The Betty Draper of Forgotten Grapes
If you’re a fan of the TV show Mad Men like we are and have been following it for the last few seasons, then you’re already aware of the dichotomous and complex character of Betty Draper. Appearing from the outset to be the typically young 1960’s housewife–pretty, vapid, intended only to keep house, make and raise babies, and satisfy her husband whenever he so demanded–she has instead become an incredibly divisive figure, a woman trapped both by the expectations of her, societal norms and pressures, and her own decision to keep her interests, needs, and emotions bottled up inside, so as not to upset the apple cart. She’s gorgeous and sexy yet cold to her husband, whom she knows is cheating on her. In public, she’s always subordinate to him, yet around the household casts him out when his infidelity becomes public. She considers an affair of her own, resents her own children, and cries out desperately for an escape to the gilded cage she’s crafted for herself, yet does so in perfectly pleated skirts and petticoats and never has a single hair or pearl out of place.
Basically, there’s a lot more to Betty Draper than just her stunningly good looks, even if that’s precisely how everyone on the show and of that era want to define her.
Pinot Blanc suffers from much of the same expectations and complexities that plague Betty Draper. It’s an incredibly popular varietal, grown in the United States; down in the cooler parts of Argentina and Uruguay; throughout central Europe from Italy through the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia; in Spain; and of course in the lands of its origin, Germany and the Alsace region of France. And yet, in the Alsace, where more Pinot Blanc is planted, it’s afforded almost no respect, given a one-note purpose to just slip into the background, look pretty, provide proper acidity, and not interfere while the primary grapes of the region interact in the foreground.
Of course, this is a completely unfair role for such a unique and complex grape to play, but in the Alsace (one of the few regions in France where they actually put the name of the varietal on the bottle as opposed to the appellation), Pinot Blanc isn’t even afforded that luxury. Most Pinot Blanc is instead harvested and used to make either the Cremant d’Alsace sparkling wine or else it is blended with many of the other white varietals grown in the Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris) to make the popular Edelzwicker wines widely drunk in the region. And while there are plenty of single varietal Pinot Blancs being produced in the Alsace (it seems almost every winery in the region has their own Pinot Blanc), the actual “Pinot Blanc” designation is muddled, not always implying a single varietal wine made from 100% Pinot Blanc, but sometimes meaning a white wine made from a blend of Pinot grapes, which include Pinot Gris, Auxerrois blanc, and Pinot Noir that has been crushed and pressed with minimal skin contact.
So you can imagine how trapped and inferior and unsure of yourself and the entire life you’ve built up around you if you had to deal with this same pigeonholing and ever-changing definitions and expectations.
To make matters worse, Pinot Blanc isn’t even allowed its own birthright or unique origin. Instead, it’s a clone grape, a mutation of a previously existing varietal, and not just any clone, but a clone of a clone–in this case, a mutation of Pinot Gris, which is itself a mutation of the notoriously fickle and unstable Pinot Noir. And the grape itself so closely resembles the Chardonnay grape when it is on the vine, it has been and still is often confused for that more well-known grape. In fact, several wineries in California that produce Pinot Blancs are doing so under traditional Chardonnay treatments (full malolactic fermentation, stirring of lees, lots of new oak). It’s enough to make a poor fragile, unstable grape like Pinot Blanc want to break down, take a bunch of pills, or run away and just end it all.
The thing is, when you boil down Pinot Blanc to its essence, it actually is a grape with an amazing amount of virtue. It’s got something to say, and something very interesting at that. It’s incredibly versatile, given all the different regions and conditions it is grown in and that it very easily can adapt into drier, sweeter, or sparkling wines. The drier wines–produced in the typical Alsatian style with colder, slower fermentations in stainless steel tanks with little to no oak in the aging–often have a spiciness and smokiness to them along with a crisp, bright acidity that makes them perfect wines to pair with food. They are gorgeous and blonde and have quite a bit of depth to them, natural depth, not artificially created in barrels or with chemicals.
Unfortunately, like Betty Draper, Pinot Blanc is being held down by a bunch of men who just want her to exist in the background, who want her to exist as eye candy, who want her to entertain them and then eventually go away so they don’t have to think about her anymore. But like our beloved Betty, she’s not going anywhere and she’s learning to stand up for herself. She’s found others like her, others willing to stand up for her
(France and Oregon, we’re looking at you) and she’s starting to forge a new life for herself, outside of her previous existence. It’s a new dawn for Pinot Blanc, and the more she asserts herself and strikes out on her own, the more the world will appreciate her and she’ll be able to define herself, instead of letting her be defined by others.
How Do You Pronounce Pinot Blanc?
Pinot Blanc Looks Like:
Pale blonde. Pale white skin. Classically Germanic or Scandinavian looking. These are the traits we think of when we look at Betty Draper (and the actress who plays her, January Jones), and they’re the same traits that best describe the appearance of Pinot Blanc wines. Most will have a very pale blonde color to them, sometimes even delving into shades of gray (the actual color gray, not the issues of moral turpitude). Depending on where the wine was produced, some might have a more golden or robust blonde color to them (especially if they’ve been oaked), but in most cases, a Pinot Blanc will have a very pale pallor to them.
Pinot Blanc Smells Like:
With Alsatian Pinot Blancs, you will definitely pick up that unique glycerin/medicinal/sterile scent that seems endemic to all white wines produced in Germany, Austria, and the Alsace. On all Pinot Blancs, there should be a very floral or perfumed scent to the nose, not as distinct as a Viognier, but still floral. The wine should have a very clean scent to it, with citrus tones (sometimes lemon, sometimes pineapple and mango or more tropical), and you might also pick up some nuttiness on the wine, or even a little smoke on it as well. Finally, a very unique scent on Pinot Blancs is that of pastry icing–not overly or cloyingly sweet but some sweetness nonetheless.
Pinot Blanc Tastes Like:
As we mentioned above, the taste of your Pinot Blanc might differ based on where and in what style it was produced. Pinot Blancs can be made into dry wines, sweet wines, and sparkling wines, and the dry wines sometimes are oaked and malo-ed and softened and buttered like they are a Chardonnay(as happens in certain California wineries) or they’re left very dry, crisp, and tart with just a trace of sweetness (as you find in Oregon and Alsatian Pinot Blancs). We’ll be focusing on this latter category, as that’s what we personally prefer and what we tasted more of. These Pinot Blancs have good tartness and a firm acidity with orange, pineapple, and sweeter lemon flavors all coming into play. You often might get a hint of orange blossom honey on the end of the Pinot Blanc as well, or something resembling a cheesecake flavor, that salty and tart but also sweet flavor. A typical Pinot Blanc will start off very strong on the attack, weaken a bit on the mid-palate, but then finish strong and linger on the tongue for longer than you’d expect a white wine to.
● Germany, especially the Mosel region
● France’s Alsace region
● Northern California, around Napa and Sonoma
● Sta. Rita Hills appellation near Santa Barbara
● Italy, Argentina, and Uruguay (as Pinot Bianco)
● Austria (as Weissburgunder)
● Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
Pinot Blanc used to be grown fairly prevalently in both the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France, which make sense given the grape’s striking resemblance to Chardonnay (and also explaining the White Burgundy name). But as AOC regulations in those regions have become more and more strict, and as Chardonnay has risen in popularity, the Pinot Blanc vines in those areas are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In fact, Pinot Blanc can now only be found in the southern Maconnais region of Burgundy (where it is turned into the more generic “Bourgogne blanc” wines instead of a separate AOC designation) and in Champagne, it isn’t even called Pinot Blanc; it’s known there as Blanc vrai.
But all of that pales in comparison to the travesties committed against the grape in California. Because of its resemblance to Chardonnay, it was early on mis-labeled as “Pinot Chardonnay” (which is a huge misnomer since Pinot Blanc shares no characteristics with Chardonnay whatsoever, save for a passing resemblance), and worse still, an entirely different grape that also resembles Chardonnay–one we’re familiar with here and will be covering soon enough–Melon de Bourgogne (used to produce the Muscadet wines of the far-western Loire valley) was actually called Pinot Blanc for a number of years until scientists were able to use DNA to determine that Melon and Pinot Blanc were entirely different grapes. And if that isn’t a slap in the face, I don’t know what is.
Pinot Blanc makes a dynamite pairing with a classic Cream Cheese Cheesecake. Good dry crisp Pinot Blancs have that very assertive citrusy tartness and a nice dose of acidity, and sometimes you can even pick up a bit of saltiness from the wine, depending on how it’s produced. Cheesecake functions in the same way, as it has that saltiness and savoriness to it that is usually countered by a subtle bit of sweetness, but not too much.
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