The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
In the sibling-popularity sweepstakes, pinot blanc is sort of like Ann Cusack, the underrecognized sister of John and Joan. (You've rented Ace Ventura Jr.: Pet Detective, haven't you?) Destined to dwell in the shadows of pinot noir and pinot gris, the grape may lack big star power but it's finally earning modest attention in its own right.
Genetically speaking, the Cusack analogy slightly misses the mark, to be fair. While most wine lovers would consider pinot blanc as a distinct variety, DNA research reveals it to be nothing more than a colour mutation of pinot noir, just like grey-tinged pinot gris. In other words, think of it as pinot with a Nice 'n Easy blond dye job.
Yet it tastes different, of course. Most closely associated with Alsace in northern France, where it's often blended into anonymity with such varieties as pinot gris, riesling, silvaner and auxerrois, it's the sort of grape that would please fans of unoaked chardonnay – medium-bodied and rounded in texture yet with a pleasant zip of refreshing acidity running through its orchard-fruit notes. The French once mistook it for chardonnay, in fact, until ampelographers got wise to the distinction.
France may be its original stomping ground, but, as a solo player, pinot blanc owes more gratitude for its promise today to two other countries. One is Italy, where such excellent producers as Ermacora, Franz Haas and Terlano have managed to coax out a delicate floral quality to their pinot "biancos."
The other is Canada, or, more specifically, British Columbia. The vine likes warm soils and cool nights, and the Okanagan Valley is happy to oblige, at least for the sunny summer growing season. It's also winter hardy and ripens early, before cold weather starts in earnest, making it a fine fit for the Great Blanc North. B.C. producers of note include Blue Mountain, Gray Monk, Hester Creek, Joie, Lake Breeze, Nk'Mip and Wild Goose.
At the table, pinot blanc is more versatile than a Forkchop. When bottled on its own as a varietal wine in Alsace, it tends to have a musky, aromatic quality and a richness that can stand up to lightly spiced fish and poultry, even many vibrant Asian dishes. The more neutral or even moderately oaked versions from British Columbia and Italy make a fine white choice for simple pork or veal roasts as well as fish and cheesy pastas, including mac and cheese.
Next time you get a hankering for pinot, consider the humble other member of the family. But take a pass on Ace Ventura Jr., unless you're easily amused by a zany child "detective" eating cereal out of a dog bowl.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.