning and come from the Sweetwater Vineyard, which is ironically planted mostly to Pinot Noir vines, but there are two small Chardonnay plots: the Sweetwater Vineyard plot (one-acre) and the Rachael’s Vineyard plot (0.7-acre).
A line-up of four very expressive single vineyard Chardonnays.

The 2013 Sweetwater Vineyard Chardonnay was planted in 2000 and comes from the Wente clone, and just so happens to have been sourced from Kistler’s iconic Vine Hill Vineyard. Situated on the western edge of the estate, the 2013 Sweetwater Chardonnay has very minerally and rocky aromas that mix with scents of lime and grapefruit. The palate is steel-like in its flavors. The wine’s crisp, light and refreshing style provides contrast against the creamy lemon meringue, rounded grapefruit and white peppery nuances. The finish is long.

Soft and smooth on the palate, the 2013 Rachael’s Vineyard Chardonnay vines are located not far from the Sweetwater Vineyard plot; knowing this, it makes sense that this Chardonnay expresses similar aromas of lime, grapefruit and minerality on the nose. With that being said, the palate contrasts the Sweetwater bottling. The 2013 Rachael’s Vineyard Chardonnay caresses the taste buds with preserved lemon, golden apple, crisp pear, lime zest and salted, wet rocks. It’s a real beauty and a pleasure to enjoy slowly as it evolves in the glass. With further air, this wine becomes more floral on the nose with white flowers and citrus blossom. This Chardonnay is elegantly balanced and exudes grace every step of the way.

One of my favorites of the Rochioli single vineyard Pinot Noir collection is from the Little Hill vineyard. The 2013 Little Hill Pinot Noir is planted to Richebourg and Pommard clones, and boasts savory aromatics of damp earth, spice and forest-like scents. Much brighter and fruit-forward on the palate, this multilayered wine opens with pomegranate and red cherry. The wine is soft and elegant in a way that allows the wine’s finessed structure to unfold gracefully. With further air, the aromas express notes of clove and begin to show raspberry and red cherry fruit. The palate maintains itself well in its fruit flavors with those background spice notes.

Fuller in approach, the 2013 West Block Pinot Noir shows intense, brambly-like, dark cherry on the deep and dark nose. The palate is dark and rich with intense cherry, black plum and spice-cake flavors. This Pinot is medium-bodied and robust, while still maintaining beautiful elegance and balance. I never would have guessed it was aged in 85% new French oak, had Rochioli not said so. When I asked him about the use of 85% new French oak, he replied, “The wood gives you a more complex character, because the wine is so fruity and so powerful that if you just go straight without the wood, you kind of just get too much grape juice.” The new French oak is so well integrated on the palate with the rich fruit that the wine exhibits excellent synergy—beautifully done.

A seam running through the Chardonnay at this estate seems to be their mineral, pebble-like quality, while with the Pinot Noir, Rochioli was spot on with the red, spiced-fruit motif.

Paul Hobbs Winery
A recognized sub-appellation of Russian River Valley since 1983, Green Valley has long been known for its seriously cool expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This sub-appellation and neighborhood is climatically home to the lowest average summer temperature and highly revered for its iconic Goldridge soils. The Paul Hobbs estate is located on the very eastern edge of Green Valley, situated just outside of the sub-appellation border with its estate Pinot Noir vines. Paul Hobbs Winery does a beautiful job of championing Green Valley Chardonnay with their classic single vineyard expressions.

In visiting three of Paul Hobbs’ Green Valley estate-owned sites—Ellen Lane, Ross Station and Edward James—it was easy to see how each vineyard has its own unique sun exposure, slopes, topography, soil types and microclimates. Each terroir enables them to bottle unique single vineyard designates with great success in revealing the vineyards’ distinct characteristics. I visited each of these Chardonnay vineyards and then tasted the respective single vineyard bottlings to draw my own conclusions.
A view of the Ellen Lane vineyard with winter cover crops planted between the rows of vines.

The “Ellen Lane vineyard is one of the coolest of all the estate sites,” former Director of Winemaking Megan Baccitich says. Director of Vineyards, Sean Higuera, adds that “it’s on the western edge of Green Valley and sits in this bowl with diurnal shifts. We do see bigger shifts here because of this bowl-like shape.” It is a vineyard that is low in yield, regulating itself in a way that other vineyard sites do not, and produces concentrated fruit that Baccitich claims is “the most Chablis-like in style . . . it’s got a minty, kind of savory quality to it—it’s very elegant.”

When I taste the 2013 Ellen Lane Vineyard Chardonnay, I am inclined to agree that the wine is elegant. The vines at this site are planted in Blucher and Josephine soil series of clay loam and gravel, and the aromatics seem to allude to this with their rock-like scent. This, coupled with lemon curd, lime zest, toasted bread and white flowers gives this Chardonnay a captivating nose. Round and full, with a mineral essence and nice acid presence, the Ellen Lane Vineyard Chardonnay finds finessed balance on the palate with its lemon curd and lime zest notes. Texturally, this wine is a luscious beauty.
The Paul Hobbs Winery cellar—barrels full of potential.

There is no denying the incredible textures of these Chardonnays, and while terroir is certainly an influence, let us not forget that with a discussion of terroir, we must also discuss the influence of winemaking. At Paul Hobbs Winery, barrel aging and bâtonnage certainly play significant roles in the texture of the wines. For these three single vineyard Chardonnays, the grapes are whole-cluster pressed, barrel fermented with indigenous yeasts and undergo spontaneous malolactic fermentation; the wines then see aging of 12-15 months in roughly 58-64% new French oak with frequent bâtonnage.

When I asked Baccitich about the lees program, she stated, “Lees are just so valuable to the overall texture and style of the wine . . . The wines are only racked once, basically to tank right prior to bottling. So they are living on their lees the entire duration of barrel aging.” The Chardonnays are ultimately bottled unfined and unfiltered. These wines are layered with textures, and are full of energy and life.
The famed Goldridge soil series with pebbles at the Ross Station vineyard.

In comparing the three vineyard sites, Higuera explains, “A vineyard like Ross Station, we know it’s warmer and it sits up on a knoll, so it’s really picking up a lot more sun exposure.” The site has that classic Goldridge soil series. Higuera points out, “It’s pure sand...very well-drained, allowing us to control vigor and irrigation.” Baccitich believes this wine to be the most structured of the three. It is an expansive site with “ideal sun exposure,” Higuera states, with “sun-kissed vines providing very even ripening.”

The 2013 Ross Station Vineyard Chardonnay possesses a smoky nose, which Baccitich attributes to the lees program, along with more tropical-like aromas with golden apple and wet pebbles. The wine is very round and rich, with gentle lemon and oily-like textures. It’s a viscous Chardonnay with an almost pineapple- and kiwi-like, lemon curd presence, alluding to the ripeness that ideal sun exposure brings and that Higuera spoke of when we looked at the vineyard site.
In winter, the full-time, very skilled vineyard crew prunes the vines at the Edward James vineyard.

In looking at the Edward James expression, I detect yet another very distinct profile. This is another site that is blessed with the famed Goldridge series soils mixed with small pebbles; it possesses southern and western sun exposure. The 2013 Edward James Vineyard Chardonnay shows a round, pebble minerality on the palate with a chalky texture. The aromatics lift from the glass in a rich and thick way with smoky scents, barrel spice and coconut—the oak influence feels a touch more noticeable here; and there are darker yellow fruits on the palate. This Chardonnay is juicy with golden apples and chalky on the finish, with a punch of lime zest that tapers off in a long, slow fashion. Climatically speaking, Higuera characterizes the Edward James site as “a mixture of the two vineyards [Ellen Lane and Ross Station].” Drawing conclusions, it seems this wine has the balance of both ripe fruit concentration and crisp acid persistence that shows itself in the texture and energy of the wine.

Each of these wines really does exhibit distinct characteristics, alluding to the unique terroir of their respective vineyard sites. Yet, they each wine still has those classic Green Valley traits of fruit density and concentration, balanced by freshness and acidity.

Kosta Browne Winery
At Kosta Browne, I was able to taste three distinct single vineyard bottlings from various neighborhoods. The Cohn Vineyard is situated up in the northern part of Russian River Valley, near Healdsburg, so it falls inside the Middle Reach neighborhood. The Keefer Ranch site is definitely in the heart of Green Valley. Giusti Ranch was really the only site that was a little difficult to place; nestled near the center of Forestville, it seems likely that it is part of the Laguna Ridge neighborhood—though Winemaker Nico Cueva didn’t feel like that quite fit, because the vineyard isn’t anywhere near the ridge. With that being said, I appreciated the chance to taste three small-production, single vineyard Pinot Noirs from three unique terroirs.

Sitting down with Cueva, one of the most charismatic and genuine winemakers I have ever met, he spoke of a trip to Burgundy that he took in June 2015. His words were poignant as we tasted through the wines: “I have a love affair with Burgundy. I was there in June...and one of the best moments I had was when I was talking to Bruno at Bruno Clair. We were talking about how he treats his wines differently, according to the vintage—which is really what we’ve started doing in the past few years here. I’ve started really playing around with large vessels—tanks, casks, eggs...bigger stuff. Because in my mind, I like a lot of Old World winemakers and I idolize these guys.” I could feel the strong connection Cueva has with Burgundy pulsing on the palates of his wines.
A single Russian River Valley-appellated wine, followed by three Russian River Valley single vineyard bottlings.

We started with the 2013 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir, which comes from the red, iron-rich soils of the Franciscan series up in the Middle Reach neighborhood. Some of the vines on the site are old, dating back to the late 1970s. In addition to unique soil and impressive vine age, “It’s got some serious exposure,” Cueva says, which comes as both a blessing and a curse. “You have to really keep your finger on the trigger for picking this site. It will cook overnight, because it kind of sticks its head out above the fog.” In the cellar, Cueva chose to ferment the grapes in small, 1.2-ton, wood, open-top fermenters. “I threw a little bit of whole cluster in there, too,” he says.

With only 891 bottles produced, the 2013 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir definitely shows earthy aromatics with soil and iron-like scents, almost mushroomy, with some vanilla and gentle nuances of fruit. It has a very grippy palate with a lot of tannic structure. Cranberry laced with an almost toasted marshmallow-like note (a note I attribute to the barrel toast) mingles with underripe raspberry; the wine has a blueberry-fruited finish with dustings of orange rind. This was an intriguing, unique and expressive Pinot Noir.

The second single vineyard bottling we tasted was the 2013 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir. Keefer Ranch “is in the heart of Green Valley,” Cueva states. “It’s one of our cooler sites with a really long, beautiful hang time.” In the vineyards, there’s a significant amount of shale in the loamy soils, and Cueva believes that there’s a certain type of complexity that comes from this site. It’s a vineyard that “gives more depth, layers and nuance,” he says. “It’s not just all fruit.”

Aromatically, this wine is much more lifted than the Cohn Vineyard bottling. Full of fruit and flowers, this wine expresses aromas of very concentrated blueberry and blackberry, with lavender nuances and underlying rocky tones. Dark, rich and with round textures, the palate again shows nice tannic structure—a characteristic that seems to very much be a theme in the Kosta Browne wines. Despite its tannic structure, the wine is still balanced with its smooth, silky texture. The fruit is mixed red and black, with savory nuances of forest and mushroom on the vanilla-tinged finish.

New for my palate during this three-producer visit, I finally got to experience a Pinot Noir from the Laguna Ridge neighborhood—although as I noted before, Cueva wasn’t entirely convinced of this vineyard’s neighborhood origin. Giusti Ranch is composed of red, iron-rich Franciscan soils and has a “microclimate where the fog funnels around it,” Cueva states. “Your diurnal range out there is less; it doesn’t stay as cool. It holds acid and it likes to get ripe.” It’s the first vineyard to bud break and bloom, and the first to be picked during harvest season. A well-maintained property, the vines have been farmed by the same family since the 1860s—impressive, to say the least.

The terroir produces wines with “this beautiful natural acidity with power,” Cueva says. While I have found this to be true of most of Kosta Browne’s wines, when I taste the 2013 Giusti Ranch Pinot Noir, I see exactly what he means. The palate is really fresh and vivid, with very prominent, juicy fruit—juicier and livelier than the other two bottlings we tasted prior to this. Aromatically, this Pinot is quite dark and rich, full of blueberry and blackberry, even some smoky undertones with lavender. Texturally speaking, the wine has a lot of body, again balanced by a nice tannic structure; there are floral tones mixed with an array of fruit, such as black cherry, ripe raspberry and dried cranberry.
Cueva pulling a concrete egg Chardonnay sample for me to taste after we finished with the bottled wines.

Thinking about the line that can be traced around these three wines, it is the tannic structure that creates a theme. And while the palates show some similar flavors, each really has its own unique combination of fruit and savory nuances, as well as marked textures, that are undoubtedly a result of the region’s many terroir across the five neighborhoods.

Stay tuned for the forthcoming five stories in this Russian River Valley neighborhood series!

Thank you to J. Rochioli, Paul Hobbs and Kosta Browne wineries for the insightful look at their single vineyard Russian River Valley wines.

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