Judging by the numbers, white wine lovers in the U.S. are loathe to give up their glass of Chardonnay. Last year, according to Dr. Liz Thach, MW (using Nielsen scan data), consumers snapped up 32,038,000 cases of the most popular white. But judging by my recent white wine binge tasting, that’s only because no one has put a glass of Pinot Blanc in front of them yet. Approaching Chardonnay’s signature full body, and often sharing some of its flavor profile—apple, pear, citrus, stone fruit—Pinot Blanc typically adds hints of almond that give it a savory spin. And the best are vibrant, shimmering with minerality.
Known most prominently in France’s Alsace region, Pinot Blanc is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape (as is Pinot Gris, which didn’t make it quite all the way to white). And in cool regions on the West Coast, from Santa Barbara County up through Northern California (Sonoma, Anderson Valley), to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, winemakers are crafting the variety into ever-more-beautiful iterations. (They just have considerably less raw material to work with compared to their Chardonnay projects: In 2018, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Golden State housed a mere 280 acres of Pinot Blanc, but more than 93,000 acres of Chardonnay.)
Ryan Prichard, winemaker at Three Sticks Wines, whose 2019 Pinot Blanc from western Sonoma’s Durell Vineyard is a stunner, describes the wine’s appeal—and its source of potential confusion: “Pinot Blanc is a wonderful balance between the inherent richness of Chardonnay and some of the more piercing and aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blanc. Much like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc has the capacity to be shaped into the winemaker’s expression of the fruit, which is one of the reasons it takes on so many forms throughout the world.” Some vintners spotlight the wine’s exuberant aromatics with stainless-steel fermentations; others build texture and mouth-feel with oak treatment. Prichard hedges his bets. “I barrel-ferment Pinot Blanc but use mostly used French oak barrels for the gentle impact,” he says. “But I also like to mix in a few stainless-steel barrels to ramp up the fresh and zippy notes, and acacia barrels to highlight the floral aspects of the variety. The goal is to meld that into a wine that has enough weight and structure to be serious but also has some verve and blossomy aromatics.”
That’s a wine that would make a great summer adventure for anyone whose reference point is Chardonnay.
Alma Rosa 2019 La Encantada Pinot Blanc Sta. Rita Hills
Lovely textures play across the palate of this white from Santa Barbara County pioneer Alma Rosa. Hints of orange blossom and jasmine open, joined by juicy apple, Meyer lemon, a touch of guava, and savory herbal notes. Generous fruit flavors follow, with clementine, peach, and green apple layered with hints of almonds and minerals.
Bouchaine 2018 Las Brisas Vineyard Pinot Blanc Sonoma, Carneros
Earth and fruit compromise beautifully in this mouth-filling Pinot Blanc from Bouchaine—sourced from a single-acre block of fan-favorite Las Brisas Vineyard, which, like Bouchaine’s estate vineyards enjoys the cool Carneros breezes off San Pablo Bay. Tropical blossom aromas drift over apple, pear, stone fruit, Meyer lemon, and crushed oyster shell on the nose, while the palate follows up with hints of tropical fruits under melon and white peach, lingering through a long, textured finish.
David Paige Wines 2020 RPG Vineyard Pinot Blanc Eola–Amity Hills
This vibrant Pinot Blanc from Dave Paige comes with a fascinating, “came over in the lining of my coat” origin story about the unusual clone he has in his vineyard. From a 1930s mutation in Burgundy’s Domaine Henri Gouges, this so-called Pinot Gouges clone made its way to the Willamette Valley, and has since been tasted, recognized, and confirmed by a current member of the Gouges family. White blossom aromas are carried by hints of ocean breeze, with tree fruits, pretty citrus, white peach, and river-stones joining in. The palate is full of tension and verve, intensely flavored with citrus and stone fruit that evolve into tropical notes and exotic minerality on the finish.
Deovlet Wines 2019 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Blanc Sta. Rita Hills
This delicate but intensely vibrant Blanc from Deovlet offers a different (and exciting) take on La Encantada Vineyard showcased in the Alma Rosa above. Beautiful aromas of apple skin, lemon-lime, and almond are wrapped in orchard blossoms and a hint of salinity. On the dry, racy palate—tense in the best way—citrus leads into white peach, pear, crushed herbs for a savory touch, and lime zest on a long, textured finish.
Dutton-Goldfield 2020 Dutton Ranch Shop Block Pinot Blanc Green Valley of Russian River Valley
From the Dutton Ranch, the Dutton-Goldfield team has pulled off another gorgeous white rivaling the Chardonnay from just a few rows over. Incredibly high-toned aromas conjuring tropical blossoms and an apple orchard just after the first rain merge with white nectarine and pink grapefruit on the nose. The apple theme reappears in flavor form, only there you can picture the red fruit with skin on—a hint of savory herbs adding interest. Beautiful citrus leans a little exotic, with puckery lemon zest balancing a creamy finish.
Handley Cellars 2018 Pinot Blanc Mendocino County
Here’s a creamy, rounded Pinot Blanc from longtime Anderson Valley favorite Handley. Crisp apple aromas are out in front, augmented by hints of guava and PB’s signature almond notes. The pretty palate offers up stone fruit in apricot form, a touch of grapefruit, melon, and lime zest evolving into a slightly tropical, minerally finish.
Ram’s Gate 2020 Estate Vineyard Pinot Blanc Carneros
Intensity and mouth-filling Pinot Blanc weight mark this beautiful white from Ram’s Gate, but it remains focused and refreshing at the same time. Apple blossom aromas open, with some earthy tropical notes and Bosc pear. A vibrantly dry palate is layered with more apple and pear along with stone fruit, a hint of nuttiness and wet stones.
Three Sticks 2019 Durell Vineyard Pinot Blanc Sonoma Coast
This brilliant, vibrant white from Three Sticks was brought up partly in stainless steel, partly in neutral French oak and in a single Acacia barrel. Hints of jasmine float over notes of apple, green melon, and lime, with a lovely wet-stone quality underneath. Refreshingly dry but generous at the same time, the palate bursts with mouth-filling pear, stone fruit and grapefruit, with a hint of almond. This one makes it impossible not to keep coming back for just one more sip.
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2019 Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley, Oregon
This energetic, aromatic Pinot Blanc from Willamette Valley Vineyards is a great deal. Perfumed florals—along the lines of spicy honeysuckle—jump from the glass, and after the flowers come bruised apple aromas (that’s a good thing), Asian pear and fuzzy peach punched up with lemon-lime. Pinot Blanc’s classic almond-apple character leads on the palate, joined by red pear and citrus with mouth-filling texture and zest. There’s lots of energy here, with a savory edge on the finish, balancing out the sweet fruit.