The White-Headed Stepchild
Reviewing my recent piece on Pinot Grigio’s lack of respect, Pinot Bianco might rightfully take issue with its cousin’s penchant for hogging the attention. While neither can boast widespread critical acclaim, at least the gray mutation of Pinot Noir is a best-seller. Bianco, on the other hand, is often relegated to background variety status.
Rarely grown in its native region of Burgundy, Pinot Blanc — as it’s called in most of the English-speaking world — has found more of a home in the Germanic regions of Alsace, Austria and throughout Germany. The majority of wines made here, as well as in the US in this style, are soft and round, sometimes off-dry in a way that might be described as Riesling Light. Jancis Robinson describes the grape as “useful rather than exciting,” as well as “gently rather than demandingly appealing,” having less character than the already tofu-like Chardonnay, as well as low body and acidity.
(I’ll wait while you rush out to buy some.)
All that said, one can understand why my expectations are relatively low when given the opportunity to taste through a bunch of Bianco from Italy’s Alto Adige, perhaps the only region in the world where the grape is highly regarded.
The first bottle I pop, the Cantina Terlano Nova Domus 2011, absolutely explodes with complexity, including honey, melon, minerals and, most notably, herbs. Because this particular wine is a blend (60% Pinot Bianco, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Sauvignon Blanc) — despite the fact that it is mostly Bianco — I find myself initially attributing the big flavors to Chard (melon) and Sauv Blanc (herbs). Still, the immensity of herbal flavor is a head-scratcher, if there’s only a splash of Sauvignon.
As I delve further, moving on to pure varietal bottlings, I begin to realize that this herbal, mineral quality is actually derived from the Bianco itself. In wines such as the Elena Walch Pinot Bianco 2015, this quality is intense, powerfully rippling through every aspect of the fresh, vibrant wine.
So what’s the deal here? How is this notoriously taciturn grape showing such exuberance and vitality? I turn to Cantina Terlano’s Judith Unterholzner for answers. “Especially when Pinot Bianco is cultivated in an Alpine climate, it can be surprisingly fleshy and rich in its herbal, honeyed yellow-fruit aromas and flavors,” she shares. In recent years, it turns out, the best Alto Adige winemakers have shifted their Bianco vines upward, moving from the valleys and lower slopes (which made more typical, tasteless wine) to upper elevations, starting at 1300 feet and running up to 2500. A reduction in yields as well as the introduction of guyot vine training (in addition to the traditional pergola method) has also helped make an impact.
In other words, much of the secret is location. “The unique aroma profile of our Pinot Bianco is due to the terroir of Terlano, which is responsible for scents of chamomile but also fresh flower meadows,” says Unterholzner. “The rich nose as well as the full and complex mouthfeel is markedly influenced by our eruptive soils, which also cause a powerful salty persistence.”
In the Alto Adige, there’s a seriousness regarding Bianco here that isn’t evident elsewhere. “Winemaking in Terlano traditionally involves the use of wooden casks,” continues Unterholzner. “Special emphasis is also placed on the sur lie method, with the wines often left to evolve on the yeast for years before being bottled, where they’re aged even further. The focus is on developing the complex secondary and tertiary aromas, which creates a specific character and complexity.”
Wines for Aging
It’s also fascinating how tightly-wound these wines are when young. Huge acidity — which often isn’t the case with Pinot Bianco from elsewhere — as well as those aggressive herbal and saline notes. The aforementioned Terlano Nova Domus, though quite complex and nuanced already, seems to be holding back, even at 5 years old. Though it can be decanted and enjoyed now, the winery suggests drinking no earlier than 8 years from the vintage date.
St. Pauls Passion Pinot Bianco Riserva is another beast, the 2012 offering a dank, feral nose, herbs and rocks belying slumbering fruit. I’d love to try it again in 3-5 years. Cantina Andriano Finado, a 2011 bottle, begins to showcase the benefits of age, with notes of honey and tropical fruit emerging to balance out the savory flavors.
“The aging potential of our wines is due to a combination of the high mineral content of the soils, old vines growing in complete harmony, carefully managed vineyards with low yields per vine, and the rigorous selection of healthy and fully mature grapes,” continues Unterholzner. “At several tastings back to the foundational years, our whites have proved to be liquid time machines, leaving their mark in memory as the supreme expression of a mineral terroir that is unique in this world.”
The Happy Ending
With wines this complex and intriguing, it’s hard to not wonder why more winemakers aren’t taking Bianco seriously. “Other regions have not believed in Pinot Bianco as an expressive variety with the ability to age,” agrees Unterholzner. “Thus it is difficult to compare our mature whites with those from other regions.”
Then again, it may just be one of those romantic, idealistic stories. Pinot Bianco, a rogue from Burgundy, sets off in search of itself, and finds an unlikely home in the Dolomites. Hallmark Channel here we come.
“Pinot Bianco has always been one of our main varieties,” concludes Unterholzner. “It’s a powerful expression of the terroir that brings the grapes to maturity in Terlano. Delicate, and above all minerally, Pinot Bianco wines are very much our trademark and Terlano’s ambassadors of longevity.”