It turns out Pinot Blanc veils it self in mystery. The grape presents in many cooler climate regions of the world; as a close cousin of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris it shares their delicate skins and selective temperaments. But, the grape finds itself misnamed in many of its apparent homelands, being more commonly blended with other whites when showing itself on the label, or simply altogether tricked out of the bottle that boasts its name. In two of the regions we’ll examine below the legal requirements actually allow for a wine to be named Pinot Blanc without carrying any of the grape’s product at all.
When Pinot Blanc does show itself though, it is considered one of the most food friendly white wines due to its combination of healthy body and ripe acidity.
Pinot Blanc in Germany
Typically labelled “Weissburgunder” in Germany (though sometimes re-labeled Pinot Blanc when sold outside the German market), Pinot Blanc has been increasing in attractiveness in Germany over the last decade, and has become recently a well-respected grape there. It’s delicate qualities do well in the Northern Climate, where it is generally produced in a clean style with little oak influence, though more producers in Germany have been experimenting with some barrel aging.
The variety is produced in Germany as either a sweet, or dry style.
Becker Estate Pinot Blanc 2009, Pfalz Germany
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The Becker Estate drank as the most well-balanced, and simultaneously approachable plus interesting of the four wines mentioned here. Of the four it was the one I’d most want to stick with through a meal, or to continue drinking through an evening on its own. We have nice fresh minerals, developed fruit, hints of wood, and pleasing acidity, all showing through a lush bodied wine. This wine is more mineral, than fruit driven.
The Becker Estate is a nice example of the good quality dry white wines that Germany produces. This wine stands up to drinking alone, for those that enjoy Pinot Blanc, but has enough flavor and acidity to add to a meal as well. Would pair well with fish or poultry. I’d love to have this wine with sauteed white fish, and white asparagus.
Pinot Blanc in Alsace
In Alsace France, this grape is one of the primary plantings, and carries the body of a number of the area’s popular wines. Even so, it is not necessarily the most respected grape of the region, and tends to be used in blend with other whites, or presented as Pinot Blanc while blended with Auxerrois, a grape with lower acidity. In combination, the distinctiveness of Pinot Blanc is mellowed significantly by the fuller body, and flatter flavor of the Auxerrois.
When purchasing an Alsacian Pinot Blanc it is actually difficult to know what the precise grape selection happens to be because legally the designation “Pinot Blanc” on an Alsacian wine can contain some combination of actual Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois (the most common partner), Pinot Gris, and/or no-skin (therefore no color) Pinot Noir. It is even possible to purchase an Alsacian Pinot Blanc that in actuality is 100% Auxerrois. For a true Pinot Blanc from the area, the best bet is to look for a bottle labelled “Clevner.”
Still, the area is also known for producing what is considered a truly distinctive Alsacian Pinot Blanc, which shows a smokey floral quality that many love, and that some wine makers from other regions strive to emulate.
Gustave Lorentz Reserve Pinot Blanc 2009, Alsace France
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This wine had the lightest flavor of the three, and did not carry the smoke on the nose that many associate with an Alsacian style. However, the bouquet did offer interesting floral and mineral notes, that show as much lighter on the palate. In fact, the contrast between the nose and palate was a bit of a surprise to me. I’d describe the Lorentz as a very approachable wine that shows some interesting complexity, but even so wants to be had with food. The focus on this wine is good value, rather than being a stand alone.
It is pleasantly mouth watering, and would drink well along side lightly flavored scallops, a seafood risotto with touches of citrus, or other white seafoods.
Pinot Blanc in the United States
Interestingly, the history of this grape in North America runs confused and still not entirely clarified. Pinot Blanc took hold in California as what was considered an alternative white varietal to the already popular Chardonnay. Some producers even choose to make their Pinot Blanc wines remarkably similar to what is considered a California-style Chardonnay, that is, strongly oaked and buttery. In the 1980’s, however, examinations of the Pinot Blanc root stalk grown at the UC Davis experimental vineyards were done by French botanist, Dr. Pierre Galet. He found that what the university had certified as Pinot Blanc was actually a different French varietal, namely Melon de Bourgogne. The result of the university’s error was that numerous viticulturists all over the state of California were actually growing Melon vines under the Pinot Blanc name.
Oregon suffered the same fate as its southerly sibling, at least initially. David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards had brought vines from UC Davis north to the Willamette Valley in the 1960s, instigating the start of the Oregon wine industry. But he arrived with some mis-labeled vines as well. and planted vineyards of Pinot Blanc only to discover them to be another grape type entirely. Interestingly, Lett’s claim was that his vines were not originally Melon de Bourgogne, but instead actually misnamed Chardonnay.
The two states have dealt with the mixed-up history quite differently.
Oregon wine laws demand that bottles labeled Pinot Blanc must contain certified (correctly) juice from the grape the name implies. So, wine makers in Oregon really do make Pinot Blanc wine from actual Pinot Blanc grapes, and those that arrived with mis-labeled vines have corrected the error either by replanting what they’d rather grow, or simply correctly renaming what they continue to grow.
California, on the other hand, has decided that the agricultural history of the state makes its own demands. Legally, wine labeled “Pinot Blanc” in the state of California can be made with any of the grape types that have been historically understood as Pinot Blanc in that state. That is, if a vineyard planted what was actually Melon de Bourgogne, believing it originally to have been Pinot Blanc, then wine made with Melon can still be labeled Pinot Blanc. However, to confuse matters further, it is also legally allowed for these wines to be labeled Melon now that the error is known. Most wineries choose to retain the Pinot Blanc name for their bottlings, however, rather than use the botanically correct Melon reference.
Interestingly, some wineries in California, particularly in the Carneros area, have established newer plantings of what has been correctly certified as Pinot Blanc vines. Trying to determine which wines from the state are made from Melon but labeled Pinot Blanc, and which really are made from the grapes of the correct designation is a challenge, however. Most winery websites don’t clarify the issue, and the bottles don’t either since the law simply doesn’t demand such certainties.
Of the four wines tasted, the Robert Foley, and the Eyrie were the most challenging in that they both offered fascinating, but also slightly strange characteristics. To be clear, I’ve never minded a challenge when it comes to wine, so I describe them as such as in no way slighting. For those that want simply approachable wines, however, you will not find them here.
Robert Foley Pinot Blanc 2009, Napa California USA
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A fan of Alsacian wine, Robert Foley describes his Pinot Blanc as an attempt to emulate the best of that region’s Pinot Blanc varietals. The style shows itself here, as his rendition certainly carries the strong floral wine for which a good quality Alsacian Pinot Blanc is known. He does well too at offering good quality.
To the American palate Foley’s style comes as a surprise showing an almost strange mix of evergreen, fragrant white flowers, alcohol-heat, and moderate acidity. That said, I found his wine thoroughly intriguing as I kept putting my nose back in the glass to take in the mix of qualities I found there.
Foley keeps this juice in stainless steel, with no oak influence or malolactic fermentation, in order to keep his wine clean and focused on what the grapes themselves have to offer. As a result, there is pleasant fruit here with white peach, and light meyer lemon plus lime coming together with jasmine on both the nose and palate. I mention hints of clove in the comic not to reference oak indicators, but instead to capture the kind of rich spice-heat that hovers about this wine. The wine deserves to be chilled, as the combination of flavors holds together best when served cooler.
The Robert Foley Pinot Blanc would pair well with fish, or light pasta with fresh ingredients.
** As mentioned above, California winemakers are not obligated to distinguish their Pinot Blanc as genuine PB or Melon. As a result, it can be hard to know for sure which grape you find in the bottle, as either grape can be named the same. In this case I have as of yet not been able to find definitive information, but am hoping to hear back from the wine maker via email. I’d love to hear in comments or email if anyone else has further information on the matter, and I’ll be sure to fix a post-edit when the info is confirmed. Pinot Blanc is one of those grapes that is readily mistaken for a couple of other white wines and so it is hard to make a commitment here based simply on having tasted it. That said, the flavors and structure on this wine were consistent with other actual-Pinot Blanc varietals I’ve tasted either here, or previously.
Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2009, Willamette Oregon USA
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The Eyrie Pinot Blanc is a true varietal. Jason Lett, the president and wine maker of the label chooses to rest the juice on lees, adding body to the wine, and to allow malolactic fermentation as well, bringing a buttery smoothness to the final drink.
The Eyrie clones originate from the Alsace region, and this wine is produced as a limited bottling, adding to the treasure of tasting it. It is also readily considered unusual when compared to its Willamette counterparts in that the Eyrie presents with richer, creamier texture.
The grapes offer a rich, savory, dried herbal quality to complement the melon and citrus notes. The acidity is lower, but the alcohol higher compared to either the Becker, or Lorentz offerings, as a result the Eyrie leaves more of a sense of heat in the mouth.
The Eyrie would pair well with an avocado-citrus offering such as Avocado-Ahdi, and buttered scallops. This is also the perfect picnic wine.
What I really want with this though? Dungeness Crab. Amen.
This wine is so much Oregon sea coast and forest to me. It tastes like fog, with fresh sea air, the forest surrounding you, and your best friend there on a picnic. For those of you familiar with the area, you’d drink this where Ecola State Park meets the Pacific. It’s beautiful there, and totally intriguing.
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