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Blancing out
Pinot blanc, long a second-stringer in the world of white wines, deserves another shot

Pinot blanc grows in most major wine regions, but it’s hardly ever taken seriously — the eternal bridesmaid of the wine world. People often mistake the relatively obscure white varietal for chardonnay. But pinot blanc, called pinot bianco in Italy and weissburgunder in Germany and Austria, is no mere lesser cousin. Most likely a mutation of pinot gris, it’s been dubbed the “white clone” of its true cousin, pinot noir.

Pinot blanc is wonderful with food because of its relatively compressed flavor profile. Its acidity pairs well with fish and shellfish (especially fried or with spicier sauces). But most people have never tried pinot blanc, and are not about to start.

That’s too bad, because PB offers an affordable change of pace from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and riesling. This remarkably versatile grape makes sparkling wines in Alsace (crémant d’Alsace) and Italy (spumante), and wonderfully lush and full still wines in the US and around the world (Chile, Uruguay, Hungary, and even Slovenia). Wines made from pinot blanc grapes rarely blow you away, but they’re inevitably refreshing, and they go down light and easy.

Chardonnay, the 800-pound gorilla of wines, makes rarer white grapes such as pinot blanc a tough sell in this country. Chardonnay is safe, and at its best it can be bold and beautiful. Pinot blanc is even safer — it may never reach the heights of a Montrachet, but it rarely falls to the depths of cookie-cutter plonk chards (which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent and the guilty). Wine critic Oz Clarke calls pinot blancs “workhorses” and “chorus members” — they get the job done without seeking the limelight.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many pinot blancs, and the cheapest start at $12 for anything worth drinking (though you can do very nicely with Alsatian versions for this price). No one really pushes them on you, but they are a good way to go if you see one on a wine list, or if you’re looking for a little something different to go with dinner. I wouldn’t serve it on its own — PBs don’t really have enough, er, “juice” for that — but deployed with most foods that want a robust and acidic white wine (kind of apple-y and nutty at its best), they’ll make people sit up and take notice.

Some contend that a lot of the so-called pinot blancs made in this country are actually melon de Bourgogne, the French grape most notable for its crisp and lively Muscadets. Chalone Vineyards, for example, knows that some of its PB grapes are actually melon. But Chalone winemaker Dan Karlsen says it doesn’t matter, because, “melon is a better wine anyway — and the blend is what it’s all about.” Karlsen notes that the terroir really holds the key to Chalone’s excellent pinot blanc — the limestone base of the soils (similar to Burgundy’s and Champagne’s), the climate, and the minerality. “At Chalone, we are site-driven,” he says, “and this comes through most of all in our pinot blanc, which has attracted a lot of interest from winemakers.” One taste of this elegant wine and you can understand why.

PBs are not wines that you keep for a long time (they have the acidity, but not the complexity, that enables white varietals to age well). You’ll get some citrus and peach/apricot notes from them, but apple and pear tastes predominate, plus a little bit of nut in the best Alsatians. Pinot blanc tends to take on the characteristics of the region where it is grown — the grape offers a true expression of its terroir. What makes it interesting is its unprepossessing nature — it tastes good, it marries well with fish and chicken. In short, it does its job capably. Showy wines have their place (and I love showy whites, believe you me), but night in and night out, you want to drink wines that go down easy. What I say is, smoothie does it.

Some fine pinot blancs:

1998 Klevner Pinot Blanc Domaine Julien Meyer Les Pierres Chaudes Alsace ($11.99). “Klevner” indicates a pinot blanc from Alsace, and this one was chosen and imported by Eric Solomon, who knows his wines. It’s on the floral side, with azaleas and a crisp, fruity, full finish that lingers longer than most. A wonderful accompaniment to moo shu chicken, coconut shrimp, or spicy curries.

1998 Pinot Blanc Domaine Schlumberger Alsace ($11.99). Lean and racy, quite crisp, with clean fresh flavors. This subtle and appealing wine makes a fine accompaniment to white fish dishes, Cajun chicken sandwiches, or clams in broth. A great value worth tracking down.

1999 Étude Pinot Blanc Carneros (approximately $25). Rich and lush, with pear, hibiscus, and judicious oak. Excellent with halibut or your lighter chicken or pork dishes. Steep, but it’s worth the money for the fruit burst.

1999 Chalone Estate Pinot Blanc ($29.99). Opulent and lush, loads of oak, with pear and walnut accents and some citron on the finish. Zesty, a limited production, and one of the finest expressions of this grape anywhere in the world. All the fruit grows in the Gavilan Mountains of California’s Monterey County. The elevations and the soil make it a winner at this price.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: April 12-19, 2001

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