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Pinot Blanc

photo of Pinot Blanc by Tim Ramey.Pinot blanc is a genetic mutation or clone of pinot gris, which is in turn, a clone of pinot noir; all members of the Pinot family are among the most ancient of vitus vinifera variations. For all of the confusion it causes, pinot blanc might be more appropriately named "P-no one really knows".

Pinot blanc leaf structures, clusters and berries so resemble Chardonnay that within many vineyards in Europe the two are intermingled, even challenging ampelographers to separate them. No distinction was made between the two varieties during the nineteenth century. This may have led to some misnaming of grapes as "pinot chardonnay" (chardonnay is decidedly not of the pinot family).

In earlier centuries, pinot blanc was far more important in Bourgogne vineyards than it is today. In the 1700s, the most famous of red burgundies, Domaine Romanée Conti, contained 20% pinot blanc and/or pinot gris; today DRC is 100% pinot noir. Pinot blanc is allowed in both the Mâconnais and in wine labeled "Bourgogne Blanc", but plantings are nearly phased out of the Burgundy appellation. Although pinot blanc vineyards still exist in Alsace, where the variety sometimes is called Klevner, the variety is endangered there as well. Plantings of auxerrois, whose vines closely resemble pinot blanc, have increased in the past twenty years, replacing pinot blanc; already twice as many auxerrois vines as pinot blanc are planted.1

Pinot Blanc cluster photo.Pinot blanc Plantings are extensive in Italy, where the grape is known as pinot bianco. Many vintners there make relatively neutral-tasting, crisp, high-acid versions intended for early consumption. Due to its low aroma and high acid, high production clones of pinot blanc are also used for blending with muscat in Spumante.

There are vineyards in both Germany and Austria, where pinot blanc may be called Weissburgunder and is even made into a trockenbeerenauslese version. There is also much pinot blanc planted in Eastern Europe. Pinot Blanc leaf photo.A considerable amount of pinot blanc is planted in Uruguay and Argentina.

Although Paul Masson imported true Pinot Blanc in the late 1890s, other varieties of the era, purported to be Pinot Blanc or White Burgundy, may have actually been chardonnay or even chenin blanc (contemporarily known as "Pineau de la Loire"). In the 1980s, DNA testing confirmed that most of what was called Pinot Blanc in California was in reality Melon de Bourgogne, the grape variety of Muscadet which at a peak of popularity right after Prohibition. More than half of the 1,000 or so acres of "pinot blanc" in California are planted in Monterey County with another quarter of the total split between Napa and Sonoma. Mirassou winery (now part of the Gallo wine empire) owns about 85 acres in Monterey, all vines descended from the original Paul Masson-imported clone.


Pinot Chimera?
Only a single mutation of the outer layer of cells causes the differentiations between members of the ancient wine grape family of pinot (variants pinot noir, pinot gris/grigio, pinot meunier, and pinot blanc). With this single layer removed, plants grown from thus-altered scions would be genetically identical to their pinot noir progenitor.

Leaf roll virus is almost endemic in pinot blanc. Both vine size and general vine vigor are below average when propagated from older (true varietal) plantings. Crop recovery from early frost tends to be above-average and normal ripening is early to mid-season. Bunches tend to be very compact, so the risk of rot makes pinot blanc not suited to rain-prone locations. Crop size varies from three to five tons per acre, depending on clone and vine size. Pinot blanc berry skins have an unusually high tannin content for a white variety, yet the wines are quite prone to oxidation and browning.

All pinot blanc clones are characteristically high in acid and low in aromatic intensity, making it desirable as a sparkling wine component. The smell of pinot blanc, in fact, is very light indeed, non-distinct, and nearly neutral; this seems to increase the aroma influence of terroir and vinification. Pinot Blanc wines are balanced with high acid and can be full-bodied.

*Typical Pinot Blanc Smell and/or Flavor Elements
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Nut: almond

Malolactic: butter, cream, hazelnut

Fruit: apple

Oak: vanilla, toast

  Mineral: flint, slate, smoke

Some California winemakers have fairly good results applying the same techniques to Pinot Blanc (if indeed this is the grape they are getting) that they might to Chardonnay: barrel fermentation, lees stirring, full malolactic, etc.

by Jim LaMar

1 Auxerrois is more productive, but its fruit is lower in acidity and aromatics and it tends to make more full-bodied (some say "flabby") wine. RETURN
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

5. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

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Page created October 5, 2001; last updated July 1, 2015
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