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The Many Styles of Pinot Blanc

by Steve Pitcher

Among the white wines of the world, pinot blanc probably sets the record for the number of ways a wine can be presented in a bottle. Depending on the country in which it is grown and the winemaker's personal approach to fashioning a wine out of the grape, pinot blanc can range in style from the uncomplex, light and fruity pinot biancos of northern Italy to the complex, oaky masterpieces of some California winemakers, which can rival the biggest and best chardonnays. The styles in between these extremes are numerous and well worth exploring.

Adding to the attraction of pinot blanc for its diversity of style is the issue of the grape's pedigree. Confined to California, this issue simply put asks whether a wine labeled pinot blanc is actually made from true pinot blanc grapes or from some other variety. The answer seems to be that most of the grapes California winemakers have long thought were pinot blanc are actually an unrelated varietal called mČlon de Bourgogne, also called Muscadet in the Loire region of France, where the name refers both to the grape and the wine made from it.

In its true incarnation, pinot blanc is the white clone of pinot noir. It almost certainly originated in Burgundy, where it once flourished alongside chardonnay in the CŮte d'Or. When the appellation contrŮlČe system was instituted in 1937, defining which grape varieties would be permitted in Burgundy, pinot blanc lost out to chardonnay. Today, while some patches may be found in Burgundy, most of the pinot blanc grown in France is found in Alsace, where it is one of the most widely planted varietals, just behind riesling and sylvaner, but ahead of gew¸rztraminer.

Pinot blanc from Alsace is one of the best bargains in the wine world. The use of new oak in Alsatian winemaking is extremely rare, so pinot blanc here must rely on its fruit. The resulting wines from the region's better producers tend to resemble fine chardonnay without the huge intrusion of oak that sometimes marks white Burgundy. Marketed as an affordable alternative to chardonnay, pinot blanc from Alsace is sometimes referred to as "poor man's chardonnay," but the wine should really be enjoyed for its own attributes. The best examples are immediately appealing, offering a delightful plumpness, rich, ripe, juicy fruit with apple-y flavors and floral aromas.

In Italy, pinot blanc is called pinot bianco and is grown in many areas, although it is heavily concentrated in the northeastern region of Alto Adige, between Venice and the Austrian border. Alto Adige became part of Italy only after the First World War, before which it was the southern part of Austria's Tyrolia (S¸dtirol). Even today, one hears more German spoken in this region than Italian, and wine varietals are often expressed on the labels in German. Thus, pinot bianco may be rendered as Weissburgunder (which translates as "white Burgundy").

Pinot bianco is produced in great quantities and is appreciated for its easy drinkability, fresh, clean fruit and modest price.

In the last few years, several California winemakers have begun using the same techniques in making pinot blanc as are used to make expensive chardonnay. The standard was set beginning in the 1980s by Chalone Vineyard in Monterey County, which makes a reserve bottling from grapes grown in a vineyard planted in 1946 and a regular estate bottling from grapes grown in a vineyard planted in 1972.

That there are two separate vineyards is significant, because the older vineyard is almost certainly true Burgundian pinot blanc, while the younger vineyard has been identified as mČlon. Chalone's reserve pinot blanc is fermented and aged for nine months in new French oak, while the regular version sees one-third new barrels and is bottled in the spring following harvest. The result is two completely distinct wines, even down to their flavor components, with the reserve showing more of a citrus quality reminiscent of chardonnay, and the regular exhibiting more apple-pear-like fruit.

Nevertheless, the oak treatment enhances both wines. California winemakers who employ classic Burgundian techniques in making pinot blanc -- using new and/or almost new French oak barrels for fermentation and aging, lees contact and inducing a malo-lactic secondary fermentation to maximize the wine's complexity -- are creating truly memorable wines that are every bit as enjoyable as French and California chardonnays costing considerably more.

The fact that these winemakers may be using mČlon instead of true pinot blanc doesn't seem to make that great a difference in the finished product. Among those producing wines labeled pinot blanc and made in the grand style are, in addition to Chalone and those California producers named below in the tasting notes, Au Bon Climat, Steele, Byron, Arrowood (using certified Burgundian pinot blanc grapes) and Murphy-Goode.

Recently, the Vintners Club brought together twelve current-release pinot blancs from California, Alsace and Italy representing the various styles that characterize the different wine-growing regions. A big, bold, Burgundian-style wine from Santa Barbara County under the Makor label took top honors on this occasion, but sharing the top-of-the list rankings were two pinot blancs from Alsace made in a completely different style.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1993 Makor Pinot Blanc, J. Fryer Adelman Vintners, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($12).
A full-blown, pull-out-the-stops, Burgundian-style pinot blanc (made from mČlon grapes) that offers irresistible aromas of toasty French oak, butterscotch, quince and citrus. Rich and creamy on the palate with plenty of citrusy fruit to match the evident oak. An incredible bargain.

SECOND PLACE

1993 Meyer-Fonne Pinot Blanc, Alsace ($10.50).
Complex, floral nose of warm spice, ripe fruit resembling apricot and peach, plus a touch of orange peel. Smooth in the mouth with generous, citrus flavors and nice acidity.

THIRD PLACE

1993 Leon Beyer Pinot Blanc, Alsace ($13).
Similar to the Meyer-Fonne in its peachy fruitiness, but slightly lower in acid, resulting in a wine better suited to sipping than pairing with food.

FOURTH PLACE

1992 Chateau St. Jean Pinot Blanc, Robert Young Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($21).
Fragrant aromas of lemon-lime citrus mingled with peaches and melon, enhanced by a distinctive wet-stone mineral quality characteristic of the vineyard. Lively, almost racy, flavors of citrus and mineral, plus excellent acid balance.

FIFTH PLACE

1993 Chalone Pinot Blanc, Monterey County ($20).
This is Chalone's regular bottling, and true to form it exhibits pleasant apple-pear fruit in the nose and flavors, along with toasty oak and a touch of honey.

SIXTH PLACE

1993 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Blanc "Grand Reserve," Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($13).
A big, oaky wine with sufficient creamy lemon fruit to give it depth and appeal. Silky smooth and flavorful.

SEVENTH PLACE

1992 Mirassou Pinot Blanc "Harvest Reserve," Monterey County ($12).
Lots of high-char French oak here, along with butterscotch and ripe fruit focusing on tangerine and creamy lemon. Could be mistaken for white Burgundy.

EIGHTH PLACE

1993 Marchesi de Frescobaldi Pinot Bianco, Tenuta di Pomino (Tuscany), Italy ($8.70).
Very pleasant aromas of warm spice and light citrus with a floral note of violets and rose petals. Generous citrus-like fruit enhanced by neutral oak and hints of spice. Not a big wine, but clean, delicious and refreshing.

NINTH PLACE

1993 Roland Schmitt Pinot Blanc, Alsace ($10).
Fresh citrus in the nose leads to creamy citrus on the palate. Smooth and silky, though on the simple side.

TENTH PLACE

1992 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot Blanc, Alsace ($15).
A disappointing showing for this otherwise excellent producer. Shy mineral notes in the aromas with hints of honey. Soft on the palate with one dimensional flavors resembling apricot and peach.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1993 A.G.R. Vignalta Pinot Bianco, Colli Euganei, Italy ($14).
Clearly oxidized, with aromas that more resemble bourbon than wine. Unexciting flavors; a wine to avoid.

TWELFTH PLACE

1992 Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco, Alto Adige (S¸dtirol), Italy ($6.80).
Shy lemon blossom scents lead to a soft, fleshy wine with simple citrus fruit. A quaffer.

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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