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The Russian Rivers are coming

The cool weather Pinot Noir of Oregon has long held the top spot among devotees of this rich and often spicy varietal.
So, it should come as no surprise that Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, would provide an alternate terroir in which Pinot Noir can thrive.

The AVA is comprised of more than 150 square miles -- with more than 15,000 of its total acres planted in premium wine grapes. What gives the valley its Pinot-friendly terroir?

The Russian River Valley climate is fueled by cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean a few miles to the west. The fog usually arrives in the evening, often dropping the temperature 35-40 degrees from its daytime high. The fog retreats to the ocean the following morning. This natural air-conditioning allows the grapes to develop full-flavor maturity over an extended growing season - often 15-20 percent longer than neighboring areas.

That weather, combined with uplifted ancient bedrock that has crumbled into the so-called Goldridge loam soil, provide perfect habitat for Pinot Noir -- as well as Merlot, another cold weather lover -- GewÜrztraminer -- and Pinot Gris.

The latter is a relative newcomer to the acres of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is often considered the white grape cousin of Pinot Noir -- and the styles of Pinot Gris coming from Sonoma are aromatic and nicely flavored.

A pair of Pinots -- one red, one white -- to explore include recent vintages from Bear Boat Wines. This Russian River pair are on a label of international wine and spirits company Remy Cointreau, a name you may better recognize on the labels of cognac, scotch or popular liqueurs.

First up, Bear Boat 2007 Sonoma County Pinot Gris. The wine looks as warm in the glass as it tastes. This is a Pinot Gris to enjoy now -- no need to wait for sweltering summer days.

With aromas reminiscent of apricots, nectarines and perfumed spice, this full-bodied wine possesses enough character to stand up to food but can easily stand solo as a pleasurable sipping experience.

Grapes are sourced from three growing areas -- a method which adds to the wine's aromatics and pronounced flavors. Oak aging 40 percent of the juice adds even more depth; half goes through malolactic fermentation in order to achieve balance between acidity and creaminess.

It's a luxurious wine -- and a steal at around $15.

Bear Boat 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir is big enough to appease Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot drinkers but possesses enough complexity and careful nuances to satisfy Pinot Noir zealots.

What kind of nuance? Classic Pinot characteristics like delicate body and a transparent ruby color and vanilla spice are obvious. The care used in making this wine is more obvious with each taste.

Low yields per acre insure maximum fruit intensity, de-stemming prior to crush controls tannins and optimizes the fruit flavor. Add to this a regimen of oak aging across barrels ranging from new to three years old and the winemaker assures a Pinot Noir that's perfectly balanced, pleasingly complex and enjoyably decadent.

A splash of Gamay Beaujolais adds, I think, a detectable note of juiciness. At around $20, this is the perfect dinner companion for soy-basted salmon, black pepper crusted pork tenderloin -- and even a grilled steak.