At times compared to Burgundy for its terroir, the soil, climate and topography of Russian River Valley AVA in Sonoma County is producing some elegant, old-world wines in the new world. Just as Burgundy is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, so, too is Russian River. They are known as cool climate grapes and do very well in the Russian River Valley.
Off the winding country road, Occidental just outside of Santa Rosa, and interspersed throughout the Russian River Valley are over 500 acres of vineyards that belong to the Balletto Vineyards. They are under the tutelage of John Balletto who has been working the land since 1977. For most of the past 35 years, however, his ownership hasn't been nearly as extensive, and rather than grapes, he has been farming vegetables. John made the switch from vegetables to grapes in 2006. But even today, only 10% of his grapes go into making his own wine. The other 90% of the grapes are sourced out to other wineries in the area. Balletto Vineyards is one of the few wineries in the area that can claim not only 'estate bottled' but, also, 'estate grown' on its labels.
Burgundy often ages its wines in old oak to add nuanced flavor to the wine. In the new world, where wineries are unbound by tradition, and have much greater flexibility by law, the winemaker is free to choose whether or not to use oak, and if so, what type (old, new, French, Hungarian, American) and for how long. Balletto makes both an oaked and and unoaked Chardonnay. The unoaked Chardonnay is pale in color with a lush, tropical fruit aroma that blends seamlessly with its crisp minerality. The oaked Chardonnay uses 30% new oak and 70% used oak. The new oak will impart more of the wood and vanilla flavors into the wine. Used oak leaves a more subtle flavor. Following down the path of the old world, Balletto chooses to use more old oak in order to create a more subtle, elegant wine. The oaked Chardonnay has some citrus and pear aromas with a texture that is creamy but not too buttery.
The Pinot Noirs that Balletto makes have nice red fruit aromas and velvety tannins. But it is the Sexton Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir that offers more earthiness. Both wines have enough acidity and structure to age well.
Balletto Vineyards is located at 5700 Occidental Road in Santa Rosa, California. They are open for tastings everyday from 10 am to 5 pm. A short 3 1/2 hour drive from Reno, the Russian River Valley is just over the hill.