A little known member of a notable family of grapes is white Pinot Blanc, a natural mutation of the more famous, black Pinot Noir. In both leaf structure and fruit clusters, Pinot Blanc closely resembles Chardonnay, causing a degree of confusion. It is, however, quite a separate species. Although originally found in Burgundy, Pinot Blanc has firmly taken root in the Alsace Region of France. Here it is both very much a workhorse white wine and the precursor of several interesting expressions, blended and in its own right. Especially notable is Crémant d´Alsace, a high quality sparkling white wine, deserving to be on anyone's shopping list for the Festive Season.
Pinot Blanc grapes are high in acidity and characteristically low in aromatics, but the odours which can be detected are important ones. The light aromas play well with the flavours of apples and almonds. The care necessary during steps of fermentation and any further maturation will always pay dividends. Most Pinot Blanc is for immediate consumption, seldom set aside for ageing. However, oak barrels will quickly impart vanilla flavours ( the most important essence found in human breast milk), later adding sweet wood and smoke. The skins of Pinot Blanc grapes are unusually high in tannins, and the wine is rather prone to browning, a standard feature of aged white wines.
The Pinot Blanc vine has migrated widely south and east across Europe, but in its homeland remains locked in Alsace. In this area it is also known as Klevner. When blended with Auxerrois (Malbec) it is bottled as a full-bodied wine that is smoky and spicy. In Italy, where the grape is called Pinot Bianco, the wine manifests itself as crisp, young Spumante, exhibiting a refreshing acidity. This is always another Christmas favourite. In Germany and Austria the labels will proclaim the wine as Weissburgunder, with the Austrians producing a very sweet, botrysised version, Trockenbeerenauslese, truly a name to conjure with. Further east, Hungarian, Slovak and Czech wine producers grow significant acreage of Pinot Blanc.
In the New World, Uruguay and Argentina have adopted Pinot Blanc. The Argentinians have developed their own wine industry as an exact clone of the French, also using their Pinot Blanc for blending and as a true expression. The only other place on the planet where Pinot Blanc has made a mark is, of course, California. Even here it is largely limited to Monterey County. However, the Californians have developed a distinct style of Pinot Blanc wine, using the Chardonnay technique of barrel fermentation, to good effect. They also employ the practice of stirring-up the lees. There is one fairly serious problem with these Pacific Coast wines. In California, wines produced from both the Melon de Bourgogne and Muscadet are often bottled as Pinot Blanc - so check the labels carefully!