The Russian River Valley is stunning. There, I’m done. What more is there to say? Its soft green, undulating hills, covered by gentle creeping mists of fog and the rippling river itself hide one of the best kept secrets about Sonoma county and the wines produced here.
We stayed at an exceptional B&B in the hamlet of Guerneville – home to retired jazz and folk musicians and singers (visit Main Street Bistro on a Wednesday evening to know what I mean) and visited Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyards first thing one morning.
While not a huge and powerful sparkling wines house at only 20,000 cases a year (they do stills too), they certainly do have the ‘marque’ to back themselves up. They’ve been served at the White House, international summits and several other important events. To paraphrase Jancis Robinson in The World Atlas of Wine, if Iron Horse is around, there’s a fairly good chance it’s being enjoyed in some high and mighty company.
Owned by the Sterling family since establishment in 1976 and steered by the same winemaker David Munksgard since 1996, Iron Horse produces only vintage sparkling wines – none are held in reserve. This makes the quality and consistency of their sparklings all the more incredible; imagine the talent it takes to put together a blend 3-4 years prior to its release without the ability to blend in lots held back to ensure that house brand taste.
All their sparklings have at least 3 years in the bottle and many have more than that. Beautifully crafted by David Munksgard who was there that morning and happy to chat about his art, we tasted the Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs Brut 2007 made in partnership with National Geographic. Lemony with high acidity, bread dough, slate and a creamy mousse. Perfect with the view and the turkeys gobbling at the foot of the closest vineyard (I am not kidding).
After the tour we tasted several more including the popular Wedding Cuvée 2008 (85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay), an onion skin, palest cotton candy hue with strawberry and pink grapefruit. This was followed by the bone dry and tartly acidic 2003 Brut LD which would be the perfect pairing with oysters (visit them Sundays for this gem) and the Winter’s Cuvée 2008.
Now, this was interesting. Here we have a dry 72% Pinot Noir – 28% Chardonnay blend in which the dosage has been created with a brandy made from Joy Sterling’s distilled Pinot Noir and aged for 20 years. The taste profile is a beautiful combination of hazelnuts, walnuts, fig and pear with some red apple. Only 250 cases were made and they’re available online or at the winery (or from my living room).
After a taste of the Brut Rose 2006 made with 81% Pinot Noir pressed and left on the skins and blended with Chardonnay (think softly effervescent field berry bubbles), I settled on a second bottle of the Russian Cuvée 2008. Made originally for the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings that ended the Cold War, this wine is 78% Pinot Noir and 28% Chardonnay with a slightly higher than average dosage. Still, it’s dry and highly acidic and speaks of hazelnuts and creamy apple brioche with mandarin zest notes.
Between the turkeys, daffodils, lazy cats and sparkling wines, I didn’t want to leave. I could have stayed and chatted with David Munksgard for a long time about his vinification and blending expertise; I am not worthy! And I still want to know why no Pinot Meunier is grown in the Russian River Valley. No frost hazards as per Champagne? As it was we had to leave for the Alexander Valley. But mark my words, I shall return.