- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Poor pinot blanc. In its famed wine family, rich, noble pinot noir gets most of the acclaim these days. Lush, lavish gris still has plenty of admirers, too. Pinot meunier may not make the society pages all that often, but it comes from Champagne, so it lives a luxurious life. Meanwhile, blanc gets overlooked, if not forgotten altogether.

Yet just as Cinderella entranced her prince at the ball, pinot blanc shines when given the opportunity to perform at the dinner table. A remarkably versatile white wine, it has the uncanny ability to pair well with a wide variety of foods. When you try a first-class rendition, odds are that you’ll end up admiring, not pitying it.

The various pinot grape varieties constitute a close-knit family. They share the same DNA but have mutated over the centuries so that they now come in different colors and offer different flavors. Blanc is the most elusive of the brood. Meunier (actually a child of noir) gives depth to Champagne. Gris can alternate between opulence, as in Alsace, and vivacity, as in Italy (where it’s known as grigio), but blanc’s chief virtue is delicacy, something that too often can be misconstrued as a weakness.

The inherent subtlety of good pinot blanc does make it less appealing than more showy wines (including its pinot siblings) in cocktail lounges or bars. In those settings, muscle rather than grace will make any wine stand out from the crowd.

Pinot blanc’s nuanced character, however, is precisely what makes it such a good dinner companion. Not only won’t it overwhelm whatever you’re eating, but the interplay with food actually tends to enhance its charms. This is one wine that definitely tastes more compelling during a meal than either before or afterward.

Pinot blanc was first identified as a separate grape variety in Burgundy at the end of the 19th century. Although some vines still are cultivated there, the grape is now planted more widely elsewhere. It grows throughout eastern Europe and has yielded some impressive results in both California and Oregon; but the best wines come from Alsace in France, Austria, and northern Italy.

Even in those regions, pinot blanc all too often is treated as a workhorse, playing second fiddle to supposedly more glamorous white wine grapes such as Riesling or pinot gris. For consumers, however, the vine’s second-class status can be an advantage. That’s because pinot blanc invariably offers good value, usually costing about a third less than a producer’s other wines.

The taste of pinot blanc varies, depending upon where the vines are grown and how the wine is made. In cooler regions, its fruit flavors tend to resemble apples and pears. In warmer ones, they can seem more peachy. In the winery, the use of oak barrels becomes a crucial factor. Too much wood can obliterate the wine’s subtleties, but just the right amount can add an attractive spicy edge.

No matter the wine’s origin or the winemaker’s style, good pinot blanc invariably is medium-bodied. Few white wine dishes overpower it, just as it won’t overwhelm even delicate seafood preparations. The best examples augment their fruit flavors with mineral-tinged secondary ones and tight but not aggressive acidity. They enhance a meal by complementing, not overshadowing, the food.

Here are 10 wines worth trying. They are listed in ascending order by price, but even the more expensive ones offer fine value. With warm weather just around the corner, you probably soon will be looking for good white wines to enjoy with dinner. This year, don’t overlook pinot blanc. There’s really nothing poor about it.

• Mader, Alsace (France) 2004 ($13). A fantastic value, full of crisp autumn fruit flavors, and ending with a long, satisfying finish. All of this winery’s current offerings are very good and very attractively priced.

• Rene Barth, Alsace (France) 2004 ($13). The most delicate of all the wines recommended here, this is a gentle, even gentile pinot blanc. Drink it with lighter seafood or poultry dishes.

• Hugel Cuvee les Amours Alsace (France) 2004 ($15). Always reliable and widely available, Hugel’s Cuvee des Amours is an excellent introduction to pinot blanc. It’s full of apple and pear fruit flavor.

• Tangent, Edna Valley (California) 2005 ($18). Just about the best California pinot blanc I’ve tasted, this wine is made in an Alsatian style, meaning that it tastes crisp and bright but has a bit more body and weight, due to Golden State sunshine.

• Cantina Terlan, Alto Adige (Italy) 2005 ($20). Labeled pinot bianco, this wine offers fantastic value. It tastes wonderfully nuanced and sophisticated and outperforms most chardonnays that cost three times as much. It also will age well, acquiring even more subtleties over time.

• Alois Lageder Haberlehof Alto Adige (Italy) 2004 ($21). Lageder’s regular pinot bianco is quite good and costs about $15, but this Haberlehof bottling is even better, with a slightly honeyed character enhancing the bright but rich fruit.

• Prieler Seeberg Burgenland (Austria) 2005 ($22). A vibrant wine, full of apple-scented fruit with a distinctive mineral-tinged undertone. My guess is that it will taste even better in a year or two.

• Schleret Herrenweg Cuvee Reserve 2004 Alsace (France) ($22). A richer rendition than the less costly Alsatians recommended above, this wine offers similar fruit flavors but supports them with notes reminiscent of honey, spice and toasted nuts.

• St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Willamette Valley (Oregon) 2005 ($23). Ripe peach and pear fruit flavors, followed by secondary notes of sweet spice.

Luscious, but dry and satisfying.

• Rudi Pichler, Smaragd Wosendorfer Wachau (Austria) ($35). Apricots, peaches and more form a veritable fruit salad of aromas and flavors, enhanced by floral notes and a mineral-rich finish.

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