Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Oregon's Pinot Blanc is the Real Thing
Myron Redford, owner and winemaker at Amity Vineyards in Oregon's Willamette Valley, pulls no punches when promoting the Pinot Blancs made in that state. "Something new and exciting is happening in Oregon," exclaims the self-proclaimed godfather of Oregon Pinot Blanc. "A new varietal has found a home in the United States."
"Vintner's Choice" readers know of my long-standing appreciation of this comparatively obscure varietal (scroll through the white wine columns for several manifestations of this enthusiasm). Initially, the focus was on
California production for the American version of this wine, which is also made in Alsace, Italy and Germany (where it's called "Weissburgunder" or white Burgundy).
Wineries such as Chalone (which has stuck by Pinot Blanc the longest), Mirassou (which has championed the wine as the perfect "ABC" -- anything but Chardonnay -- wine), Au Bon Climat, Villa Mt. Eden, Fritz, Murphy-Goode and Steele Cellars (the eponymous winery of famed winemaker Jed Steele) took the wine seriously enough to make it an important part of their product line, in some cases employing the same treatments in its production as used for expensive-tasting Chardonnay (new oak, malolactic fermentation -- you know, the whole nine yards).
Yet, there was no way Pinot Blanc could topple Chardonnay from its perch as America's favorite white wine. Those of use who really like what it offers could only content ourselves as being "insiders" who know a special secret.
Then came Pinot Blanc's identity crisis in the 1990s, when it was confirmed that what had been growing in California all these years wasn't pinot blanc at all, but a grape properly identified as melon, which is used in France to make a steely, high-acid wine known as Muscadet, an excellent accompaniment for oysters. I've told this story in an earlier "Vintner's Choice" column.
The wineries that had been making wine identified as Pinot Blanc for some time were confronted with new governmental regulations restricting the use of the name for wine made from grapes certified as real pinot blanc, with wine from noncertified -- probably melon -- grapes to henceforth be called Melon. It posed a dilemma, but fortunately for them, the regs have never been fully enforced.
Now, back to Myron Redford. "I want to emphasize several points about Oregon Pinot Blanc. First, what we have to offer is the real thing. As you probably know, there was a mix up at U.C. Davis and so almost all 'Pinot Blanc' being sold in California is actually Melon. Still the public continues to be sold one variety under the label of another. In Oregon we corrected the mistake when we learned of it in the early 1980s. We now have state regulations requiring that the mislabeled 'Pinot Blanc' be called Melon. We then went to Alsace and got real pinot blanc."
Take that, California. Not only that, but north of the border they have a dedicated society of enthusiasts called, appropriately, Oregon Pinot Blanc, an informal group of 13 of the state's 19 Pinot Blanc producers (five of the other six still make only minuscule amounts, he explains).
Redford goes on the tout stylistic differences in winemaking between California and Oregon. "Although there are several approaches to the variety, our group is not using new oak and treating the variety as a pseudo Chardonnay. We all feel that using older barrels or stainless steel emphasizes the fruit and varietal character. We hope this becomes known as the Oregon style, and that the consumer can then feel comfortable in knowing what he will get. We hope that ordering Oregon Pinot Blanc will be like ordering a wine of a known style, like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc."
Concluding on an almost mystical level, Redford explains that "We feel that pinot blanc, a relative of pinot noir, emphasizes the harmony between Oregon's climate and the Pinot family: pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot blanc. Finally, we are excited about the food friendliness of this wine. It seems a perfect complement to another Pacific Northwest specialty, oysters."
If there was ever a perfect excuse for the Vintners Club tasting panel to compare and contrast Pinot Blancs (or whatever) from Oregon and California, this was it. So we did.
Redford had sent a box of 1998 Oregon Pinot Blancs, from which we culled 9 wines priced between $11 and $16. Three 1997 California wines labeled Pinot Blanc, all from Monterey County, were on hand, priced from $13.50 to $16. The results of the blind tasting gave the edge to the Oregon wines on this occasion, although some individual tasters were clearly impressed by one or more of the wines that offered a more "Chardonnay-like" presence, which turned out to come from California.
1998 Foris Pinot Blanc, Rogue Valley ($11)
No controversy here: the overwhelming favorite of the panel as a whole. It was almost as though the wine was straddling the line between the crisp, fruity wines from further north in Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's creamy, spicy, rich wines from a warmer climate. Not surprising, as the Rogue Valley is
the southernmost growing area in the state and warmer than the Willamette, but not as warm as Monterey County, where temperature is moderated by a direct marine influence.
Fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, where the wine was on its lees for 5 months, and occasionally stirred, the Foris Pinot Blanc offers a wonderfully fragrant, slightly grassy nose of peaches, yellow apple, grapefruit citrus and honeydew melon. Silky smooth, yet exhibiting crisp acidity, the wine's delicious flavors replicate the nose, and are deep and lingering. Great value at $11.
1998 WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley ($16)
Bold and big without overt oak influence, yet still spicy and complex, exhibiting a perfumed nose that almost resembles Viognier in its peach, pear and hazelnut elements. Soft and round on the palate with deep pear-melon fruit and fine acidity, and an intriguing slightly smoky finish.
1998 Amity Vineyards Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley ($12)
Hints of brown spice (clove, cinnamon), citrus-pear fruit, honeysuckle with a slight green edge define the nose, which opens with airing. Delicate and lighter in style than the preceding wines, to be sure, with pleasant citrus and pear-like flavors accented by a note of peppermint. Soft and round with a hint of residual sugar (stats say .6%).
1998 Tualatin Estate Pinot Blanc, 25th Anniversary, Willamette Valley ($14)
Intriguing, fragrant nose of lanolin and juicy pear, accented by a note of grapefruit citrus. Round, smooth and rich in the mouth with tangy acidity, offering ripe, spicy pear-white melon fruit tinged with citrus. Winemaker Joe Dobbes fermented and aged the pinot blanc in stainless steel sur lie, stirring twice a month. It was blended with six percent auxerois (a white Alsatian varietal close to pinot blanc), which had been fermented and aged in one-year-old French oak.
1998 St. Innocent Pinot Blanc, Freedom Hill Vineyard, Willamette Valley ($14)
Shy, slightly spicy scents of pear and honeysuckle, and what one taster described as "grape jelly beans." Generous and round in the mouth with good acidity, the wine's flavors echo the nose and exhibit good depth. Short finish.
1998 Rex Hill Pinot Blanc, Bellevue Cross Vineyards, Willamette Valley ($14)
A crisp mineral note highlights enticing aromas of kiwi, lime and toasted almonds, enhanced by honeycomb and mandarin orange. Rich and layered in the mouth with a hint of sweetness, offering all the flavors suggested by the nose, plus some rich fig.
1998 Bethel Heights Estate Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley ($12)
Cold fermented in stainless steel, this was one of the Oregon wines that evidenced malolactic fermentation with its buttery aromas and creamy texture. There's lots of citrus and tropical fruit in both the nose and flavors, which broaden with time in the glass to reveal some peach and melon, too. Moderately rich, with good depth and concentration.
1997 Pavona Pinot Blanc, Pariso Springs Vineyard, Monterey County ($15)
Fans of oaky whites liked this wine, which brandished its barrel pedigree both in the nose and flavors. Underneath all that expensive oak, some delicate yellow apple and white melon fruit could be detected. Not one of my favorites.
1997 Mirassou Pinot Blanc, Harvest Reserve Limited Bottling, Monterey County ($16)
Hard to tell this wine from a big-style Chardonnay. Forward nose of creamy citrus and a burst of oak indicated the wine had gone through both barrel and malolactic fermentation. Round, luscious, creamy and generous in the mouth with ripe melon-citrus fruit and notes of cloves, vanilla and butterscotch -- maybe
too much butterscotch for some. Slightly hot and oaky in the finish.
1998 Erath Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley ($12)
Floral and spicy aromas open to include some peach-pear fruit. Round and creamy on the palate without any malolactic fermentation, the wine offers pleasant flavors of white peach and pear. Some residual sugar (.6%) leaves an impression of richness.
1997 Lockwood Pinot Blanc, Estate Grown, Monterey County ($13.50)
The panel and I parted company on this wine, which I found quite appealing for its spicy citrus nose and the clean, fruity palate that offers citrus and tropical fruit flavors; soft, velvety texture and good acidity. The wine was entirely barrel fermented and aged in French oak, and underwent no malolactic fermentation. Other panelists found some oxidation in the nose and flavors, and complained about a bitter finish.
1998 Adelsheim Pinot Blanc, Oregon ($16)
Comparatively lean, tart and simple, with more mineral-like notes than found in the other wines in the tasting. Some tasters found the wine to be clean and direct, with appealing apple-pear fruit, but not structured for the long haul or likely to improve with age.
Visit the Vintners Club's new website at www.vintnersclub.com
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.