As time goes by, California winemakers, who, after all, started seriously only in the 1960s and 1970s, grow more sophisticated in making wine, and American wine fans grow more knowledgeable in drinking it.
So there has risen an appreciation of “terroir” … a somewhat indefinable French term that brings together soil, climate, history, even winemaking tradition.
A good example of California terroir is its Russian River Valley.
The Russian River cuts through some of Northern California's most beautiful and best grape-growing country. It starts in Mendocino County and meanders south and west through Sonoma County to reach the Pacific Ocean at the Petaluma Gap north of San Francisco.
There's history to a name like that: Russian settlers trapped and farmed on the land after 1812, building the historic Fort Ross and probably planting the area's first
grapes. But by 1841 they were gone, as imperial Russia lost interest in North America, eventually selling Alaska to the United States in 1867.
To wine lovers, the Russian River Valley means an area akin to France's Burgundy region, famous for its delicate, complex pinot noirs. The weather is perfect for pinot noir. Afternoon temperatures can reach 100 degrees, but at night the Pacific Ocean fog creeps up the river … yes, yes, on cat feet … and chills the grapes to as low as 50 degrees. That nightly break from ripening preserves the acids that give the wines their pleasant crispness.
If nothing else, it's a beautiful area, with rolling hills, valleys and tall redwoods. There are places there where you can sit at an outdoor restaurant table, reach over and Touch a tree that seems 100 feet tall.
With decades of practice, now, wineries are becoming more sophisticated in capitalizing on the valley's climate. Wineries with big plots of vines have divided the best of them into “single vineyards whose soils and microclimates give special and individual flavors to wines made from their grapes.
In the Russian River Valley, Marimar Estate now has taken this a step further. It has divided its Don Miguel Vineyard into separate blocks … La Masia, Stony Block, Earthquake Block … and is making separate wines from each of them. And it is selecting the best grapes from the entire vineyard to make 20 barrels of the best wine it can make, and dubbing it “Cristina,” after the daughter of vineyard owner Marimar Torres.
Here are some of the valley's best:
ø‚ 2007 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir, Winemaker's Block, Russian River Valley: full-bodied and lush, with intense black cherry and cinnamon flavors, smooth; $60.
ø‚ 2008 La Crema Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: aromas of oak, black raspberries and spice, flavors of mulberries and cinnamon, lush and smooth, full-bodied; $38.
ø‚ 2007 Marimar Estate “La Masia”' Pinot Noir, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley: dark cherry, dark chocolate and cinnamon flavors, full-bodied and rich, smooth; $49.
ø‚ 2007 Marimar Estate “Stony Block” Pinot Noir, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley: black plums and bitter chocolate, with a hint of earth, smooth; $47.
ø‚ 2007 Marimar Estate “Earthquake Block” Pinot Noir, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley: black cherry and cloves, hint of earth; $47.
ø‚ 2006 Marimar Estate “Cristina” Pinot Noir, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley: raspberries and cinnamon, creamy and smooth, intensely fruity, hints of tannin; $62.
ø‚ 2008 Enroute “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, flavors of black plums and cLoves with a mineral tang; $50.
ø‚ 2008 CrossBarn Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: powerful and intense, with raspberry, cinnamon and tea aromas and flavors; $35.
ø‚ 2007 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: black cherries and mocha flavors, smooth and rich; $35.