Amidst Wildfires, White Pinot Noir Emerges as a Savior in Oregon and British Columbia

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In 2020, Oregon experienced one of the most destructive seasons in its history. As fields burned and smoke lingered over vineyards, Pinot Noir, one of the state’s top grapes, took the largest hit with 62% of growers hit by fire and 40% of the Pinot Noir crop dumped or abandoned.

British Columbia has also suffered in recent years—the 2021 vintage saw smoke envelop the Okanagan Valley as residents evacuated and winemakers crossed their fingers the fires wouldn’t spread their way.

In situations like these, winemakers had a few choices: Abandon all hope and forfeit that year’s crops and subsequent financial gains. Pick the grapes and make the wine as previously intended, but risk making a wine tainted by the season’s smoke.

Or, roll with it. In the wake of wildfires, a handful of West Coast winemakers chose this option and harvested anyway, pivoting from original plans to turn their smoke-kissed Pinot Noir into white Pinot Noir.

White Pinot Noir is not new. In a wine by any other name, it’s Blanc de Noirs, Pinot d’Alsace, Blanc de Noir Spätburgunder or Pinot Nero Bianco.

But while Pinot Noir is famously known as the heartbreak grape for its inability to adapt to change, it’s arguably time to reconsider the moniker. Going back decades, white Pinot Noir has proved a solution for West Coast winemakers under duress. Take 1984—a wet, frigid vintage that had Oregon winemakers using their underripe grapes for a white Pinot Noir. Several California winemakers, including Joseph Phelps, also made white Pinot Noir in the ‘70s when facing shortages of white grapes.

The Complex Science and Evolving Toll of Smoke Taint

In 2020, dozens of wineries took the same route. “The white Pinot Noir surge of 2020 was a total pivot,” says Tony Rynders, owner of Tendril Winery in the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area (AVA) of Oregon. “People were just trying to figure out ways to find their way through the vintage.”

“In 2020, white Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir rosés are all we made,” says Mike Bayliss, co-owner of Ghost Hill, a Yamhill-Carlton winery that focuses entirely on estate-grown Pinot Noir. He and wife Drenda had started making white Pinot Noir roughly a decade prior after finding inspiration from a friend who studied Champagne production in France, but never in such volume. “There was too much smoke to make a red—the skins were just too badly tainted.”

One of the many chemicals that smoke imparts is guaiacol. It’s not harmful, but it leaves an ashy, campfire-ish characteristic to the grape and gives wine an astringent texture. There’s no washing it off. But smoke sticks primarily with a grape’s skin, not the flesh. If wine is pressed quickly, vintners can sidestep the smoke taint—in theory.

“To make wine that year was scary,” says Drenda Bayliss. “We had no clue what quality it would bring. We didn’t even pick very much because of the sheer amount of smoke taint. We were too nervous.”

“We’re in an area where there were two different fires, about eight miles apart,” says Mike Bayliss. “You couldn’t see outside some days.”

But the resulting white Pinot Noir, “was one of the best wines we’ve ever made. It sold out. If that ever happens again,” he says, knocking on the wood tabletop, “we would make so much more.” Today, they command a block of 115 clone dedicated to white Pinot Noir.

Domaine Nicolas-Jay in Newberg treated white Pinot Noir as an exigency wine. In 2020, they made a white (and rosé) Pinot Noir instead of risking a smoke-tinged red. The next year, the winery went back to strictly red Pinot Noir.

Over in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, winemaker Kevin Rossion of Plot Wines had been eyeing white Pinot Noir for a while. When 2021 hit, a particularly bad year for fires in the valley, he knew it was time to lean into the style. “I had wanted to try making one for a while, but the smoke pushed me to do it,” he notes. That vintage, he made just two skin-contact white wines and a white Pinot Noir. “We played things safe.”

Although white Pinot Noir has been a beacon of hope during perilous vintages, it’s far more than a backup plan.

Rynders started making white Pinot Noir in 2004 after running into an Italian winemaker who practiced the process. That same year, he released his take at Domaine Serene. He still makes a white Pinot Noir—The Pretender—at Tendril but he doesn’t make much of it, just a hundred cases or so a year. “But it is the most popular wine that we make,” says Rynders. “The tour operators talk this wine up.”

He reckons it’s because it’s a rarity. Aged for 16 months in neutral French oak, “it’s an incredibly textured, intensely aromatic expression of Pinot Noir. There’s almost this waxy, oily quality to it. It’s rich without being heavy.”

“White Pinot Noir is incredibly versatile, pairing-wise” he notes. “You can pair from traditional white wine pairings across the spectrum to lighter red wine fare.”

It’s also malleable in the making process. Rynders says he’s also added white Pinot Noir to Chardonnay aged in stainless steel. “That small percentage of white Pinot Noir gave the Chardonnay a remarkable textured presence and an exotic aromatic profile.”

In 2020, Rynders skipped the 100% white Pinot Noir—the grapes didn’t have the acid he desired—but he encouraged his clients to use white Pinot Noir as a tool. “Blend some into red Pinot Noir as a textural element.”

The style is also highly ageable, if handled correctly. “You need to ensure there’s no perceptible pink color,” says Rynders. “Like most rosés, color is unstable–it wants to oxidize and turn brown.”

“The trick to white Pinot Noir is to press gently,” says Rossion. “It’s important to have clean and perfect clusters and to pick when there’s an optimal balance of acid and sugar. You don’t want to extract color or bitterness. It’s a game of timing and tasting.”

If a white Pinot Noir is handled lightly, it’s got a long life ahead of it. “We were surprised at the ageability,” says Mike Bayliss. He recently had a bottle of their 2010 vintage. “It’s only getting better with time.”

There are downsides to white Pinot Noir, however. Since (red) Pinot Noir can command high prices, making white versions is cost prohibitive outside of fire-stricken vintages. Rossion notes continually making a white Pinot Noir isn’t attainable. “Pinot Noir grapes have a high market price,” he says. “It’s hard to justify making it into a white unless you are confident people would pay a retail price of $40 plus a bottle.”

That said, “I think you will start to see more Pinot Noir Blanc in regions affected by smoke,” says Rossion. Climate change is unpredictable. Rynders cites the hammering of 2020’s wildfires on the west coast, “and 2021 was almost as bad. This vintage, [2022] we got frosted out.”

“On top of smoke taint, unpredictable and cooler weather can slow the ripening process to a point where you sometimes can’t make a great red Pinot Noir,” says Plot Wines’ Rossion. A shift in perspective, like making white Pinot Noir, is offering promising results. “Plus, it’s tasty.”

As winemakers reckon with a changing climate, “we need to change our approach, instead of the wine,” says Rossion.

Published on September 20, 2022
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