Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Not that the wine it makes ever knocks you out with dramatic flavor. Its charms are subtlety and understatement. It flows rather than rushes at you. More Debussy than Wagner. But this is exactly what I'm looking for lately in a multi-purpose white wine with fish. In fact, one of the first changes I initiated after recently taking the reins of the wine program at Legal Sea Foods was to introduce a section of Pinot Blancs on the list, increasing the selections from 1 to 7, and choosing one to pour throughout the restaurant group. This was not a pre-conceived plan. I tasted a lot of Pinot Blanc blind and as it turned out was quite impressed with what winemakers from as far afield as Alsace, Oregon and Trentino Alto Adige are doing. Among the greatest virtues of the category: most of the selections are bargains.
Why seven though? There is a lot of diversity in how Pinot Blancs are produced. The common thread is a soft texture, mild though discernible acidity, and a hint of spice in the finish. But the weight, or body, of the wines varies considerably, and the flavors display quite a wide range as well. So we have light and delicately fruity wines as well as richer, more substantial ones. For a long time Pinot Blanc, which, although no longer extensively grown there, originates in Burgundy and was a mutation of the deeper-colored Pinot Gris, had been mistaken for Chardonnay. The resemblances are more than superficial, the most notable being lack of sharply etched aromas or piercing acid levels. Pinot Blanc is generally a bit less powerful on the palate than Chardonnay, is less adaptable to new oak, and tends to leave a cleaner, more seamless flavor profile from attack to finish. But there's a great deal of overlap and one can easily be confused for another when tasting blind. So Pinot Blanc can be marketed as a stylistically similar "Chardonnay alternative".
The following recommendations span the major regions of the globe where Pinot Blanc now excels with one exception: Austria, where the grape is called Weissburgunder. I couldn't find one. While these were the best, most of the wines I tasted were at least acceptable. The one caveat: Oregon, which is producing some delicious examples, is also making some Pinot Blanc that is higher in residual sugar than I think is appropriate and perhaps a bit overly extracted. Not that there's anything wrong with sweetness, but as a consumer you don't want to be surprised. This is a trend I've noted with Oregon Pinot Gris as well, where it is even less welcome because of that grape's lower acid profile. The selections below are all dry and all delicious. They are listed in ascending order of ranking, regardless of price, with the last wine rating the highest in my tasting. (For the sake of comparison, prices quoted are average retail.)
Hugel 'Cuvee les Amours', Alsace, 2OO3 This venerable merchant house has been producing wine in Alsace for several hundred years, and if there is one brand of Pinot Blanc that is probably most recognizable in the US it's this. This highly heralded extremely hot, dry vintage yielded a Pinot Blanc with extra florality in the aroma and more flesh on the palate. This is an extremely attractive, beautifully balanced wine, with medium body, creamy textures and mild flavors. It finishes with the grape's signature soft spice accents. Highly recommended with fish in a mild curry sauce or sautéed scallops with a lemon butter cream sauce. $13.49
Bruno Hunold, Alsace, 2OO2 This small estate producer's Pinot Blanc shows an intoxicating aroma of vanilla spice (it's unoaked) and apple. Ripe and silky, with fresh apple, pear and slightly gingery tones, it's a bit richer than several of the other Alsatian examples I tasted, with a lingering, slightly smoky finish. Great quaffing wine or recommended to serve with shellfish in a white sauce with pasta. Plus it's an absolute steal. $8.99
Valley of the Moon, Sonoma, 2OO2 Somewhat unusually, this winery's signature white grape is Pinot Blanc rather than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was definitely the odd man out in this group, deepest in color and richest in texture. It's aged for 3 months in French oak barrels and is actually blended with 3% Chardonnay. It had a heavier, musky almost overripe pear fragrance than the other wines. Lush and honeyed on the palate, with smooth layered apple and pear fruit, although plenty of balancing acidity, this would be a good partner for grilled fish with fruity, even slightly sweet-flavored sauces. $13.99
Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco, Trentino, 2OO2 In northern Italy the grape is known as Pinot Bianco, and there is quite a bit of it grown, generally quite successfully. This wine had a pronounced, quite positive perfume of fresh spring apple, with undertones of citrus. It was soft and fruity, with a bit higher acid than most of the other selections. Quite easy-drinking and mild, with a lush texture, this is a perfect wine for spicy fish preparations because of its easy-going apple fruit tones. $13.99
WillaKenzie Estate, Willamette Valley, 2OO2 A beautiful, sensual wine with quite distinct floral apple aromas, accented with slightly vegetal and toasty notes. As with many of the other wines, this Oregon Pinot Blanc's great virtue was its creamy, mouth-filling texture. Ripe on the palate, with lots of concentrated apple fruit and an undertone of minerality, it was also quite full (over 14.5% alcohol when I checked the bottle) and spicy in the finish. Rich enough for grilled salmon with a honey mustard sauce. $19.99
Domaines Schlumberger 'Les Princes Abbes,' 2OO2 Although the competition was close, this was the overall winner. A bit paler than the other wines, with a hint of green, the nose was marked by sweet herbs, peach and an engaging yeastiness &endash; engaging because of its understatement up front, with dry, mild though velvety fruit and impeccable balance, this Pinot Blanc finishes off with a touch of spicy heat. It's adaptable to dishes from Dover Sole to wood grilled Shrimp. $13.49