THE CINDERELLA GRAPE

By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 19 September 2015

It is known as the Cinderella of the grape world.  Overshadowed by oceans of Chardonnay and volumes of Pinot Grigio, the Pinot Blanc grape is the ‘other’ Pinot which tends to be forgotten about by wine growers and drinkers across the world – even though it can often make a much more complex wine than Pinot Grigio.

Pinot Blanc is a very noble grape.  Cousin of Pinot Noir, a mutation of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc was raised in the classic vineyards of Burgundy.  For centuries it was confused with Chardonnay, until in 1868 viticulturalist Victor Pulliat distinguished the two vines, which do look remarkably similar when grown in the vineyard. 

In comparison to Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc can be racier in acidity, but milder in aroma – so often offers a more delicate refreshing alternative.  You don’t find much left in Burgundy today as Chardonnay has become so dominant, even though Pinot Blanc is still allowed in Bourgogne Blanc blends.

Alsace Pinot BlancYou need to head east to the Alsace region on eastern French border to find the mainstay for Pinot Blanc.  Here it provides a very useful introduction to the aromatic Alsatian wine styles.  For those who find Alsace Pinot Gris a little too rich and spicy, Pinot Blanc is a great alternative with gentle floral aromas, green apple flavours, steely notes and that typical delicacy which makes it suitable for drinking young as an aperitif.  It is also used widely in Alsace in their popular regional fizz blend Cremant d’Alsace to add crispness to the blend.

In Alsace you often find Pinot Blanc (or Klevner its synonym) blended alongside another obscure grape, Auxerrois.  The best Pinot Blanc varietal wines are made south of Bergheim village, further north you will start to find more Pinot Blanc blended in with the buttery spicier Auxerrois, which tends to perform better in the north.  Auxerrois fleshes out the blend – but the key is in trying to get a balance in the wine which the best producers like Frederic Mochel manage to do.   There are even some co-planted plots of these two grapes surviving in the region as the two grapes have traditionally been blended together in the north of Alsace.

Pinot BiancoIt is the Italians who have taken Pinot Blanc (or Pinot Bianco as they call it there) to heart.  With 12,700 acres of vineyards, the Italians have over four times more planted than the French.  In high altitude sites in Alto Adige and Friuli in the north east it is highly prized for making rich citric creamy whites.  There is plenty of Pinot Grigio planted alongside the Pinot Bianco here, but Pinot Bianco makes a much more interesting wine.  Wineries who take Pinot Bianco seriously include Silvio Jermann, Ermacoro and Mario Schiopetto in Collio in Friuli and Franz Haas, Alois Lageder, San Michele Appiano and Cantina Terlano in Alto Adige.

The Italians do love their fizz and use Pinot Bianco in many of their spumantes from Piedmont to Trentino.  It is allowed up to 50% in the traditional method sparkling wines from Franciacorta in Lombardy, but Chardonnay is becoming more popular in Lombardy, so Pinot Bianco is gradually being squeezed out.

Some of the best Pinot Blancs I have ever had have come from Germany, who take ‘Weissburgunder’, as they call it, very seriously in certain regions.  In southern Germany in the Baden region (just across the river Rhine from Alsace), they make styles similar to Burgundy.  Made in oaked intense citric styles and bottled in Burgundian style bottles.  The best German examples come from the top producers like Martin Wassmer and Dr Heger.

In Austria, it is grown widely across Lower Austria, Burgenland and down into beautiful southern Styria on the Slovenian border.  In Slovenia it is known as Beli Pinot and in Croatia as Pinot Bijeli, there is also a little Pinot Blanc in Czech Republic, Hungary and Moldova – but you are only likely to encounter them if you are holidaying there, as few appear in the UK.

The ‘New World’ has shown little interest in this cool climate European grape, but there are pockets of interesting Pinot Bianco in Oregon planted by Italian immigrants, a little used to bolster up Californian fizz blends alongside Chardonnay – and it is starting to become popular as a hardy grape variety in the chilly Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia.

TASTE TEST:
Alsace, France: PINOT BLANC 2013 Domaine Ginglinger (£9.95 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 12.5%                                                                                   

A small traditional (established back in 1610!) family estate which I have only just discovered – there are lots of tiny family wineries in Alsace.  Ginglinger’s Pinot Blanc is enchantingly crisp, refreshing with a lovely leesy richness on the mid-palate.  Current generation Michel Ginglinger has travelled the world from South Africa, Chile to Burgundy to check out different wine styles and has returned home full of ideas for developing the family’s 13 hectares just south of Colmar, which includes two Grand Crus, Eguisheim and Pfeiberg which are used in their varietal blends..

Alsace, France:  PINOT BLANC, HUNAWIHR 2014 Kuhlmann-Platz (£7.99 at Majestic Wine)
Alcohol 12.5%                                                                                                   

This was a bit disappointing in comparison to the rest of the wines in the tasting.  It is mildly fruity, but it has an astringent acidic core which our tasters did not find appealing.  Made by Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr, the first co-operative in Alsace and the third created in France – back in the 1954..  The same co-operative made the Cuvee Prestige below which is a far better buy.

Pinot Blanc Hunawihr OddbinsAlsace, France:  PINOT BLANC, CUVEE PRESTIGE HUNAWIHR 2013 (£10.50 Oddbins)
Alcohol 12.5%

Very popular with tasters.  Citric, melon aromas, very well balanced fruit, a gentle backbone of natural acidity and a good length.  This really ticks all the boxes for a youthful vibrant Alsace Pinot Blanc.  Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr’s winemaker Nicolas Garde has selected better riper fruit for this cuvee.  Well done Oddbins.   STAR VALUE BUY

Alsace, France: KLEVNER PINOT BLANC 2013 Domaine Mochel (£10.95 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 13%                                                                                     

The Mochels are based in Traenheim in the less popular (in wine terms) northern part of Alsace, 20 km west from Strasbourg.  They grow their Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois on deep rich kauper marl which adds weight to this usually delicate grape.  They are the only winery in their village (out of 22 producers) to harvest by hand, rather than machine, as Frederic and Guillaume Mochel feel they get better quality fruit.  This wine is called Klevner, but is made from the Auxerrois grape – so interesting to see how this grape tastes on its own.  Popular with our tasters – it came in a very close second behind the Rolly Gassmann wine (below).

Alsace, France:  PINOT BLANC, MISE DU PRINTEMPS 2014 Josmeyer (£11.50 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 12%                                                                    

This is a very pretty wine (and very attractive label too) with just the right balance of freshness, youthful vitality and crispness.  Josmeyer’s style tends towards the more delicate and gentle (in comparison to other Alsace producers) for those who like a fresher zippier style.  Surprisingly, this is not all made from Pinot Blanc though.  They have included 60% Auxerrois in the blend from 35 year old vines grown on clay rich alluvial deposits between Wintzenheim, where the family are based, and neighbouring Turckheim.                        

Rolly Gassmann Pinot BlancAlsace, France:  PINOT BLANC 2013 Rolly Gassmann (£13.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Alcohol 12.5%

A visit to this enchantingly quaint family producer in Rorschwihr is memorable.  Current generation Pierre is one of Alace’s most generous hosts keen to show you every varietal and vineyard.  The Rolly Gassmann style tends towards off dry with a lovely mouthfilling richness.  This is actually one of their drier wines.  Limey in aroma, lovely rich fruits from grapes grown on marine sedimentary soils in the village of Rotleibel near Rorschwihr.  Pierre adds in just 5% Auxerrois to this blend to add weight to the mid-palate.  STAR BUY    

Alto Adige, Italy: PINOT BIANCO CLASSICO 2013 Cantino Terlano (£15.50 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Alcohol 13.5%                                                                                                    

Terlano is a village midway between Mercano and Bolzano in the stunning South Tyrol in northern Italy.  The very dynamic local co-op here makes reference point wines from vines grown on high altitude sites below the red porphyry rock of Mount Tschoggl.  Their Pinot Bianco has a lovely mountain freshness, a savoury undertone with well-defined juicy pure citric fruits. if you usually drink unoaked Chardonnay you should try this.

Burgenland, Austria: WEISSBURGUNDER 2012 Heidi Schrock (£15.48 www.alpinewines.co.uk)
Alcohol 12.5%

The Austrians takes Pinot Blanc very seriously – perhaps more than the French – as you can see from this very attractive floral example with nutty almondy flavours.  Heidi Schrock is one of the top Burgenland producers today and her Weissburgunder ages rather well – you can buy more mature vintages at incredibly good prices on Alpine Wines website back to the spicy minerally 2007 vintage.

Baden, Germany: IHRINGER WINKLERBERG WEISSBURGUNDER PREMIER CRU DRY 2013 Dr Heger (£22.40 www.thewinebarn.co.uk)
Alcohol 12.5%

If you are a keen fan of Burgundy – and happen to be in the Kaiserstuhl area of southern Germany, pay a visit to this incredible wine producer set up back in the 1930’s by a local doctor Dr Max Heger.  Their styles today are quite Burgundian with a fabulous richness and intensity –rather than being Germanic in style.  This Pinot Blanc was fermented in large oak casks is so richly citric with a juicy mandarin core of fruit, minerally, nutty with a lovely long length.  An ideal food wine to serve with rich fowl or pork dishes.
                      
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