“What strange manner of creature is this? ‘Tis neither fish, flesh, nor fowl!” Legend has it those were the astonished words of an early European explorer after he spotted an alligator in a Florida swamp.
The expression, in various versions, generally refers to something that’s outside any normal category. And it reflects my own thoughts a few years ago, when the occasional bottle of white Pinot Noir began to show up among the Oregon wines I review.
What strange manner of creature, indeed! It’s Pinot Noir, but it’s not red. It’s sometimes labeled Blanc de Noir, but it’s not sparkling. It may occasionally resemble a very faint rosé, but winemakers insist it’s not that, either.
So what is it? Or better yet, why is it?
St. Innocent’s Mark Vlossak began making his white Pinot, labeled “Oeil de Perdrix” (or “Eye of the Partridge”), in 2011. He did so after a cool, wet harvest left him with some grapes not quite ripe enough for red wine. He set out to make a vin gris (a white wine made from red grapes), and then things took an unexpected turn.
“Tasting the wine just shy of dryness, I realized I had the opportunity to make a perfect picnic wine: low alcohol, bright acidity and Riesling-like aromatics and freshness,” Vlossak says.
Winemaker TJ Evans, who works with Pinot Noir at Domaine Carneros, has been making a white Pinot Noir since 2008. As a sparkling wine producer, says Evans, it made sense to experiment with a still Blanc de Noir.
Over the years, different clones and winemaking techniques have been tried—more or less fining, limited use of oak and recently, the addition of a concrete egg into the mix.
“We really attempt to fine-tune all of the winemaking decisions to present the really interesting flavors of Pinot Noir, including golden hay, honeycomb, apricot, lemon peel and pear,” says Evans. “But what is even more intriguing is the texture.”
Versions of white Pinot Noir are not as rare as you might believe. In Oregon, there are as many as a dozen, not to be confused with much more common Pinot Noir rosés.
For his white Pinot, Vlossak says, “I pick the grapes at Champagne ripeness, much earlier than for rosé. It is also pressed like Champagne grapes, using only the first 80% of the juice and pressing whole cluster with no skin contact.”
Along with St. Innocent’s Oeil de Perdrix, there are excellent recent Oregon releases from Ghost Hill, Left Coast Cellars, Oak Knoll and Swick. Also worth seeking out is Domaine Serene’s 2014 Coeur Blanc (94 points, $95), an intriguing counterpoint to a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, with comparable richness, along with expansive weight and length.
Elsewhere, you’ll find interesting versions from adventurous vintners in California, New York, France, Germany, Italy and New Zealand.
Some recent domestic releases with excellent reviews include Bravium’s Blanc Pinot Noir in the Anderson Valley, where both stainless steel and oak-aged versions are made (both 89 points, $49); Angel Camp’s Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley, 89 points, $35); and Anthony Nappa’s Anomaly Pinot Noir (New York, 90 points, $20).
From Germany, there’s the Carl Ehrhard Rüdesheim Blanc de Noirs Trocken (87 points, $16) and the Paul Anheuser Blanc de Noir (88 points, $14). And from Italy, Kerin O’Keefe reports there’s an outstanding white Pinot Nero called Pinner. It’s made by Cavallotto, a top Barolo producer, and produced from estate vines planted in 1972.
Not surprisingly, these wines differ greatly in production techniques, clonal selection and even how they’re named and labeled. Most are made in such small quantities that they’re principally sold as tasting room or wine club offers, and often attract a cult following.
As Evans says, white wines from red grapes have been made throughout history, often in places that only grow red grapes. Will white Pinot Noir ever become a more widely known category? I would say that’s doubtful. But much of wine’s mystery and romance comes from the experiments of curious winemakers and treasure-hunting consumers, equally fascinated by wines that put a different spin on familiar grapes.
For me, Oregon’s white Pinots have not yet shown any consistent style or set of flavors. These wines reward your interest and attention with their uniqueness. Some, quite honestly, are simply generic, some taste like flat sparkling wine and some are all but indistinguishable from rosés.
But the ones that keep you coming back for more deliver a host of subtle flavors not usually associated with Pinot Noir.