It must be hard being Pinot Blanc. You come from a noble family, one of the most renowned in the world of wine, but you are regularly belittled as being dull and bland. Your big brother, Pinot Noir, is an international celebrity with legions of frenzied fans. But You? Sure, you’re widely planted, but you’re hardly ever the star. Instead, you usually end up playing a supporting role--to Riesling in Germany and Alsace, to Chardonnay in Burgundy (where you’re such an outcast that you have to operate in disguise), and to your sister, Pinot Grigio, in Italy. As the British wine writer Oz Clarke quips, Pinot Blanc has a “perennial personality problem.”
But does the problem come from the grape itself, or from the people who grow it and make it? Put another way, what would happen if vintners took Pinot Blanc more seriously? What if they started paying attention to particular sites and clones, or lowered yields, or fermented and matured their Pinot Blancs with the same care they lavish upon their Rieslings or Chardonnays? Would Pinot Blanc then display a personality of its own?
The answer is an unqualified yes. This bit player, if given the opportunity, can be a star in its own right. How can I be so sure? Because some producers--a few in Alsace and Germany, a few more in Austria and Italy--already treat Pinot Blanc with the sort of care and attention that are customarily reserved for varieties that yield more prestigious and hence expensive wines. With results that can be dazzling.
While the vast majority of Pinot Blanc wines on the market do indeed taste fairly non-descript (“useful rather than exciting” is how Jancis Robinson puts it), there are wines out there that prove seductively alluring. The good news for consumers is that they are not widely known, and thus tend to cost less than comparably exciting wines made from more prestigious varieties.
What do these wines taste like? They resemble Chardonnay more than Pinot Gris or Grigio, having moderate acidity, medium weight or body, and--unless deliberately made in a sugary style--not all that much sweet fruit flavor. Their allure comes more from secondary aromas and flavors: A smokiness in the perfume of the top Alsace versions; a distinct streak of minerality in top Italian ones; herbal and honeyed undertones in some Austrian renditions. Nuance and subtlety constitute these wines’ charm. They do not “wow” you, but rather gently entice you when you drink them.
With only a few exceptions, Pinot Blanc does best when not vinified or aged in new oak. Old barriques or foudres can be useful because they allow some interaction of the wine with air, but this variety tends not to marry well with the overt buttery flavors that come from fresh barrels. It is simply too nuanced. Sometimes, as happens at the Querciabella estate in Tuscany, it is blended with Chardonnay and given expensive French oak aging. The result, there called Batàr, can be delicious, but never really tastes like Pinot Blanc.
In Alsace, where the variety is grown in large volume for use in sparkling wine and inoffensive café quaffs for the thousands of tourists that visit the region, virtually every vintner makes some Pinot Blanc. Only a handful of producers, however, seem really to care about it. They include Meyer Fonné, René Muré, and perhaps most notably, Domaine Schoffit. That estate’s Cuvée Caroline tastes intense but at the same time delicate, and displays the sort of complexity that comes from very low yields and vines planted on steep, rocky slopes.
In Germany, where Pinot Blanc often goes under the moniker Weissburgunder (because it once was more widely planted than Chardonnay in Burgundy), it does best in warm regions--warm, of course, being a relative term in this northern European country. In this case, that usually means the Pfalz region. A. Christmann, Muller-Catoir, and Dr. Werheim all produce fine examples, but the widely acknowledged gold standard is set by Weingut Őkonomierat Rebholz. The Rebholz standard trocken bottling is tasty, but the Sonnenschein Grosse Gewachs, which I’ve only been able to taste once, can be ethereal.
Austrian Weissburgunder tends to be somewhat fuller in body, with more honeyed flavors due to the grapes being able to ripen fully, but also, surprisingly enough, more overt acidity. The best examples, from producers such as Hirtzberger Steinporz, Jamek Hochrain, and Rudi Pichler Kollmütz, can be remarkably long-lived.
But perhaps the most exciting Pinot Blancs being made anywhere today come from northern Italy…specifically from Friuli and the sub-Alpine hills of the Alto Adige. Much as Gris becomes Grigio, Pinot Blanc in an Italian guise is labelled Pinot Bianco. The best examples taste racy and linear, with a remarkable purity of flavor and an enticing minerality that tends to gain intensity in the finish. As odd as it may sound, they resemble nothing so much as top-notch Chablis, though are usually more accessible in their youth.
In Friuli, names to look for include Jermann, Villa Russiz, and Volpe Pasini. Livio Felluga’s “Terra Alte” blends the variety with Friulano and Sauvignon Blanc, so is only partially Pinot. But what a part that is, as vintage after vintage of “Terra Alte” stands out as one of Italy’s finest wines, regardless of color.
Pinot Blanc has been growing in the Alto Adige for some 150 years, and while the vines tended to be over-cropped and the wines tasted somewhat innocuous for most of that period, this is one wine-growing region where at least some people have taken the variety seriously for a long time. Cooperative wineries still dominate production, as there are far more farmers than vintners in Alto Adige, but unlike co-ops most everywhere else, the ones in Alto Adige maintain very high standards. Kaltern, St. Michael-Eppan, and Nals Margreid are personal favorites. All offer at least two tiers of wines--an entry-level bottling and a top, usually single vineyard, cru.
A stellar example of a single vineyard cru, and perhaps my favorite Pinot Blanc made anywhere in the world, is Cantina Terlan’s Terlaner Vorburg. This is a wine of great intensity as well as great finesse. Filled with fruit, spice, and mineral-driven flavors, introduced by a slightly smoky bouquet and followed by an amazingly complex finish, it proves that Pinot Blanc has more than enough personality to dazzle any wine lover. So, while most Pinot Blancs live in the shadows cast by other grapes and wines, this one proves that the variety deserves its share of the limelight.