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Pinot Blanc's Fight For Identity

by Steve Pitcher

If you've experienced sticker shock while shopping for Chardonnay lately, perhaps it's finally time to get acquainted with Pinot Blanc. Due to crop shortages from 1994 through 1996, the supply of California Chardonnays has lagged behind demand, causing prices to rise for many of the better known wines. To some extent this shortfall has been offset by increased imports from the South of France, Chile and Australia, many engineered by California wineries eager to keep a competitive edge while waiting for replanted vineyards to come back into production. And, eventually, the high-quality, bumper crop of the 1997 harvest may take some of the sting out of Chardonnay pricing.

Yet there is a wonderful alternative to Chardonnay already here in the form of a wine called Pinot Blanc, which can often pass for high-priced Chardonnay in a blind tasting. It's necessary to distinguish between the name of the wine and the grapes used in its production because, at least until recently, virtually all of the grapes used to make California Pinot Blancs were, in fact not pinot blanc grapes, but melon, also known as melon de Bourgogne, which is the grape variety behind the French wines known as Muscadet.

The mistake came about because the University of California at Davis, which provides certified winegrape rootstock to California nurseries through its Foundation Plant Material Service, initially misidentified its vines; university experts believed all along that they really had pinot blanc in their vineyard.

Davis' error wasn't discovered until 1980, when the highly respected French ampelographer Dr. Pierre Galet identified the so-called "pinot blanc" in the experimental vineyard at U.C. Davis as melon. Davis acknowledged its error in 1984, when it advised growers who had purchased the university's "pinot blanc" rootstock of the mistake. Nevertheless, most wineries continued to call the wine made from their fruit "Pinot Blanc."

Eventually, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) entered the picture by enacting federal regulations restricting use of the name Pinot Blanc on wine labels, which set many vineyard owners to the task of sorting through their plantings of vines called "pinot blanc" to determine whether they are the real thing -- the white clone of the noble pinot noir grape -- or actually melon de Bourgogne.

BATF's regulations specify that after February 7, 1996, "Pinot Blanc" is not an acceptable alternative name for a wine made from melon grapes, although the winery could call it Melon de Bourgogne so long as the region of origin was connected to the name, such as "Napa Valley Melon de Bourgogne." Since paperwork surrounding BATF's regulatory process in this affair makes it clear that the agency is aware that most of California's pinot blanc vines are really melon, it's conceivable that wineries could be compelled to discontinue use of the Pinot Blanc name if they couldn't certify that the grapes used were, in fact, true pinot blanc.

Very few wineries are enthusiastic about calling their wine "Melon" or even "Melon de Bourgogne." Among the rare exceptions are Coeur de Melon made in the late 1980s by now-defunct Merlion Winery; the first few releases of Murphy-Goode Winery's Pinot Blanc beginning with the initial release from the 1991 vintage, with the label indicating on one line Pinot Blanc, and on the next line Barrel-fermented Melon de Bourgogne (after 1993, the winery called the wine simply Barrel-Fermented Pinot Blanc); the bottlings of Melon de Bourgogne from tiny Eagle Ridge Winery in Penngrove (Sonoma County); and the Melons from J. Fritz Winery in the Russian River Valley.

Beaulieu Vineyards offered only two bottlings of a wine called Melon -- from the 1982 and 1983 vintages -- and herein lies a relevant piece of history. In an interview many years ago, Tom Selfridge, who was then president of Beaulieu Vineyards, said that the grape BV called pinot blanc was also known to the winery for many years as melon de Bourgogne and was used in BV's Chablis. It was pulled out of the vineyard in the early 1960s because of a virus disease, and some of the cuttings were sent to the University of California at Davis to be placed in their virus eradication program. That was when the pinot blanc name was mistakenly attached to what was really melon. Later, BV thought it would be interesting to try the variety again and put the now virus-free U.C. cuttings back in the original vineyard (BV #2). It was from these grapes that the 1982 and 1983 BV Melons were made.

When I tasted those wines in March of 1994, the 1982 smelled of old Madeira and was well over the hill, while the 1983 was drinkable, but not very flavorful, offering faint traces of apple and citrus and moderate viscosity. The technical sheets for both wines noted that Georges de Latour imported melon budwood from France in 1939 to be planted in BV #2, which was then believed to be the only planting of melon vines in the United States.

Enforcing the Pinot Blanc-Melon regulations has not been a top priority of BATF, and so the situation is still somewhat fluid. According to Tom Selfridge, who is now president of the Chalone Wine Group, as of today, he's not aware of any BATF pressure to make changes in the labels used for Chalone's benchmark Pinot Blancs. Another Pinot Blanc producer of note, Wild Horse Winery in the Central Coast, specifies in the background information for its current-release 1997 Wild Horse Pinot Blanc that the varietal composition is "100% Melon de Bourgogne," and indicates that "Future bottlings of this wine may be labeled as 'Melon de Bourgogne' or as a proprietarily-named white wine."

Interestingly, California state agricultural officials seem to be ignoring the controversy entirely. The latest acreage reports of the California Agricultural Statistics Service report that total acreage (bearing and non-bearing) of pinot blanc winegrapes in California as of 1997 amounts to 1025 acres, down from 1061 total acres in 1996. Melon grapes are not mentioned at all.

Chalone Vineyard is one winery in particular that would be adversely affected by BATF's regulations, if enforced, since it has long been California's star producer of Pinot Blanc, with vineyard plantings of the variety going back to 1946. It has been assumed all along that old-vine pinot blanc in Chalone's barren, windswept, limestone soils near the Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County was the real thing -- pinot blanc vrai or true pinot blanc. Selfridge explained in a telephone interview last October that after the controversy began to unfold in Washington, Chalone brought in a plant pathologist from U.C. Davis to certify the identity of these old vines, and the expert concluded they are, indeed, the real thing.

Another Chalone vineyard, planted in 1972, is without doubt melon, which was obtained from the Foundation Plant Material Service. Subsequently, Chalone planted another 12 acres of pinot blanc, using cuttings from the mother vineyard planted in 1946. Eventually, all of the melon vines will be budded over to true pinot blanc.

While this tempest in a wine glass has been raging, wineries and growers have been planting certified pinot blanc vines in several California locations. Significant acreage of pinot blanc vrai now exists in the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County), which is used by Jim Clendenen to make his Au Bon Climat Reserve Pinot Blanc. The Bien Nacido also has plantings of what is probably melon, but these grapes are harvested separate and apart from the true pinot blanc. Byron "Ken" Brown reports that nearby, at Byron Vineyard, about three acres of certified pinot blanc were planted using cuttings of Colmar Clone 159 obtained from the O'Connor Vineyard in Oregon's Eola Hills area. Another planting of true pinot blanc is at Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, which goes into Arrowood's excellent Pinot Blancs.

That still leaves a lot of melon masquerading as pinot blanc, and the question arises whether there is enough of a difference between the two grapes to show up in the wines. The answer is: not much, really, if both grapes are made into wine using the same techniques. Vintners Club blind panel tastings over several years have conclusively demonstrated that when vinified or made into wine in the same manner as expensive Chardonnay -- using barrel fermentation, secondary malolactic fermentation (either partial or complete), extended lees contact and ageing in new or mostly new French oak -- these grapes, whether melon or true pinot blanc, can produce a wine every bit as good as excellent Chardonnay, exhibiting a Burgundian character that could never be mistaken for simple, austere Muscadet.

And it doesn't seem to make a huge difference whether the base grapes are melon or true pinot blanc. The fruit flavor descriptors are often different -- apple, pear, white melon for Melon and creamy citrus for Pinot Blanc -- but the same distinction can be made for Chardonnay made from grapes grown in different California appellations. Moreover, it may well be that after all this time in California, melon grapes have mutated or evolved into a grape variety totally dissimilar to that used to make Muscadet in the Loire Valley.

The fact that melon originated in Burgundy tends to reinforce this similarity to Chardonnay, which is also a native of Burgundy. It is this Burgundian-style Pinot Blanc that consumers have come to know and appreciate -- from producers like Chalone, Steele, Au Bon Climat, Makor, Murphy-Goode, Villa Mt. Eden and Wild Horse.

And even when the grapes are not vinified in such an exalted style, they still produce a wine clearly distinguishable from Loire Valley Muscadet. Good examples are Mirassou's Harvest Reserve Pinot Blanc and Pinot Blancs from Lockwood, Saddleback Cellars and Benziger, which show considerable depth of fruit and a rich mouthfeel.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1995 Chalone Pinot Blanc, Reserve, Chalone (Monterey County) ($26)
Departing from past winemaking techniques used for the Reserve, the grapes for this wine were whole-cluster pressed instead of crushed, the intention being to make the wine more accessible earlier. Very Burgundian nose of French oak and creamy citrus that took awhile to emerge. Round and smooth with wonderful complexity, offering spicy citrus, apple, caramel and butterscotch, plus a bright streak of mineral. A full-bodied, delicious Reserve.

SECOND PLACE

1996 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Blanc, Grand Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($16)
Complex nose of high-char French oak, jasmine and citrus. Big and full bodied with lots of extracted tropical fruit and lemon citrus, plus vanillin oak. Round and smooth with good acidity and fine structure.

THIRD PLACE

1995 Mirassou Pinot Blanc, Limited Bottling, Harvest Reserve, Monterey County ($15)
Forward, intense, fragrant scents of tropical fruit, creamy lemon, lime blossom and vanilla. Smooth, rich and unctuous in the mouth with slightly sweet, concentrated, creamy citrus, spicy pear, anise and lots of toasty oak; good acidity and a long finish. The best Limited Bottling Pinot Blanc ever from Mirassou. Great bargain.

FOURTH PLACE

1995 Makor Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($11)
Toasty, medium-char French oak, creamy citrus, white melon and a hint of earthiness define the nose. Harmonious, although leaner in body than expected from winemaker Jim Adelman, who helps make the Au Bon Climat wines, the Makor Pinot Blanc offers delicious flavors that replicate the nose.

FIFTH PLACE

1996 Steele Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($15)
A complex wine exhibiting considerable finesse, the Steele Pinot Blanc from the Bien Nacido Vineyard is an excellent example of the Santa Barbara County Burgundian style, with wonderfully attractive, slightly leesy, lemony citrus scents. Smooth, round and luscious in the mouth with good acidity, offering rich flavors of creamy citrus, spicy pear, white melon and vanilla, and a long, roasted nutty finish.

SIXTH PLACE

1996 J. Fritz Melon, Russian River Valley ($14)
Fragrant, appealing scents of lemon-lime citrus, tropical fruit, anise, coconut and a mineral note. Quite full-bodied and unctuous for a melon-based wine, with lots of juicy citrus and a hint of honey. Complex and delicious.

SEVENTH PLACE

1996 Benziger Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Forward nose of lemon blossoms and fresh lime plus a touch of coconut. Smooth and creamy on the palate, offering spicy citrus flavors that are moderately deep and tasty.

EIGHTH PLACE

1996 Au Bon Climat Pinot Blanc, Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($20)
A full-blown style of Pinot Blanc from one of the masters, Jim Clendenen's Reserve exhibits medium-high-char French oak, butterscotch, tangerine and tropical fruit in the nose, and mouthfilling flavors of peaches, citrus, caramel and honey. Unctuous and comparatively heavy, with adequate acidity.

NINTH PLACE

1996 Murphy-Goode Pinot Blanc, Barrel Fermented, Sonoma County ($13.50)
Somewhat unusual nose of talc and lanolin, mixed with citrus and some grassy notes. Soft and delicate on the palate with low-key, slightly candied citrus flavors. Barely adequate acid.

TENTH PLACE

1996 Pavona Pinot Blanc, Pariso Springs Vineyard, Monterey County ($15)
Aromatic nose of white melon, banana and citrus, mingled with notes of wildflowers and freshly cut grass. Soft and fleshy in the mouth offering ripe white melon fruit enhanced by lemon zest. An intense wine packing lots of flavor. Great package.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1995 Chateau St. Jean Pinot Blanc, Robert Young Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($14)
Plenty of buttery malolactic notes in the nose plus shy citrus fruit. Somewhat austere given the ML treatment, exhibiting buttery flavors of citrus and melon; comparatively heavy, with only barely adequate acidity. This winery has done much better with fruit from this vineyard in the past.

TWELFTH PLACE

1996 J. Lohr Pinot Blanc, "October Night," Monterey County ($11.50)
Bizarre in all respects, from the banana-bubble gum nose with a petroleum note to the woody, caramel, oxidized-apple flavors. "October Night" here might well refer to Halloween.

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.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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