A Tale of Two Grapes — Pinot Blanc From France and California
Yes a bit of a parody of Charles Dickens tale of Two Cities” (London and France) written in 1859. To recap his opening paragraph: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
However this time it is not about war and politics as Dickens’ was referring to, but it is about the same grape from two different areas, France and California. What is Pinot Blanc? Why haven’t I heard about this grape? What is it like? Where is it grown? These questions will be addressed in this story.
So what is Pinot Blanc? The history of this grape is a bit tangled with mystery and misunderstanding. This white wine grape is essentially a mutation but sharing mostly the same DNA with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Blanc has a wide ranging descriptors: high in acidity, low in acidity, mix of fresh fruits, aromas (apple, citrus), pear, a little buttery, a bit creamy, hint of spiciness, dry, floral characteristics, honey, sweet, possessing stone fruit aromas, heavier minerality, cabbage odor, etc.
Alsace fronts the Rhine River in eastern France, and borders the countries of Germany and Switzerland (Map from Ontheworldmap.com)
Where is it grown? The main areas for this variety are Alsace (northeast France), the Alto Adige region in Italy and neighboring areas of Alsace in Germany & Austria. Pinot Blanc is also taking a hold in Canada’s Okanagan Valley as one of their signature wines. Others areas include Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Washington and Oregon. In France it is permissible to blend this varietal with other grapes in some quantities.
What other names does it go by? Warning: the list is a minefield for possible mispronunciations: Austria (Weissburgunder or Klevner), Hungary (Feher Burgundi); Spain & Italy (Pinot bianco), Czech Republic (Rulandske Bile), Slovakia (Rulandske Biele, and Croatia (Pinot bijeli or Burgundac bijeli). More recently it is starting to be develop in Uruguay and Argentina. In the Champagne region, Pinot Blanc is often called Blanc vrai. In the United States, besides Pinot Blanc, it is often referred to as a white ABC (anything but Chardonnay) or a step-child to Chardonnay. The truth of this varietal is very different!
I was made aware of Pinot Blanc from a recent video cast (Winephabet Street) and found a very limited number of commercial California Pinot Blancs. I was intrigued by this obscure wine due to unfamiliarity and sought out to taste it. No easy task. The number of acres planted of Pinot Blanc are a bit of a mystery, but estimated around 300 to 400 acres statewide. Upon tasting various ones, I was more than impressed with the aromas, flavors, textures and tastes of this varietal. What stood out was this wine was significantly different from France to California. Admittedly, I have not tasted this varietal in all the previous countries mentioned earlier. In France Pinot Blanc can actually add Auxerrois (from the town in Chablis region) but still labeled as Pinot Blanc. Auxerrois often has a “green vegetable quality” to it. When I first tasted it, I was so “un-impressed” by the taste. Turns out it often has a cabbage tinge. What are the differences between California and French Pinot Blanc? Apart from “terroir”, as mentioned the French often blend in Auxerrois and it has a distinct “green vegetable” on the palate. When I had a Sonoma Valley, Pinot Blanc I was taken back with a soft “cotton candy sweetness” verses “cabbage” on the palate and finish. And thus the impetus for this article!
In all, four California Pinot Blancs were tasted. Each having different coloring, aromas and flavor profiles. The first one tasted, 2014 Valley of the Moon, 100% Pinot Blanc from Sonoma, had a light golden color and medium viscosity on the eye. Aromas and tastes were complex with a sweetness of honeysuckle and green apples contrasting with a soft sweet vegetable characteristic of uncooked snow peas and a hint of citrus. A great summer patio wine!
Today, Valley of the Moon offers their 2016 of Pinot Blanc and Viognier. This bright wine produced in stainless steel tanks, allowed the fresh fruit and aromas of the grape to express the fullness of Pinot Blanc. Combined with the tropical fruits of Viognier, what came across immediately was fruit with tropical aromas. Their winemakers’ notes talk about “Aromas of orange blossom and honeysuckle, with just a hint of spicy fresh ginger. Juicy white peach and nectarine fill the mouth and reveal hidden ripe pineapple and guava”. This is one wine that should be considered for your enjoyment. This wine received a Double Gold Medal Award at the Sonoma Harvest Fair.
The third tasted was a 2017 Saddleback Pinot Blanc from Napa. On the eye it was medium-heavy viscosity with a bright pale golden hue for color. On the nose & taste, earthiness, intense floral aromas, with a slightly tart finish of key lime pie and a sweet honeydew melon. The finish was full and multi-layered presence in the mouth especially going from chilled to warming up but always round and smooth. Truly a wonderful tasting experience.
The fourth California Pinot Blanc tasted was from Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards just outside St. Helena. This wine from the renowned Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc winery with extremely high ratings (97+), was their first attempt at Pinot Blanc. The grapes came from Yount Mill Vineyard in Yountville. Originally slated for a fortified wine experiment (something similar to Pineau des Charentes, a regional French aperitif) that will take 5 ½ years in the barrel, they had enough to produce 24 cases of unfiltered Pinot Blanc. This unfiltered wine possessed some distinguished characteristics as they stated, being on the “…rich, flavorful side”.
What foods pair well with California Pinot Blanc? Almost anything with subtle flavoring, so soft cheese (goat or sheep), salads with cheese dressings, or mild fish to taste this “more delicate varietal”. Conversely, if you want to highlight the meal and want a complimentary wine, you can serve California Pinot Blanc’s with Salmon, shrimp, scallops, far eastern chicken dishes, pizza, sushi & sashimi and even cured Italian prosciutto.
Generally speaking while having similar production characteristics as Chardonnay (oak barrel aging, stainless-steel aging), it is a wine generally not to be aged, but consumed early. The French can legally add the Auxerrois varietal which I believe distorts the pure Pinot Blanc experience. The quintessential take away is that California Pinot Blanc (be it stand alone or with Viognier) possess wide ranging characteristics and flavors. It is much more than your “ABC” wine and will provide you a new adventure and a great addition to your everyday whites.
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2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Grapes — Pinot Blanc From France and California”
June 9, 2019 at 9:15 pm
Excellent Post! so informative about the grape variety. It is amazing how the same grape can be so different depending on where it comes from!
June 10, 2019 at 1:38 pm
This is such an informative post! I have learned so much! Thank you for posting!