Winemakers Are Redefining Pinot Blanc Across Canada
It’s time we put all the cards on the table … if you want to talk about a misunderstood and disrespected grape variety, you need look no further than Pinot Blanc. “We cannot understand why Pinot Blanc isn’t more popular, especially here in British Columbia,” says Roland Kruger of Wild Goose Winery, “it grows superbly and we are able to get full ripeness every year, while maintaining perfect acid levels.” And Pinot Blanc is certainly not a grape to be confused with the much more popular (these days) Pinot Gris/Grigio.
“Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris might be all the rage,” says Marc Bradshaw of Strewn Winery in Ontario, “but Pinot Blanc makes a fabulous wine.” And Ginette Schirrmeister, of Lake Breeze Winery, adds, “It may never achieve the recognition and popularity of a Pinot Gris, but for us here in the Okanagan it is a varietal which can certainly reflect a sense of place.”
As you can, and will, see there is definitely a passionate group of winemakers using this grape across Canada, “I think it’s a grape with an intriguing future Nova Scotia, for both still and sparkling,” reports Simon Rafuse, winemaker for Blomidon Estate Winery; but these pockets of love and production are quite small: “Over the years Pinot Blanc has been a staple of our winery, although we do not do large volumes, it regularly sells out and wins major awards for us on a regular basis,” states Kruger. And they are not alone, most wineries I spoke with report a rather small percentage of their portfolio being comprised this forgotten grape.
Pinot Blanc is a popular grape in other parts of the world, like Germany, Italy and France, namely in Alsace, where they make everything from still to sparkling wines with it. Here in Canada it’s a grape used mainly for still wines, but at Sperling Vineyards in British Columbia they make both — liking the duality of the grape. Winemaker Ann Sperling explains why: “[The] Benches of Kelowna provides a long cool fall ripening for Pinot Blanc so flavours develop with naturally high acids — both malic and tartaric. These acids are important for flavour and freshness, the traits that make our Pinot Blanc such a food friendly wine in so many categories. Our limestone influenced soils provide abundant minerals to add nuance to our Pinot Blanc wines.”
BC doesn’t have a stranglehold on the grape; it’s grown across the country, but they sure do respect what it means to their viticulture and wine portfolios: “the grape loves the Okanagan,” says Andy Gebert of St Hubertus.
“We continue making Pinot Blanc because we have no other choice. The terroir where it is planted has demonstrated unique aromas and textures very representative of our Pinot Blanc,” says Xavier Bonilla of Cherry Point Estate Wines; and according to Heidi Noble of Joie Farm, “Pinot Blanc has the potential to be a signature varietal for the Okanagan Valley … [It] was some of the first vitis vinifera planted in the Okanagan after the vine-pull scheme here in 1989.” It seems that many realize the potential for the Blanc in BC and know the history of how it got there.
As Schirrmeister explains, “Pinot Blanc will keep its unique position in the Okanagan, especially after being introduced in the early 1980s by Dr Helmut Becker — after an eight year trial.” Roland Krueger has no doubt where Pinot Blanc stands in the province: “if there was ever a trademark grape in BC, it should be Pinot Blanc.” And the folks at Kraze Legz Winery (Sue and Gerry Thygesen) see its potential as limitless, “to infinite and beyond,” though they do admit, “Some consumers confuse Pinot Blanc with Pinot Gris; some expect a very light white; all are pleasantly surprised by the depth and complexity.”
In Ontario there is less Pinot Blanc being produced than in British Columbia, but those that do make it are just as passionate. Claudia Konzelmann of Konzelmann Estate goes as far as to make a prediction about the grape’s future, “I think that [it] is going to be ‘the next big thing,’ and I have every reason to believe [that].” She says consumers are definitely interested: “A lot of people are curious about its relationship with Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir so it’s easy to get into a good discussion about the grape.” For those not sure where Pinot Blanc fits into the wine world, it is a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir, which is an unstable grape that is prone to spontaneous mutation in the vineyard and one of those just happened to be our good friend Pinot Blanc.
Bradshaw is not as optimistic as Konzelmann. He sees Pinot Blanc as more of a niche wine there to “dazzle people who haven’t been exposed to the varietal or is really sought after by that small percentage of Pinot Blanc connoisseurs.”
Bradshaw explains how he became enamoured with the grape and its place in the wine world: “It took me a couple years to find my groove and even then, you never stop learning as a winemaker especially in an inconsistent growing region such as Niagara, but I am stoked with the quality of Pinot Blanc fruit we have on our home farms and in particular in the style of Pinot Blanc that I produce … Sure it doesn’t have the glitz and glam of its family members of Pinot Grigio/Gris and Pinot Noir and to be honest I find most people aren’t necessarily drawn to the varietal, but when you find a really well made Pinot Blanc it’s a thing of beauty and those that dare to try it are more often than not amazed.”
Which brings us right back to the beginning, where does Blanc stand in a Gris dominated world? “Pinot Blanc, for consumers, seems to have a universal appeal as a solid white table wine,” says Heidi Noble. Xavier Bonilla sees it a little differently, leaning more towards the niche wine Bradshaw spoke of earlier: “Pinot Blanc is not for everybody. It is for foodies with discerning tastes.” Roland Krueger pipes in from the tasting room’s point of view: “It is not usually the first choice of consumers in the wine shop, however, once you get it into their glass, they are hooked.” But the last word goes to Claudia of Konzelmann, who expresses it best and I am sure says what everyone is thinking: “Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir are very hip wines right now, but people always want to be a part of the next big thing. Not a lot of wineries make a Pinot Blanc and when we introduce a customer to it for the first time the reaction tends to be some incarnation of, ‘WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!’”
So do yourself a favour this summer, find and pour yourself some Pinot Blanc and after a few sips I’m sure you too will be asking your glass, “Where have you been all my life?” Here are a handful to get you started.
Sperling Sparkling Brut 2008, British Columbia ($40)
Aromas of lime, lemon, apple and a touch of fresh biscuits lead to a palate showing a touch of oxidation with good acidity, along with citrus pith and pear skin.
Pelee Island Singing Moon Pinot Blanc 2012, Ontario ($12.95)
Pear and lemon with hints of apple on the nose; there is little doubt this one is on the sweet side but with pretty pear notes, it’s a mid-summer patio pleaser.
Strewn Pinot Blanc Terroir 2013, Strewn Vineyard, Ontario ($18.95)
Lime zest, pear and mineral dominate the nose while hints of grapefruit, both pulp and pith, greet the palate, giving the wine a sweet and sour note, which along with good acidity helps make this one is quite vibrant.
Lake Breeze Pinot Blanc 2012, British Columbia ($19)
Lime zest, pear and floral aromas; on the palate there’s a fresh clean flavour that rolls over the tongue with white fruits and floral notes, zesty finish.
Lake Breeze Pinot Blanc 2013, British Columbia ($19)
Floral and lime pith dominate this year’s version, on the palate there is plenty of citrus zest mixed with mineral, prickly pear and bitter melon rind; quite a different take than the year before.
St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc 2013, British Columbia ($14.95)
Lively grapefruit zest greets the nose, palate continues with even more zesty grapefruit, juicy with a kick on the tongue of acidity; really yummy, reminiscent of Savvy B at times.
Skaha Pinot Blanc 2013, British Columbia ($18.95)
Great pear aromas followed by floral, pear, apple and mineral on the palate; juicy mid-palate leads to a citrus zest finish.
Joie Pinot Blanc 2014, British Columbia ($23)
Fruit cocktail aromas that include cantaloupe and Asian pear are a real lure; palate is super juicy with pear, honeydew and a great balancing minerality and acidity — pure summer in a glass.
Sandhill Pinot Blanc 2013, British Columbia ($16.99)
Floral and Bosc pear aromas; pear skin flavours in addition to lime zest, grassy notes and mineral; this one is pleasant but different than most others tried in this line-up.
Konzelmann Pinot Blanc 2013, Ontario ($11.95)
Palate is what stands out here: lively acidity and pear nuances, it comes off drier than most with lime zest and pith being the dominant feature.
Cherry Point Pinot Blanc 2013, Vancouver Island ($24)
Aromas really worth the price of admission with its simplicity of mineral and pear; floral, pear and mineral take over the palate; really tangy sensation on the finish.