In the Sign of Subtlety
by David Schildknecht
Since you’re reading this, you’re likely an experienced wine drinker. Almost equally likely is that what little you claim to know about Pinot Blanc is wrong. It’s often referred to as a Burgundian grape variety best known for its Alsatian exemplifications. That would be scoring a trifecta ... of misses.
Pinot Blanc is neither a distinctive cépage nor a particular grape variety – at least, not from the viewpoint of ampelography or genetics. (And do we really wish to run roughshod over science?) Marginalized, misunderstood Pinot Blanc is none other than that darling of the wine scene, dark and sexy “Madame Pinot,” disguised by bud mutation – specifically, by a deactivation of the pigment-regulating gene VvMybA1, which by altering anthocyanins, also alters eventual flavor. So while the fortuitous, lost-in-the-mists-of-time sexual dalliance whose offspring is Pinot Noir almost certainly took place in Burgundy, Pinot Blanc can happen anywhere there’s Pinot Noir. Its having happened in Burgundy – which may well have been on thousands of occasions down the centuries – has left behind barely a trace. And good luck – you will need a lot of it – if you are chasing bottles of Pinot Blanc in Alsace.
Strangely, what there is of pure Pinot Blanc worldwide is nearly all rendered in German-speaking growing regions. (Now you know why you’re reading about it here.) And in those regions, it’s typically known as Weissburgunder, the name adopted in 1874 by an International Ampelographic Commission to replace “Weisser Klevner” (though, a century later, some French-language labels in Alsace still proclaimed “Klevner”). As if “Weissburgunder” were not misleading enough, a frequent label variant is “Weisser Burgunder.” One is almost forced to believe that growers wishing to claim Pinot Blanc as their own added further layers of misunderstanding to throw Weinnasen off its scent. (In colloquial German, wine nerds are “wine noses.”)
Considering how under-recognized Pinot Blanc is and how ubiquitous, often celebrated Chardonnay – not disregarding a misguided urge in some quarters to vinify Pinot Blanc as if it were Chardonnay – one might say that the latter has overshadowed the former. If so, it’s a case of Chardonnay having turned the tables.
Peruse wine literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, and not only are references to “Pinot Blanc” or “Pineau Blanc” as the principal white grape of Chablis and the Côte d’Or more numerous than those to “Chardonnay” or “Chardenay,” but it also becomes evident that most authors are treating these names as interchangeable. (To make matters yet more confusing, alternate coinage such as “Noirien Blanc” and “Morillon Blanc” occurs with similar ambiguity.) Only in 1868, thanks to research by ampelographer Victor Pulliat, did it become clear that there are two fundamentally different grapes that were similar in appearance. That distinction was recognized officially four years later at the Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Lyon. But to say that it took time for word to get round is an understatement. Austria (with South Tyrol following suit) only officially recognized the difference in 1986, after which it took another 23 years before this was reflected in government statistics. Almost certainly, many growers still believe themselves in possession of Chardonnay while in fact they have Pinot Blanc, or vice-versa. And only with the advent of gene sequencing – as pioneered for wine grapes by Californian Carole Meredith and her Swiss protégé José Vouillamoz – could it be discovered that Chardonnay is an offspring of Pinot and Gouais Blanc.
So were Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay ever genuine rivals for Burgundian affections? It’s doubtful. In his scrupulously-researched 1905 Culture de la Vigne en Côte-d’Or, Eugéne Durand — while ignorant of the underlying genetics — all but describes the phenomenon of bud mutation as the origin of Pinot Blanc. He was a fan, advocating for Pinot Blanc stand-alone or inter-planted with Pinot Noir, a role which he records Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc’s fellow-mutant Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Beurot) as having at that time played in many a famous Côte de Nuits vineyard. Yet, Durand was dismayed by how infrequently Côte d’Or growers had bothered to propagate this white mutant. And if Pinot Blanc was rare there in 1905, it seems scarcely credible that Burgundy’s notoriously conservative vignerons had in the decades prior ripped it all out. No, likely Chardonnay was indeed the historical “white Burgundy” (a surmise with which, incidentally, Vouillamoz concurs).
Strangely, what there is of pure Pinot Blanc worldwide is nearly all rendered in German-speaking growing regions.
Today, mixed plantings of any sort have virtually disappeared from Burgundy; and what Pinot Blanc one finds in the Côte d’Or is almost entirely due to Henri Gouge having become intrigued with, propagated, and eventually shared the budwood from a few fresh mutants discovered in his Nuits St.-Georges vineyards in 1936. In the whole of Burgundy, including the Auxerre and Beaujolais, anything not officially registered as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay or Aligoté comes to less than 1% of total vine surface; and several “other” vines — notably César, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris — far-outnumber Pinot Blanc. The grape is barely more common — though subject to greater recent interest — in Champagne, where it’s approved for the eponymous appellation under the rubric “Pinot.”
The relative prominence of Pinot Blanc in German-speaking lands could conceivably still trace to Burgundy. In 1878, vine authority Hermann Goethe claimed that his esteemed and recently deceased predecessor Johann Philipp Bronner had introduced it from France by way of Alsace “into all parts of Germany, Austria and Hungary,” while that champion of Styrian and South Tyrolean viticulture Hapsburg Archduke Johann is known to have drawn on French as well as Rhenish and native Styrian sources. But phenotypic diversity, centuries-old records of white grapes at Pinot-centric ecclesiastical estates outside France, plus the very nature of Pinot Blanc as a product of bud mutation, all cast into doubt such simple narratives of 19th century Burgundian exportation.
Faux Pinot Blanc
Nearly all Anglophone wine lovers — and that “all” encompasses many prominent wine writers, distinguished M.W.s included — profess to appreciate Pinot Blanc thanks to Alsace wines so-labeled. How “Pinot Blanc” ever got authorized as an alternate name for wines that until the 1990s usually sold under the slightly less misleading designation “Pinot d’Alsace” (occasionally “Klevner”) is worthy of study (or, dare one suggest, litigation?) ... but not on this occasion. Legally, Alsace wines labeled “Pinot Blanc” can comprise Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, or a blend of the two, plus optional Pinot Gris or white-vinified Pinot Noir. In practice, pure Alsace Pinot Blanc is now as rare as hen’s teeth; Auxerrois, utterly different in character, dominates most blends; and monocépage Auxerrois — an increasingly popular choice — is usually labeled as “Pinot Blanc” rather than with the less familiar name of the cépage actually employed. Attempts to expose this faux identity frequently meet with stubborn disbelief.
The grape is not disappearing from Alsace. It’s just been diverted increasingly to Crémant d’Alsace — a hugely important category for the region. Under current climatic conditions, Auxerrois — a grape introduced from Luxembourg after the Second World War precisely because it was distinctive, productive, and precocious (both in sugaring-up and shedding acidity) — would need to hang huge yields or be harvested by mid-August for its acidity and potential alcohol to suit méthode traditionnelle, thereby courting unripe (not to mention uninteresting) flavors. Riesling, unlike in Germany, has never been part of Alsace’s sparkling wine tradition. Among white grapes, that pretty much leaves Pinot Blanc.
Subtlety and Sensitivity
Pinot Blanc’s neglect worldwide is likely not just a result of historical accident and verbal confusion. It’s likely also owing to a trait which from today’s perspective can be appreciated as a virtue: Pinot Blanc’s inherent subtlety. Soft-spoken by nature, Pinot Blanc is made to look ridiculous by vintners who want it to wield a big stick. In Riesling-dominated regions, it is often pigeon-holed as an Ergänzungssorte — a grape for supplementing one’s portfolio, namely with a lower-acid, gentler wine easy on sensitive gums and stomachs. Its adaptability at the table leads to it being positioned as a default in circumstances where no other matching springs to mind. Either role sells Pinot Blanc short.
Pinot Blanc can synergistically insinuate itself while other wines are left fumbling for a key.
When compared with Chardonnay, Chasselas or Melon — let alone Auxerrois — ripe Pinot Blanc is distinguished by animatingly bright acidity. Yet a tendency toward caressing creaminess is equally ingrained, independent of lees contact or malo-lactic transformation. Indeed, a decided sensitivity accompanies Pinot Blanc’s restraint, such that heavy-handed lees stirring or profound malo-lactic conversion — as well as new oak exposure or elevated alcohol — can easily upset its balance, distort its distinctive, otherwise unmistakable voice, and obscure its finer points. Those include an uncanny ability to convey mineral, floral, and crustacean nuances while prominently exhibiting succulent sweet corn and apple (sometimes pear or melon), characteristically accompanied by raw almond.
“Sensitive” also describes Pinot Blanc’s unhappy relationship with high yields and botrytis. (It’s Pinot: What would you expect?) And viticultural challenges hardly end there. Echoing many growers, Styrian producer Armin Tement opines: “Weissburgunder is a fantastic variety, but a diva in the vineyard. You really have to understand it perfectly if you want to enable it to become a great wine, or even to bring out its distinctive aromas.” There’s one respect, though, in which Pinot Blanc surprises with its robustness. Casual vinifiers are sometimes amazed to discover how profoundly long-lived are their near-throwaway Ergänzungsweine. The 2008 revival of Pinot Blanc in which Gernot Heinrich now revels (as you may have read first here in Trink) is owed partly to a stash of poorly-stored, decade-plus-old bottles having turned up during construction and proven improbably impressive.
As for the “all-rounder” moniker, it obscures the many specific culinary situations into which Pinot Blanc can synergistically insinuate itself while other wines are left fumbling for a key. The frequency with which Pinot Blanc reveals sweet-saline, mineral-laden savor akin to raw scallop or oyster offers stunningly delicious like-with-like table pairings. With dishes whose creaminess or fat content calls for cutting and palate-cleansing but at the same time renders Riesling or Sauvignon awkwardly sharp, Pinot Blanc is the answer. And unless you have at hand Neuburger (which, while distinctively delicious, is seldom as interesting), Pinot Blanc is unique in that white asparagus will not repulse its advances. Examples could easily be multiplied. But best you take corkscrew in hand and discover this for yourself.
SEVEN AT ONE STROKE
In order to pare-down the number of wines whose modest prices and distinctive deliciousness might turn you into a Pinot Blanc partisan for life, I have applied two further filters. Each wine below hails from an estate whose seriousness about Pinot Blanc extends to multiple bottlings; so if the ostensibly intro-level offering impresses you, there are siblings to sample. I also tried to select for availability in major English-speaking markets, after finding that quite a few personal favorites have no U.S. presence, either because their producer lacks an importer or the relevant importer ignores Pinot Blanc. (Depressingly, I noted some instances of a Pinot Blanc until recently available stateside no longer being offered by its grower’s importer.) I haven’t been vintage-specific, but a good rule of thumb would be to purchase any pre-2019 wines you come across —not because 2019s will disappoint (on the contrary) but simply to experience the effects of time in bottle without having to wait.
If you like what you taste, then spread the word! Having trouble finding some of these seven (or anxious to taste more)? Watch your screens for an upcoming guide to Pinot Blanc (exclusively for Trink patrons) covering just shy of 100 committed growers, comprising thumbnail accounts — replete with stats and quotes – of their approaches and individual bottlings.
Kellerei Terlan Pinot Bianco (South Tyrol)
While four German growing regions credit Pinot Blanc as “Grosses Gewächs”-worthy, Italy’s German-speaking South Tyrol is the sole place where the cultivation of Pinot Blanc as well as its reputation is treated as a regional priority. Three of the numerous quality-conscious cooperatives uniquely characteristic for Südtirol not only favor Pinot Blanc statistically-speaking but boast as their estate flagship a prodigiously age-worthy site-specific exemplar. Kellerei Terlan — under the longstanding oenologist-cellarmaster duo of Klaus Gasser and Rudi Kofler — renders a clearly-legible and widely-circulated calling card for Pinot Blanc, favoring (in Kofler’s words) delicacy, minerality and florality.
Ignaz Niedrist Weissburgunder "Berg" (Südtirol)
Ignaz Niedrist’s is unusual among South Tyrolean wineries for being exclusively estate-bottling, family-owned, farmed hands-on by its namesake, and comprised of relatively few, large parcels of vines, located in three distinctive sectors of the Überetsch just south of Bozen. Each Niedrist Pinot Blanc originates in vineyards up against the Eppan Berg, whence the estate’s basic bottling takes its nickname. For examples of how saturated by mineral characteristics (or how age-worthy) a Pinot Blanc can be, you don’t need to “graduate” to Niedrist’s cask-raised, priority-parcel bottlings. Luscious apple and sweet corn mouthwateringly mingle with salts, chalk, and iodine, often by way of crustacean shells and flesh. Allusions in tasting notes to the Dolomitic limestone featured in Niedrist’s vineyards might or might not be merely metaphorical. But the rock itself is hard, somehow efficacious reality, along with accompanying gneiss and quartz-riddled porphyry.
A. Christmann Weissburgunder trocken (Pfalz – Mittelhaardt)
Given that Steffan Christmann presides over the prestigious growers’ association whose Pfalz branch authorizes Pinot Blanc for Grosses Gewächs, and that his exemplary estate features multiple Pinot Blanc bottlings, I was surprised and dismayed when he told me less than four years ago: “We’re giving this grape a chance, even though currently we anticipate that in 20 years we’ll only be growing Riesling and Pinot Noir.” Since then, daughter Sophie has taken an especially creative interest in Pinot Blanc and inaugurated a fourth (!) bottling devoted to the grape, while the Christmanns have acquired their neighbor’s choice acreage for a groundbreaking collaboration with ex-Bollinger chef de cave Mathieu Kauffmann that is set to include at least two pure-Pinot Blanc cuvées. I think I can now rest easier about the future of Christmann Pinot Blanc ... but we North Americans need to demand some! The basic Christmann bottling is a poster child for Pinot Blanc’s capacity to combine textural richness with animating refreshment and to deliver abundant umami at a modest price.
Ökonomierat Rebholz Weißer Burgunder trocken / Pinot Blanc (Pfalz – Südliche Weinstrasse)
The Southern Pfalz, whose towns and vineyards still lack the cachet of those in the adjacent Mittelhaardt, is increasingly becoming known for a concentration of fanatically quality-conscious winegrowers. It’s also a hotbed of Pinot Blanc activity, where several top estates feature three or more bottlings — and veteran Hansjörg Rebholz a world-record five! The ostensibly least among these — grown on both the sandstone and shell limestone that are prominent local features — constitutes a consistently irresistible and mouthwatering invitation to Pinot Blanc’s charms. Südpfalz elevations make for generally cooler conditions than in the Mittelhaardt, so the grapes can hang longer while retaining acidity that would make Riesling from a few other regions envious; and although, like most Rebholz wines labeled “trocken,” this one is analytically bone-dry, alcohol seldom exceeds 13%, and burdens neither wine or taster. (I list two names separated by a forward slash because one appears on this wine’s label in German-speaking markets and the other elsewhere. Such circumstances aren’t unusual. Many Pinot Blancs from Südtirol, for instance, sport a “Weissburgunder” or a “Pinot Bianco” label depending on where the wine is being marketed.)
Markus Molitor Pinot Blanc “Haus Klosterberg” (Mosel)
Markus Molitor’s phenomenal ambition and conjoining of vast acreage with exemplary quality have made him a near-legend in his lifetime. While Riesling and Pinot Noir are the grapes against which Molitor’s ambition and prowess are routinely measured, he began planting Pinot Blanc in 1997 with equally serious intentions that have since been realized. Molitor’s impressively age-worthy top Pinot Blanc bottlings originate in the breezy left bank Wehlener Klosterberg, source for the nickname of his winery, and hence also that of this intro-level offering, although it’s sourced in part from sites elsewhere along the Middle Mosel and Saar. Succulent sweet corn and apple are garlanded in flowers, set off against Mosel-appropriate wet stone, and mouthwateringly laced with crustacean essences in what is nearly always an uncanny demonstration of Pinot Blanc’s ability to combine textural caress with animating refreshment.
Prieler Pinot Blanc Seeberg (Burgenland – Leithaberg)
The Prieler portfolio has long included Pinot Blanc from windswept mica-schist and limestone vineyards overlooking the Neusiedlersee — sites collectively referred to as “Seeberg.” This eponymous bottling remains the starting point for an exploration that — thanks to Georg Prieler’s especially strong engagement on Pinot Blanc’s behalf — can now be extended to two other (cask-raised) bottlings. The Seeberg, though, is generally unsurpassed when it comes to purity of fruit or the exhibition, already in a youthful state, of textural allure and transparency to smoky, stony, peppery nuances.
Tement Weissburgunder “Ton & Mergel” (Südsteiermark)
Südsteiermark’s most renowned estate is also one of its region’s many to cherish Pinot Blanc and bottle multiple variants. The starting point in Tement’s Pinot Blanc line-up has recently been given a nickname for the clay and marl in which the vines that inform it are rooted. (Or look for Tement’s vineyard-designated Ried Sulz Weissburgunder — I recently spotted mature bottles at a great price in a U.S. retail establishment.) Styria’s relatively cool, well-watered (and notoriously vertiginous) slopes serve to lend Pinot Blanc an invigoratingly nervous edge even in exemplars that undergo malo-lactic transformation. With young Armin Tement now taking the reins from his pioneering father Manfred, this estate, like many in Südsteiermark, has accelerated a move away from vinification of ostensibly top wines in small, newish barrels. The precious coolness, clarity and cut that South Styrian microclimates promote are thereby reflected in the entire, increasingly nuanced Tement portfolio.