I wonder: When was the last time you dashed into your local ABC store, or sat at a restaurant table scouring the wine list, suddenly overcome with a craving for a bottle of Pinot Blanc? Chances are not recently, if ever.
Why is that? Is it just that Pinot Blanc doesn’t have a good press agent? Or that it is often thought of as poor person’s Chardonnay? Or is it that the grape can often seem neutral, with low aromatic intensity? What is this varietal all about anyway? It’s a very confusing story, and one fraught with error and solecism.
Pinot Blanc, among the most ancient vitis vinifera variations, is a genetic mutation of Pinot Gris/Grigio, which in turn is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. Only a single last moment mutation causes the difference between Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc, and if this mutation could be eliminated all of these grapes would be Pinot Noir.
Pinot Blanc is grown in France (particularly Alsace), Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, the USA and just about everywhere else where wine grapes are found. It is perhaps most famous as one of the great wines of Alsace--with its full-bodied, spicy, smoky, almond-like character and its moderate acidity. Oddly enough, the designation for Alsace AOC Pinot Blanc does not have to be varietally pure. Technically it can be any white wine made from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (vinified white, with no skin contact), of which a blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois is the most common.
Historically, Pinot Blanc was widely used in the Champagne and Burgundy regions, and is still used in small amounts today. (In the 1700s Domaine de la Romanée Conti contained 20% Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris. Today it is 100% Pinot Noir.) In Germany and Austria the grape is still known as Weissburgunder--White Burgundy.
To add to the confusion, most Pinot Blanc in California is actually a grape called Melon de Bourgogne (which is the Muscadet grape) and not Pinot Blanc at all.
The Pinot Blanc grape itself resembles the Chardonnay grape to the extent that many ampelographers have had trouble making the differentiation. For that reason, it seems, winemakers have often vinified Pinot Blanc in a similar manner to Chardonnay--using barrel fermentation, new oak and malolactic fermentation. But Chardonnay is definitely not a part of the Pinot family, so this is arguably not the best way to treat it.
Pinot Blanc in general is known for its fruity aromas, apple and citrus fruit flavors, and its floral characteristics. The varietally pure version shows stronger floral and stone fruit character and greater minerality. It may be because the grape has high acidity and low aromatic intensity that it increases the need for the greater aromatic influence of terroir and vinification. It is perhaps a grape that needs all the artisan winemaker’s skill to produce a wine of outstanding merit. But when you have a great one you’ll know it. And when you pair it with food you will find what a perfect wine Pinot Blanc is for so many varied dishes and styles.
So don’t be afraid to break the trend--try a bottle of Pinot Blanc today.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills