Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley

Are you a Chardonnay lover? Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper discusses California’s Russian River Valley known for their chardonnay:

The History

Sonoma County is comprised of luxury resorts, fine restaurants, major highways, small towns, pastures, country inns, back roads as well as the ubiquitous vineyards; all of this is about 30 miles from San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. The county itself is over a million acres with over 60,000 acres planted to vineyards, with 450 wineries and 1,800 grape growers. The number one grape planted in Sonoma County is Chardonnay. Within the Sonoma County is the Russian River Valley. What in the world can Russians have to do with California wine country you ask? Well the Russians were the first non-natives to settle in Sonoma County at Fort Ross from 1812 to 1841. Where they planted vineyards and what type of grapes they planted is not known, but what we do know is that they are credited for the first vineyard plantings in Sonoma County. The Russian River Valley is planted to approximately 15, 800 acres of vines within its 125,000 acres of land with over 200 grape growers and 94 wineries this is a fraction of Sonoma County, but is generally considered one of the finest areas in California to grow grapes. Lou Foppiano of the Foppiano Winery was the first to use the Russian River on a wine label in 1970, previous to that wines hailing from the area where simply labeled Sonoma County. Official status as an American Viticulture Area came in 1983.

The WineWillamette Valley Wineries

Among wine aficionados Russian River is one of the Holy Grails of Pinot Noirs, making seductively rich and flavorful world class Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir may garner the most attention the number one planted grape by over a thousand acres is Chardonnay, the next grape variety planted by acres after Pinot Noir drops by more than 2,800 acres. So at the end of the day one could say Russian River Valley is all about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Why does the The Russian River Valley grow great chardonnay? One of the reasons it has a fog that is drawn in from the Pacific Ocean every day, this fog can decrease the temperature by as much as 40 degrees creating a cooler growing temperature that high quality chardonnay grapes require, giving the wines that touch more natural acidity for balance and complexity.

A drive down Westside Road is obligatory when visiting the Russian River; the twisting two lane road goes through the heart of the wine country, over rolling hills, across the Russian River, through redwood forests and by many of the iconic wineries such as Williams Selyem Winery and Rochioli Estate

Suggested wines

Chardonnay Selby ‘08 (Russian River Valley, California)

Susie Selby is the winemaker and owner of her eponymous winery. Selby is one of the most genuinely sweet winemakers and people I have had the privilege to meet. The quality of her wines is exceptional and vastly underrated by the media, but taste the wine and you can see why Ms. Selby is one of the hottest winemakers in Sonoma. Founded in 1993 and with a quaint tasting room just off the square in Healdsburg in Sonoma it makes for a perfect stop in. Selby makes a wide range of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Many of the wines are made from Russian River vineyards but Selby also sources fruit from the other areas of Sonoma County.

The sight is a yellow gold wine with green highlights. Full-bodied and dry this Chardonnay has the flavors of ripe yellow apple, pear, fig, honey dew melon, vanilla, light oak, clove and butterscotch all in a seductively seamless texture.


Chardonnay Sonoma Cutrer “The Cutrer” ’05 (Russian River Valley, California)

Founded in 1973 Sonoma-Cutrer was initially a Chardonnay only winery, they now make a small amount of Pinot Noir. The focus solely on chardonnay was unusual for California but this focus brought about a state of the art winery and a diligence to make great wine that is still paying off today. Now owned by Brown Forman with winemaker Terry Adams at the helm, Adams makes 5 Chardonnays and 2 Pinot Noirs not all from the Russian River Valley but all from Sonoma County. Sonoma-Cutrer calls their methodology and philosophy Gran Cru, which is the classification used in Burgundy, France for arguably the greatest Chardonnay wine of the world.

Rich yellow-gold color suggest the 5 years age of this wine, a lesser wine would not show as well. The flavors of meyer lemon, apple, and pear, are delicious. The bodied is full and enhanced by all spice and toasty oak; it is a mature and flavorful Chardonnay.