Columns, Food & Drink, Libations

Dr. Booze on the subtlety of pinot blanc

I once spent a couple of hours on the Nk’Mip terrace with their pinot blanc and seldom has a misspent afternoon been so enjoyable.

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Pinot blanc is a wine that most people ignore. It isn’t a wine for beginners because it is too subtle. Most people start out liking wines that jump on their tongue wearing track cleats, and that is an activity in which a good pinot blanc will most definitely refuse to engage.

Indifference to the grape other than in blends resulted in the varietal almost becoming extinct. It was a wine from the Alsace, a cool inland climate near the Rhine, and was slowly being forgotten. The salvation was one of Canada’s first Masters of Wine. She wrote a thesis suggesting that the pinot blanc was perfectly suited to the Canadian climate, and was an under-appreciated gem.

She was right. Randy Picton, the Nk Mip winemaker tells me that pinot blanc is the one wine he does pretty much nothing too. ìIt makes itself here. I’ve heard the same sentiment from other Okanagan winemakers. (And I’ve heard the exact same comment from winemakers in Marlborough referring to sauvignon blanc. This terroir stuff shouldn’t be ignored.)

It really is a nice wine. I’ve loved Alsace wines since I fell in love with gewurztraminer lo, those many decades ago. Admittedly the first time I bought their wine was as a callow youth of 18 and was charmed by the tall elegant bottle. But if ever there was truth in packaging, a pinot blanc deserves such an Audrey Hepburn container. It is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

To sum it up in one word, Pinot blanc is restrained. It is light bodied, a little lighter, less viscous than a hugely oaked chardonnay but with a bit more texture than a brisk sauvignon blanc. The palate tends to fruit with just enough alcohol and acidity to make a wonderfully balanced wine that will gracefully accompany all white wine dishes. It is a subtle pleasure, that can be enjoyed over a slow afternoon pondering what exactly is going on in your glass and mouth.

There are all sorts available across the prairies from the Okanagan, and I think the best way to get the wine is via mail order directly from the winery, but every wine store has at least a few from the largest Okanagan wineries. The wines listed here should be reasonably easy to find, but for heaven’s sake don’t ignore a Pinot Blanc I don’t review! If you see one, buy it and try it!

Sandhill Estates is a Canadian winery that should be on everyone’s radar. It’s a small winery that falls under the Peller Estates umbrella, and I think is intended to be their flagship winery. Certainly the wines I’ve had from there are all worth close attention and like their pinot blanc offer amazing value for the money.

Their version of the wine is beautifully balanced. The palate has a slightly floral cast, maybe lemon flowers, and the palate has a lovely hint of peach to it. Trying to unravel a pinot blanc can take all day, and if you’re going to spend time doing just that, lazing away a Saturday afternoon this would be my first pick.

Red Rooster is a winery that is just beginning to ship beyond the valley. I visited their winery last year, and if they poured a PB for me, I don’t recall it, and it isn’t in my notes. This made me hugely curious. Again this is a very restrained wine. The bouquet is more melony than peachy, and the palate is just a hair more acidic than the Sandhill. The winery is a good bit further north than Sandhill and if you’ve never had a PB and need a little more statement from your wine, this slightly crisper attack of Red Rooster will likely offer the most appeal.

Mission Hill PB is a more orotund version of the grape. Although I’m sure that both Sandhill and Red Rooster exposed some of the wine to barrels, I would guess Mission Hill did a touch higher percentage. Like Red Rooster their wine tends more to the melon side of the flavour set with a nice crisp acidity. It is exactly what I would expect from such a well run winery.

Gray Monk was less rounded with a leaner approach to the wine than the others. However the acidity and flavours were still beautifully balanced, although I’d guess the pH to be -0.01 more. The bouquet was a little more herbal, with a touch of grapefruit but the palate supple, balanced and thoroughly enjoyable.

All of these wines shine when a few degrees above fridge temperature. If you’re a pasta primavera person, (and who isn’t this time of year, when the vegetables are fresh and crunchy?) make a dish tonight and serve any of the below. They will return the favour nobly.

Gray Monk Pinot Blanc, Canada, 2010. $22 ****
Red Rooster Pinot Blanc, Canada, 2010. $18 ****
Mission Hill Pinot Blanc, Canada, 2010. $20 ****
Sandhill Pinot Blanc, Canada, 2010. $18 ****deal alert!

James Romanow writes about wine and all things boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.