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Pinot Blanc Revisited: Quality on the Rise

by Steve Pitcher

Those readers who pay attention to these things will remember that my debut "Vintner's Choice" column in Sally's Place dealt with Pinot Blanc. Going back even further, my first "Vintner's Choice" column ever, October 5, 1988, on what was then the "Wine Page" of the San Francisco Chronicle, was about Pinot Blanc. One could deduce that I'm intrigued by this varietal and go out of my way to follow its progress and spread the word. That deduction would be correct.

This column is the third in a row that deals with a member of the Pinot family. As a handy means of remembering these relatives, consider that Pinot comes in three colors: red (Pinot Noir), gray (Pinot Gris) and white (Pinot Blanc). The non-red Pinots are thought to be mutations of Pinot Noir, a flagrantly degenerate varietal that can mutate in the vineyard from red to white or gray without warning. Probably due to a shallow gene pool. Nevertheless, each Pinot can be made into excellent wine.

The roster of Pinot Blanc producers has grown since 1988, with the number of wineries that have discontinued the wine's production more than offset by those that have come on board. Chalone Vineyard, Mirassou Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean and Saddleback Cellars remain Pinot Blanc's oldest California friends. Along the way, wineries such as Jekel Vineyard, Congress Springs Vineyard (now defunct) and Monterey Peninsula Winery have phased Pinot Blanc out of their product line. But new admirers, including Steele Cellars, Wild Horse Winery, J. Fryer Adelman (who makes the wine under his Makor brand), Arrowood Vineyards, Etude, Murphy-Goode Winery, Au Bon Climat, Villa Mt. Eden Winery, Lockwood Vineyard, Pavona Wines, Meridian Vineyards and J. Fritz Winery, among others, have joined the ranks with good-to-excellent bottlings.

Many California sparkling wine producers also use a fair amount of Pinot Blanc in blends with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Brut, or simply with Chardonnay for Blanc de Blancs.

Some of the best Pinot Blanc vineyards used to be in the Santa Clara Valley, especially the San Ysidro Vineyard, but most of these are now planted to other varietals or the acreage has been transformed from vineyards to subdivisions. Monterey County continues to grow most of the state's Pinot Blanc (this is where Mirassou now gets the grapes it used to grow in Santa Clara County, where the winery is located), with additional acreage in Chalone's estate vineyard being devoted to Pinot Blanc. Santa Barbara County's plantings of the varietal have been expanded as wineries discover that exciting and distinctive wines can be made from Pinot Blanc grown in the South Central Coast. Overall, more than 1000 acres of Pinot Blanc are found in California.

One of the reasons Pinot Blanc remains popular with wineries and attracts new friends is its cost compared to that of Chardonnay, which generally increases every year. An excellent bottle of Pinot Blanc can be had for about $14, while a Chardonnay of equivalent quality will cost over $20. "Equivalent quality" refers to wines that are barrel fermented and aged in expensive French oak. In many cases, Pinot Blanc will react to oak treatment better than Chardonnay, integrating its qualities more thoroughly and offering a more harmonious character.

Recently, the Vintners Club evaluated twelve Pinot Blancs in a blind tasting that included wines from the 1994 and 1995 vintages, two excellent years in California. Wines came from the North Coast, the Central Coast and the South-Central Coast, and ranged in price from $10 to $18. New producers Steele Cellars, Daniel Gehrs and Pavona Wines did particularly well, as did Chalone Vineyard, the winery that has been producing Pinot Blanc for the longest time in California.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1994 Steele Cellars Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($14)
With grapes from one of the best vineyards in the county, winemaker Jed Steele created an extremely attractive wine that could be mistaken for a much more expensive Chardonnay. Forward, attractive, slightly yeasty scents of creamy citrus, clove spice and vanilla. On the palate, the wine is creamy, rich and unctuous, offering complex, layered flavors of lemon-lime citrus, minerals and toasty oak. Delicious wine and a terrific bargain.

SECOND PLACE

1994 Chalone Pinot Blanc, Chalone-The Pinnacles (Monterey County) ($18)
This is Chalone's regular bottling made from grapes harvested from vines younger than those that provide fruit for the reserve bottling. Beginning with the 1994 Pinot Blanc vintage, Chalone's winemaker, Michael Michaud, began utilizing whole-cluster pressing, a process that gently squeezes the juice from the grape, thereby reducing astringency and roughness, and emphasizing floral aromas and fruit flavors. Also, in about one-third of this wine, Michaud employed native yeast fermentation, which in this case added complexity and exotic flavors, and provided a lush mouthfeel. The aromas focus on dusty mineral, baked pear and citrus, which are replicated in the flavors. Big, rich finish.

THIRD PLACE

1994 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Blanc, Grand Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($16)
Moderately forward nose of yeasty, freshly baked bread, medium-high oak char and citrus fruit. Comparatively lighter in style than the first two wines -- more delicate, perhaps -- but offering generous flavors of toasty, apple-pear fruit. Good acidity.

FOURTH PLACE

1995 Daniel Gehrs Pinot Blanc, Carmel Vineyard, Monterey County ($10)
A fruity style of Pinot Blanc without much, if any, oak treatment evident. Lots of apple-pear fruit that shows a banana-like ripeness, both in the nose and flavors. Not particularly complex, but tasty and reasonably priced, with adequate acidity.

FIFTH PLACE

1994 Pavona Pinot Blanc, Paraiso Springs Vineyard, Monterey County ($12)
A very successful first release for this new brand, the Pavona Pinot Blanc is an elegant wine offering shy citrus and hints of clove spice in the nose, and crisp, dry flavors of grapefruit, pineapple and citrus, along with a nutty quality that comes from partial fermentation in new French oak. Nice, luscious mouthfeel and good acidity, plus a long, citrus-like finish; delicious. The packaging is almost as interesting as the wine: A fancy antique green Bordeaux-style bottle with a tapered shape, flange top and a punt bottom, plus a flashy five-color label including a blue foil outline of a peacock's head.

SIXTH PLACE

1994 Au Bon Climat Pinot Blanc, Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($16)
Jim Clendenen is a Burgundy specialist, whose distinctive, full-blown Pinot Noirs, Pinot Blancs and Chardonnays offer rich flavors and lots of oak. This wine carries on that tradition with its aromas of minerals, fresh, fruity lemon-lime citrus, slightly honied peach and cinnamon-clove spice. The flavors replicate the aromas, with the mineral element being quite evident and attractive. Good acidity and fairly unctuous in the mouth; different and delicious.

SEVENTH PLACE

1994 J. Fritz Melon, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($12)
The nose focuses on fresh, fruity orange-tangerine citrus and vanilla custard, which appear in the flavors as well. Moderately rich with good acidity, this is a tasty, well-balanced wine that would enhance grilled or broiled fish, scallops or chicken.

EIGHTH PLACE

1994 Makor Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($11)
A full-blown, pull-out-the-stops rendition that will appeal to those who crave lots of oak in their wine. Very forward nose of medium-high oak char and lots of deep, ripe, creamy citrus that suggest an expensive white Burgundy. Complex flavors of quince, citrus, tropical fruit and minerals that are almost extractive, yet still in balance. If you like oaky wines, this is an incredible bargain at $11. The winemaker, J. Fryer Adelman, works with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat, and the shared philosophy is evident, with Adelman's style being perhaps even more extravagant.

NINTH PLACE

1994 Benziger "Imagery Series" Pinot Blanc, Sonoma Mountain ($16)
Toasty notes show through in the nose, along with shy, apple-like fruit. Bright, lively flavors of golden delicious apple and white melon. Moderately unctuous and quite tasty.

TENTH PLACE

1994 Mirassou Pinot Blanc, Harvest Reserve-Limited Bottling, Monterey County ($15)
Mirassou has the largest vineyard plantings of Pinot Blanc in the state and is deeply committed to the varietal, producing not only this limited bottling, but also a lower-priced "White Burgundy" that usually offers great value for the money. This wine offers forward, fragrant aromas of ripe tropical fruit and apricots enhanced by toasty, yeasty oak scents. On the palate, the broad, deep flavors focus on tropical fruit and citrus; adequate acidity. A delicious wine that is much better than its ranking in this tasting would suggest. Some tasters were apparently disappointed by its short finish, but others found lots up front.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1995 Au Bon Climat Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($12)
Another wine that is much better than its ranking would suggest, offering fragrant aromas of ripe apple-pear fruit and a hint of apricot plus toasty oak. Unctuous with good acidity, the wine's flavors match the nose and have a late-harvest-like quality; very ripe and quite delicious. Probably best utilized as an aperitif, since its late-harvest ripeness could overwhelm many foods.

TWELFTH PLACE

1994 Murphy-Goode Pinot Blanc, Alexander Valley ($12.50)
Fruity nose of banana-ripe, baked apple fruit enhanced by a mineral-like note. Unctuous with adequate acidity, the wine's flavors match the nose with the addition of a hint of vanillin oak. Slightly bitter finish, which would not be noticeable if consumed with food, such as a juicy pork roast.

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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