​Russian River Pinot Noir and Thanksgiving Turkey

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | nov. 2017

It seems as if every year at this time a wine conundrum occurs, what to serve with the Thanksgiving meal. Should it be a modest little zin to match the sweet potatoes, or a dry Chenin Blanc to match the stuffing and roasted carrots, or a German Riesling Kabinett with sweetness and acidity to cut through the fat of the turkey and oyster stuffing? This year I'm going to have a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. My aunt Mabel will probably think that this choice is pretentious but then she thinks every step up in quality is pretentious so I'm Choosing Russian River Pinot anyway.

Miles in the iconic movie about Pinot Noir, “Sideways," talking to his love interest, Maya, says:

“Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world."

Pinot Noir can and is grown in virtually all of the major wine growing areas of the world, but it is in the extremes of climate that the best Pinot's grow. In France, the Burgundy region which produces the best Pinot Noir in the world is right on the northern edge of the fine wine growing region in Europe at essentially the 44th parallel equivalent to our area here in Wisconsin. There are wineries in Patagonia at the 46th southern parallel that deal with Antarctic snowstorms in order to produce Pinot Noir. On the Niagara Peninsula, just west of Buffalo New York, Canadian vintners bury the grape canes under straw and mulch in order to survive the below zero winters and produce stunning Pinots. In British Columbia, in the Fraser and Okanagan valleys, near the 50th northern parallel age-worthy Pinots have been produced going back to the 1980s. Now Miles was mostly referring to the Santa Barbara area where there is a break in the mountains that lets the cool air from the Pacific filter in and keeps the grapes cool; I love Santa Barbara area wines as well, but the Russian River Valley is different.

To begin with, the Russian River Valley is farther north, in fact, about 60 miles north of San Francisco just below the 40th parallel near Fort Bragg. On a map of California this little area juts out into the ocean right into the North Pacific Gyre, which pours cool water from Alaska down along the California coast. It is responsible for the numerous foggy areas along the beaches of California and in certain spots where there are geologic anomalies that cool air flows inland. The Russian River Valley is one of those areas. Originally, the Russian River flowed southwest from Healdsburg and emptied into the Bay of San Francisco, but eons ago during some geologic event (probably an earthquake) the river changed course and now flows west from the Santa Rosa plains to Guerneville, Occidental and into the ocean. The east-west direction of the river valley allows cool air to flow through the Petaluma Gap into the grape growing areas of the valley where morning fog accumulates and slowly burns off during the day. The cooling influence of the fog produces large diurnal temperature variations; the nighttime temperatures may be 35-40 degrees cooler than daytime temperatures. Parts of the Russian River AVA (American Viticultural Area) are as close as 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The gap in the mountains that allows the flow of air from west to east also affects the growing grapes in another important way. When the winds blow at speeds over eight miles an hour, studies have shown that the stomata on the leaves close (the stomata are the pores in the leaves that respire taking in CO2 and releasing oxygen). When the stomata close, respiration slows and when respiration slows the grapes show better acid retention. The acid in grapes is what gives the wine its juiciness like biting into a ripe Macintosh apple. Acid also enhances the wines compatibility with food. Russian River wines are food wines.

The geography of the area has additional features that make this area a very special spot for growing Pinot Noir. The Russian River Valley sits on top of the colliding North America and Pacific tectonic plates. The collisions of these plates millions of years ago produced volcanic vents that spewed volcanic ash over layers of eroded bedrock. This produced a sandstone loam called “Goldridge soil" and some of the most respected Pinot Noirs in America come from this area. Further inland near the town of Sebastopol a different soil that is more clay based and retains more water also produces noteworthy Pinot Noir.

With all these factors influencing the quality of Pinot, it is no wonder that the largest wine producers have tried to establish themselves in the region. The Gallo brothers unsuccessfully tried to expand the AVA by 14,000 acres back in 2008 and then purchased actor Fred MacMurray's vineyard. Kendall Jackson, another mega-operation, has invested over $12 million in its La Crema Russian River brand. In my anti-establishment bent, I've focused on three small producers that tend to be more focused on smaller higher quality wines.

The first wine is the Gehricke 2014 Pinot Noir, 13.5 percent alcohol, $40 at Ridgeview Liquor, which is owned by August Sebastiani, yes, that's one of the famous Sebastiani wine corporation which broke up in dispute after the family patriarch passed away. But August and some of the other brothers aren't clipping coupons and tanning on Miami Beach. This young man has found a niche with a company that produces site-specific Pinot Noir from Carneros, as well as, this Russian River beauty. The wine garnered 92 points from the “Pinot Panel" and 90 points from the “Wine Enthusiast." This is a rich full flavored wine with lots of ripe cherry flavors and spice notes on the nose and a little caramel oak on the finish. This bottle is worth the premium for a special occasion like the first Thanksgiving for a pair of newlyweds.

The second wine is the Kenwood 2015 Russian River Pinot Noir, 13.5 percent alcohol and $13 at Woodman's. Kenwood is famous for its iconic Sonoma County Cabernets especially those from the Jack London Vineyards with the wolf etched onto the glass bottle. It is owned by the French firm Pernod Ricard but the winery has been left to decide its direction and fate with a light hand from France. The wine reveals aromas of black currants raspberry and nutmeg with smooth tannins leading the way to a long smooth finish. This is a perfect wine for that turkey and oyster stuffing.

The third wine is the Picket Fence 2014 Pinot Noir, 13.5 percent alcohol and $13 at Woodman's. The 2014 wine earned a double gold medal at the prestigious 2016 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. This wine has aromas of raspberry jam and brandy-macerated cherries, round flavors of black cherries and star anise with smooth tannins make this wine my favorite of the tasting. This is a great little winery making small lot wines through their talented winemaker Alison Crowe.

The grapes are hand harvested in the early morning hours while the grapes are still cool and fermented in small vats while punching down the grapes by hand. The finished wine is aged in 60-gallon French oak barrels that create a multilayered elegant Pinot Noir. The wine has a soft fruity approach with aromas of cherries, candied fruit and pecans. The taste is of red licorice and plum and very silky with the perfect balance of structure and acidity. This wine would also pair well with a roasted rack of lamb.

As of this writing, wildfires are devastating this area of California with many famous wineries burnt to the ground and over 40 lives have been lost. My wife and I toured this area of exquisite beauty this summer and feel a deep loss has occurred to this special place; if you can help, donate in any way that you can.

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