They are the color of gold but not at all rare; They are inexpensive yet hard to find on a wine list. Yet they are among the most versatile white wines, not least with dishes that contain a good dose of spice.
I’m speaking about pinot blanc, once a prolific grape in France’s Burgundy region and now displaced by chardonnay. It is widely planted in Alsace, where it is sometimes called klevner; in northern Italy, it is called pinot bianco; in Germany, it’s known as weissburgunder; in the Czech Republic, it’s rulandske bile. Yet in California, a bottle labeled pinot blanc may actually be another varietal called muscat melon.
Pinot blanc is such a workhorse grape that it’s difficult to get handle on just how it’s supposed to taste. In Austria and Alsace, the soils contribute to distinctive spiciness and aromatic qualities that make it as easy to drink as a faintly sweet aperitif as with a wide variety of foods.
It doesn’t have the acidic bite of Riesling or the pungent herbaceousness of gewurtztraminer. Instead, it achieves a middle ground whereby the wine never overpowers food and still buoys up many savory flavors, not least those in Asian dishes.
Last week in London, I drank pinot blanc with almost every meal, finding it as refreshing with dishes like wild bream and crab as it was with smoked salmon, and with just about all cheeses, from cheddar to Gorgonzola.
I was most charmed by pinot blanc’s vivacity with the refined Indian seafood at the restaurant Quilon, including curry leaf and lentil crusted fish with ginger and coconut chutney, and a prawn with ground pink peppercorn and byadgi chili.
That’s a lot of spices, some hot, each with its own aromas. The combination of citrus fruit, mineral, oak, and spice flavors in a 2009 Alois Lageder Haberle ($20 retail) from Alto Adige, Italy, mingled beautifully with the exotic spices of the meal.
So, too, at a new hot spot named Social Eating House in Soho. Sommelier Boris Poliakov served me a luscious, pear-like, highly aromatic Alsatian pinot blanc from Jean-Marie Haag 2011 ($20), with a modest 12.5 percent alcohol.
It went with a salt-cod fishcake with lemon butter and chive cream, and a dish of Colchester crab with a roasted-tomato vinaigrette. The meal ended with a very sweet honey-almond sponge cake with goat’s curd ice cream and orange, which the wine still had the body to complement.
At chef Heston Blumenthal’s superb restaurant named Dinner, I ordered another Alsatian beauty from one of the best-known estates in the region, Domaine Zind Humbrecht 2011 ($30).
It was a beautiful match with a chicken liver and foie gras parfait; spiced duck breast with a smoked confit of fennel; and brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel, pear, and malted yeast syrup.
While that is a difficult array of flavors for any wine to cope with, the pinot blanc proved more than a good companion for every dish. With 13.5 percent alcohol, it had the power of a good Burgundian chardonnay.
Even within Alsace, pinot blancs show many different flavor components. At lunch at the Brasserie at Ellenborough Park in the Cotswolds, a Paul & Philippe Zinck 2011 ($12) showed a great deal of fruit and very little acid, with a real softness on the palate and a touch of sweetness that went very well with a wild mushroom and vegetable risotto.
The puzzling thing was that all of these restaurants listed just a single pinot blanc on their wine lists. You won’t find scads of them at wine shops either.
Once I got home, with a little calling around I found a few bottles among the rieslings and gewurztraminers. Domaine Pfister 2009 ($27) was very tangy and delightfully herbal, with a flowery bouquet, and a pretty sweetness, with 12 percent alcohol, making it very easy to drink.
By contrast, Domaine Mittnacht Freres Terre d’Etoiles 2011 ($19) was of another style: spicy with a gingery spark and a nose close to a gewurtztraminer. It was a subdued wine without much punch. Still, with chicken burgers on a bun with ketchup, red peppers, and baked beans, I couldn’t have been happier sitting outside for my first early summer’s meal.
Pinot blanc is that kind of appealing and amenable wine, offering surprises from estate to estate. And if it’s not a wine to go with a porterhouse steak, for most everything else, it will serve.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Guy Collins and John Mariani on wine, Scott Reyburn and Frederik Balfour on the art market, Farah Nayeri on film and Gwen Ackerman on Israel art.