Dunne on Wine

Whatever has become of state’s pinot blanc?

Wine being poured at the International Alsace Varietals Festival at Boonville in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.
Wine being poured at the International Alsace Varietals Festival at Boonville in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Courtesy of Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

In the 1980s, I went through a pinot-blanc phase. I tasted one, found it interesting, then another, and also liked it.

But with pinot blanc there was never an epiphanous moment, when one landed with such majesty and drama on my palate that I had to have more and learn more.

Pinot blanc isn’t that kind of wine. There’s no thunder and lightning with pinot blanc. It insinuates itself into your awareness slowly, with a delicacy taunting but fleeting. It’s like a small flower that’s been blooming all season but you just now noticed it, small and overshadowed, clearly not of the orchid or rose family. You easily could have stepped on it, never knowing what you missed.

I liked pinot blanc for its transparency, delicate fruit, lithe build, crispness and amiability with seafood and shellfish.

Then I lost interest in pinot blanc. It wasn’t that my palate was particularly fickle, constantly searching for wines of more weight and complexity. I blame California winemakers for my alienation. They wanted more weight and complexity in their wine, even slight and pale pinot blanc.

Their makeover of pinot blanc amounted to putting it through malolactic fermentation to soften it and round it, before stashing it in French oak barrels to trick it up with vanilla and smoke. It’s a formula that was working astoundingly well with chardonnay, they saw, so why not apply it to another green grape whose juice wasn’t particularly enthralling on its own, at least to their eyes.

Pinot blanc became a chardonnay wanna-be, and I moved on to other wines.

My curiosity about pinot blanc was reawakened in February, however, when I attended the International Alsace Varietals Festival at Boonville in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.

Alsace is a long, narrow appellation in northeast France. It is planted most ambitiously to green grapes that yield wines commonly grouped as “the aromatic whites” for their forthright fragrance – gewürztraminer, sylvaner, pinot gris, riesling, muscat … and, mostly, pinot blanc, though in aroma, it’s the shyest member of the group.

Some pioneering grape growers and winemakers were drawn to Anderson Valley both for their fondness of aromatic whites and for the cool resemblance of the area to Alsace, thus the annual festival, a day that starts early and ends late, packed as it is with educational seminars, cooking demonstrations and tastings.

In attending, one of my missions was to see what’s up with pinot blanc these days.

One lesson became gratifyingly clear as I tasted my way through more than a dozen pinot blancs at the festival: California vintners have dialed back substantially in applying new oak to the wine.

A few showed the toastiness and spice of oak barrels, granted, but the model for pinot blanc in California today calls for a wine lean, dry, delicate with fruit generally suggestive of pineapple, apricot, apple, lemon or peach, a thread of herb or spice such as anise or caraway, and an acidity that while crisp and refreshing isn’t cutting.

For a bit of background: Pinot blanc isn’t to be confused with pinot noir, but it is a variant of pinot noir, though the wines made from it are white, neither pink nor red. The grape is most closely identified with Alsace, where the first plantings are believed to have been established in the 16th century. It’s grown elsewhere – Champagne, Burgundy, Italy, Chile, California – but Alsace is its principal home.

Pinot blanc often is used to make sparkling wine, but its chief claim to fame in wine lore is that it often is confused for other varieties, including melon, chenin blanc and even chardonnay.

Thirty years ago, which may have been the last time I wrote of pinot blanc, only about 2,000 acres of the variety were cultivated in California. Today, the total is 425 acres.

The shrinking acreage could be due to several factors, including climate change. California doesn’t seem to be as cool as it was even 30 years ago, and pinot blanc thrives best in cooler climates. Thus, about a fourth of the state’s acreage devoted to pinot blanc is in cool Monterey County, which also produced several of the takes that I savored three decades ago. Just 43 acres are cultivated in Mendocino County, but that’s up 15 acres in just one year, though the increase likely is due to Mendocino’s booming sparkling-wine industry.

The pinot blancs poured at the Alsatian Varietals Festival, incidentally, could come from anywhere; they weren’t limited to Mendocino releases.

During talks leading up to the festival’s final grand tasting, Thomas Schlumberger, export director of his family’s Domaines Schlumberger, called pinot blanc “a summer wine,” best as an aperitif or with simpler dishes. “It’s a good alternative to chardonnay,” Schlumberger said.

California vintners, however, almost always have chardonnay in their portfolio, and seem not interested in adding another white wine that could challenge it at the table. Indeed, several wineries that made pinot blanc that grabbed my attention three decades ago – Mirassou, Fetzer, Buehler, Jekel – have stopped making the varietal or make so little they don’t list it at their online stores.

Two wineries long celebrated for their signature pinot blanc – Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County and Chalone Vineyards in Salinas Valley – weren’t at the Alsace Varietals Festival.

Nevertheless, no fewer than 10 other wineries were pouring pinot blancs, confirmation that while the varietal doesn’t have a high profile in California’s wine trade there are vintners who see in its fine lines worth preserving and showcasing. Now it’s up to wine enthusiasts to discover, or rediscover, the pleasures of pinot blanc.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

PINOT BLANC

These were my favorites at the International Alsace Varietals Festival:

▪ Handley Cellars 2013 Mendocino County Pinot Blanc ($22): Handley winemaker Randy Schock got his pinot blanc from Schrader Ranch Vineyard, which is in a blessedly cool spot along the Russian River. Then he added about 10 percent riesling from Green Ranch on Mendocino Ridge, resulting in the most complete pinot blanc of the day. It’s a dry wine, but with more spice, fruit, body and structure than ordinarily found in pinot blanc.

▪ Saint Gregory 203 Mendocino County Pinot Blanc ($11): A tremendous buy in pinot blanc, which by its heft, concentrated citric fruit and touch of residual sugar shows why some vintners see the varietal as a potential threat to chardonnay’s hegemony.

▪ Foris Vineyards 2013 Rogue Valley Pinot Blanc ($14): Though Oregon’s Rogue Valley is relatively warm for such cool-climate grapes as pinot blanc, the Gerber family has the elevation and the winemaking skill to preserve the variety’s freshness and snap, captured here with a lean, lively and notably minerally interpretation. Oysters came to mind at the very first sip.

▪ Claiborne & Churchill 2013 Central Coast Pinot Blanc ($25): This is a throwback to the days when California vintners began to barrel ferment their pinot blanc in hopes of emulating the success of chardonnay. This wine pushes that concept, but the fruit is so distinctive and the acidity so racy that the overall result is effusive, complex and persistent, all to degrees exceptional for the varietal.

▪ Girasole Vineyards 2014 Mendocino County Pinot Blanc ($13): Anyone who likes pear clafouti likely will savor this pinot blanc, not because it’s sweet – it isn’t – but because the wine is round, suggestive of pears and just a bit buttery.

▪ Maison Kuentz-Bas 2012 Alsace Pinot Blanc ($18): Here is confirmation that a wine doesn’t need a whole lot of alcohol to pack character. It weighs in at just 12.5 percent alcohol, but nevertheless was one of the more substantial and complex pinot blancs tasted. The smell is a little strange, suggesting a damp earthiness to the flowerbed, but the flavor delivers the varietal’s customary bright fruit.

▪ Dutton Goldfield 2013 Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch Shop Block Pinot Blanc ($25): Winemakers Dan Goldfield and Jeff Restel apply a lot of precision to the grapes they get from an especially cool site along Purrington Creek. The result is a lean and dry wine with just enough creaminess to caress the palate when the sharp acidity isn’t tickling it.

▪ Rein Winery 2013 Mendocino County Schrader Ranch Pinot Blanc ($22/$26): Winemaker Jason Wasson IV aged a fourth of this wine in neutral oak barrels – the rest in stainless-steel tanks – which was just the right combination to bring a sense of luxurious creaminess and a whiff of smoke to suggestions of wildflowers and lemons.

Mike Dunne

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