Italy’s pinot bianco (called pinot blanc in France and weissburgunder in Germany) is arguably the best in the world. Aside from some excellent examples from Germany, nowhere else does the variety reach the level of purity and precision it does in northeastern Italy. A mutation of pinot grigio (which is in turn a mutation of pinot noir), pinot bianco is more floral, steely and mineral-driven than pinot grigio, which can be surprisingly fleshy and rich in its resiny, honeyed yellow fruit aromas and flavors.
In Italy, when it’s not inadvertently contaminated with chardonnay, pinot bianco is at its best, offering textbook aromas and flavors of white flower, beeswax and green apple. The best Italian pinot bianco is produced in Alto Adige (where it is also labelled by the German name of weissburgunder) and Friuli Venezia Giulia, though the styles differ. While Alto Adige’s examples are floral and minerally, FVG’s tend to be richer in structure and higher in alcohol, though the aroma and flavor profiles remain similar. Some good pinot biancos are also produced in Trentino and Lombardy.
Of course, as with any other wine, not every Italian pinot bianco is something to write home about. In Alto Adige it has always been the region’s favorite everyday wine, and is often sold in demi-johns for inexpensive quaffing. Most of these less-serious examples come from high-yielding vineyards that tend to produce dilute wine. Also, the best Italian pinot biancos are never fermented or aged in oak, as the variety’s dainty, refined aromas and flavors are generally overwhelmed by the aggressiveness of wood. Italy’s producers of pinot bianco have never really promoted the virtues of their wines, either through the efforts of consortiums or regional governments. As matters now stand, one of Italy’s greatest white wines is largely unknown to the general public.
Here are some of the best examples of pinot bianco I found for my recent coverage of the white wines of northeastern Italy in the International Wine Cellar.
In Trentino, the 2010 Istituto Agrario San Michele All’Adige Pinot Bianco Trentino ($23; Vias Imports) offers bracing, varietally typical aromas of white peach, green apple, arugula and beeswax.
From Alto Adige, the pale yellow-green 2010 Lageder Pinot Bianco Haberle Alto Adige ($23; Chambers & Chambers, Dalla Terra, Martin Scott Wines) offers expressive lemon, lime and powdered mineral aromas and flavors lifted by stone and floral notes. The even better 2010 Baron Widmann Weissburgunder Sudtiroler ($34; Sussex Wine Merchants) is suave, fresh and youthfully tight, with flavors of green apple and nectarine. It’s a great example of the fresh, unoaked pinot bianco that Alto Adige does best. In a similar vein is the pungently floral 2010 Castel Sallegg Pinot Bianco Alto Adige ($21; Domenico Valentino Selections), which offers aromas of honeysuckle, white pear, green apple and minerals. It’s made in ajuicy and elegant style.
For slightly richer and more structured versions, look for the straw-gold 2010 Convento Muri Gries Weissburgunder Terlano Alto Adige (Polaner Selections), a floral, waxy wine laced with pear and apricot fruit, and the 2010 Ignaz Niedrist Weissburgunder Sudtirol Terlaner ($33; Sussex Wine Merchants), white features open-knit apple, citrus and nectarine flavors supported by a mineral undertone. Perhaps Alto Adige’s most famous pinot bianco of all, the 2008 Cantina Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg Riserva Alto Adige Terlan ($28; Banville & Jones), delivers lots of white peach, pear and herbal character complemented by minty and mineral nuances.
Over in Friuli Venezia Giulia, you shouldn’t miss out on the 2006 Russiz Superiore Pinot Bianco Riserva Collio ($37; Dalla Terra), a bigger, reserve-style wine with a delicate caramel note complementing its white peach, beeswax, hazelnut and white flower aromas and flavors. The 2010 Volpe Pasini Pinot Bianco Zuc di Volpe Colli Orientali del Friuli (Vinity Wine Company) is likewise excellent, and has the capacity for long aging. I enjoyed its lively floral aromas and flavors of white peach, apple, chamomile, licorice, beeswax and fresh herbs. The pale yellow-straw 2009 Villa Russiz Pinot Bianco Collio ($35; Empson USA Inc.) is another winner, displaying varietally accurate aromas of green apple, white flowers and beeswax complicated by hints of mint and gin.