Russian River Valley Part 4: Exploring Sebastopol Hills

Of course, the Russian River Valley (RRV) is a cool winegrowing climate, but the Sebastopol Hills neighborhood is cooler than most of the appellation’s neighborhoods. Located on the south/southwest side of Sebastopol, this area is influenced heavily by the winds and fog that blow from the Pacific Ocean up through the area known as the Petaluma Gap. This influence moderates the temperature a bit more than in some of Russian River Valleys more northerly neighborhoods, providing winemakers with the option to keep acidities fresh and fruit restrained. As far as soils go, RRV’s classic Goldridge series (sandy clay loam) makes up many of this neighborhood’s well-known vineyards, and the elevation ranges across the gently rolling hills.

Pellegrini Wine Company
Pellegrini's 2013 Hurst Vineyards Pinot Noir comes from a “northwest-facing Pommard [5 clone] block” with a “moderate elevation, just over 300 feet at the top of the slope,” Winemaker Lynn Krausmann says. The vineyard is composed of the well-known Goldridge soil series and Krausmann admits, “Climbing through the vineyard slope is like wading through a sand dune.” This type of soil allows for “exceptional drainage,” while the subsoil of “silt and clay have excellent water-holding capacity,” she furthers.

This juicy Pinot Noir begins with sour red cherry aromas and is full ripe pomegranate. Deep beneath the fruit aromas there are lingering hints of purple flowers, and touches of vanilla and spice. As it airs out a bit, blueberry is thrown into the mix. The palate is versatile: extremely soft and mouth-filling, while still being light and delicate. This wine shows a strong acidic core, definitely a sign of that mitigating fog and wind influence, with medium tannin wrapping around the red sour cherry and pomegranate fruit. This is a juicy Pinot with a mustard-like, spice-filled tinge on the finish. It tastes of a soft approach in the cellar.

Merry Edwards Winery
The Meredith Estate is located only five miles north of the southernmost part of the Sebastopol Hills appellation and only “about seven miles from the ocean as the crow flies,” Winemaker Merry Edwards states. “It’s cool with windy afternoons and fog intrusion on many summer days.” The vineyard has a “south/southeast slope of 8-12%...[and] the elevation is about 500 feet at the top and drops by about 200 feet,” she points out.

The Merry Edwards 2013 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir stood out from the other samples in that it seemed to have a heavier hand in the cellar and tasted like it has the ability to age longer. With its prominent ripe black cherry aromas, this bottling possesses riper fruit than some of the other samples, perhaps due to its slightly higher elevation and exposition angle. Additional aromas of vanilla oak influence and ripe cranberry hover above the glass. This wine shows a ton of spice on the palate, more so than both the Pellegrini and Donatiello bottlings. It is very soft, luscious and juicy, but on the richer side rather than delicate. There are a lot of dark fruit nuances mixed in with a ton of baking spice in this seductive Pinot Noir. This is the kind of Pinot that could easily withstand some extra time in bottle—age-worthy, for sure.

C. Donatiello Winery
C. Donatiello’s 2013 Wind Horse Vineyard Pinot Noir is unique in that the vines are 43 years old, which for Russian River Valley vines is pretty impressive. Winemaker Chris Donatiello confirmed that the site has the same Goldridge soil series as the others in this neighborhood; the vineyard site also has some elevation at around 410 feet above sea level with a southeastern exposure.

This unique wine has the most interesting aromatics I have ever smelled in a Pinot Noir. Intriguing aromas of smoked cedar plank, barbecue sauce, and sweet and sour/savory nuances with mustard make for a very unique aromatic profile. There is so much savoriness here, evolving into a more forested aroma with air, but still always possessing that meaty, savory core. Similar to the Pellgrini in structure, this bottling is silky and mouth-filling while still possessing that delicacy. There is also an excellent acid structure that acts as a solid backbone to the red cherry and orange zest flavors. Blueberry notes pop up with time in the glass, and a gentle touch in the cellar leaves this wine unfolding with notions of terroir.

Balletto Winery
The Sexton Hill Vineyard has a 30% slope with Goldridge soils. The site is “sheltered from the strong Pacific Coast winds,” Winemaker Anthony Beckman says, “and its highest point is about 700 feet, dropping down to about 550 feet.” The vineyard is “a cold site,” Beckman continues, where the “fog burns off later than the rest of Russian River Valley.” This terroir brings a distinctly earthy aromatic profile.

The Balletto 2014 Sexton Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir is earthy, smoky and toasty on the nose. Folded in are distinct aromas of cranberry and purple flowers—those purple flower aromas seem to be a theme in this neighborhood. Once again soft and silky on the palate, its delicate entrance is followed by a gentle tannic/acidic grip—achievable because of the coldness of the growing site. It is light in body but packed with black cherry and blueberry fruit; the oak is a bit more distinguishable here in the wine’s vanilla undertones, and those nuances are balanced nicely by the wine’s juicy fruit characteristics.

Alquimista Cellars
The Alquimista 2014 Mes Filles Vineyard Pinot Noir is planted near “the very edge of the [Petaluma] gap, looking down onto it but high enough so that the fog just touches the lower edge of the vineyard,” Winemaker Greg La Folette says. The area sees more rainfall than other areas of the Russian River Valley and La Folette admits that the “degree-days are consistently cooler than Burgundy.” The hilly terrain has a fairly high elevation compared to the others in this sample set, at around 600-800 feet, and “vines are planted on all aspects of these hills,” he points out.

The nose of this Mes Filles Pinot is beautifully layered in its plum and orange zest fruit profile, juxtaposed against a forest-like earthiness with lots of spice. There is also a hint of vanilla here. This earthy/savory aromatic profile gives it similarity to the Donatiello bottling, but its fruit makes it unique from the others. Light to medium-bodied on the palate, this is again a juicy and delicate Pinot Noir from this neighborhood—fairly consistent traits across all of the wines tasted. Red cherry and plum are prominent, with cranberry fruit on the lengthy, vanilla-tinged finish. What a lovely Pinot Noir.

Balletto Winery
Green apple, lemon curd and minerals abound on the nose of Balletto’s 2012 Sexton Hill Vineyard Chardonnay. Beckman noted that the Chardonnay grapes from this vineyard site are able to be harvested early, allowing for the focus of “texture, weight and concentration.” The same green apple notes in the aromatics are expressed on the palate, and there is a bit of malolactic fermentation influence in the background with gentle buttery notes. Pineapple and fresh squeezed lemon also make appearances on the crisp palate, balanced by round textures and a medium-bodied appeal. Splashes of green melon dot the finish, which is quite juicy. The coolness of the vineyard site shows well, juxtaposed by the touches in the cellar that bring a balanced richness to this Chardonnay.

C. Donatiello Winery
“Peter’s is a great vineyard,” Winemaker Chris Donatiello states. The vineyard site was first planted in 1989 with Chardonnay and it’s that very block from which Donatiello buys his fruit. “My specific selection has an eastern exposure with about an 18% slope. It is roughly 290 feet in elevation,” Donatiello says. The nose of the C. Donatiello 2012 Peter’s Vineyard Chardonnay shows seductive baking spices and fresh squeezed lemon over ice. The wine is round on the palate and filled with baking spices—cinnamon, nutmeg and clove over a layer of butter on the finish. Fresh squeezed lemon transforms into fuller notes of lemon meringue as it warms in the glass and gains richness. The sun exposure on the slope certainly seems to provide for some fruit ripeness, but there is still restraint and freshness, too. Pineapple evolves as it airs out and sweet barrel spice wraps around a touch of minerals on the finish.

Pinot Noir: Soft and Silky with Strong Acidic Cores
In these Pinot Noir bottlings, I find the similarities to be more textural here and acid-driven rather than flavor-driven. These are soft, silky expressions that are mouth-filling and juicy while still being delicate in style. There is certainly a line that can be traced around the similarly soft, luscious, mouth-filling texture textures of these wines, and they all have strong acidic cores to help balance out that softness. As for the aromas, similarities fall into the camps of earthiness and red fruits, with a motif of purple flowers in some expressions. Levels of cherry fruit in red, black and sour expressions are noticeably expressed across the palates of these wines, with the occasional appearance of blueberry.

Chardonnay: Fresh-Squeezed Lemon Meets Richness
For the Chardonnays, there is a bit more similarity here in terms of flavor profiles than there was in the Pinots. The two Chardonnays I tasted both express lemon-influenced aromas. Their palates also both show varying degrees of lemon and pineapple fruit. These beauties also have some gentle malolactic fermentation influence of butteriness, which does not relate to the terroir of the neighborhood, but rather the influence of winemaking decisions. This choice, made by both winemakers, hints at the idea that cooler-climate growing regions produce white wines that are crisp and fresh, so giving a touch of malolactic fermentation helps to round out the palate and provide balanced richness.

Missed Russian River Valley Part 3 in this article series?
Check it out here: Russian River Valley Part 3: Exploring Green Valley

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