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White Christmas

Impress holiday guests with Pinot Noir Blanc

By Jade Helm

Photos by Andrea Johnson

When many first hear the term “white Pinot Noir,” expressions of confusion are often accompanied by, “You mean Pinot Blanc?” No, a white Pinot Noir is a still white wine made from red Pinot Noir grapes.

“Why would anyone want to do that with perfectly good Pinot Noir?” is another reasonable reaction. This is how Robert Brittan, consulting winemaker at Blakeslee Vineyards, responded when Sheila Blakeslee insisted, “Let’s make one. It will be fun.” Of course, Brittan knew what it was, but cloyingly sweet white Zinfandel had left a bad taste in his mouth, and he was unsure of the “why.”

What he discovered is the Blakeslee’s cooler site grew Pinot Noir that is well suited to this style. Brittan shared, “We made a dry, substantial wine with real credibility using 100-percent fully ripe Pommard grapes.”

Now a believer, he predicts they will always make a white Pinot Noir at Blakeslee.

Still a niche, yet a growing one, winemakers have produced white Pinot Noir for various reasons. They may make it out of necessity, for the love of the style or what appears to be the propensity to tinker.

In Champagne, consumers line up, credit cards in hand, eager to stock their cellars. Of course, Blanc de Noir in this case may have Pinot Meunier in the blend, and, naturally, it is bubbly.

While Oregon producers are not facing such harsh vintages as Champagne, some years have prompted ingenuity. Sometimes making lemonade from lemons leads to quite a profitable, happy little lemonade stand.

Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery discovered the opportunity in 2011. When his Pinot Noir from a block of Momtazi Vineyard reached only 18.6 brix and all the leaves fell from the vine, he launched Oeil de Perdrix. Due to popular demand, this wine became part of the regular line-up, even in warm vintages.

While not as dire a story, Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Wines made his first white Pinot Noir in the cool vintage of 2010. Brandborg explains, “I realized early on that I would not get the ripeness that I would want to make red wine and decided that I was going to use it for white.”

It was such a hit that he now carefully selects Elkton AVA fruit from Bradley Vineyard or his own estate to recreate the style every year.

Brandborg is not the only one who harvests specifically for the style. Eric Eide of Aberrant Cellars has selected two vineyard blocks where canopy management, yield and earlier harvest date purposefully result in lighter-bodied, more aromatically driven wines.

Others intentionally choose sites to harvest Pinot Noir that could just as easily be made into red wine. Winemakers apply the same attention to selection of site and clone to white Pinot Noir as to other styles.

White Pinot Noir did not originate in Oregon. Early advocates Jim Prosser of J.K. Carriere and Tony Rynders of Tendril Wine Cellars say they were inspired by European winemakers. Prosser credits his inspiration to Henri Gouges, a Burgundian winemaker whose Pinot Noir vines lacked the gene to produce color. Rynders made his first white Pinot Noir after meeting Italian winemaker Luigi Mancini of Marche’s Fattoria Mancini Winery at the International Pinot Noir Celebration. Rynders and Prosser, among others, were not working through a cool vintage but simply wanted to try something new.

In this case, Oregon winemakers discovered that “new” sells, and very well. These wines lure the curious and hook them well enough that investing in a “sold-out” stamp would be wise.

What does a white Pinot Noir taste like?

There is not one answer. For the most part, it is the flavors in the flesh and juice — not the skins — that make it into the glass. Yet many detect flavors from the skins’ red pigment — I suppose even a hairless cat is still a cat.

It is useful to think in terms of other, more familiar, forms of Pinot Noir: rosé and sparkling Blanc de Noir. Both begin life as white Pinot Noir with minimal skin contact. The difference occurs in the handling of the juice and the intent of the winemaker. Some winemakers incorporate barrel aging and lees stirring — those who choose barrels can opt for new or more neutral oak, while others forego wood and use stainless steel. Next there is the decision to extract color, from barely noticeable to a salmon tone. Not surprisingly, the resulting wines range from styles similar to light rosé — méthode Champenoise Blanc de Noir minus the bubbles — to oaky cool-climate Chardonnay. White Pinot offers a myriad of presentations, allowing the consumer to experience something new with each bottle.

The Wines

In an attempt to offer specific notes in this unspecified style, a tasting panel converged, consisting of OWP staff and contributing writers. Most came to the table asking the same questions posed in this article. Joining the group was a visiting Master of Wine candidate who offered a world view. While not an exhaustive sampling of Oregon’s white Pinots, the following list represents only a handful of producers. For more options visit Arcane Cellars, Duck Pond, J Scott, Piluso, Poco Collina, Seufert and Terra Vina for a taste of their “whites.” Food pairings are suggested with the holidays in mind. Presenting Pinot Noir as both the red and white choice for dinner may be a treat, especially for out-of-town guests. Unique, limited supply wines also make interesting gifts.

Hauer of the Dauen 2012 “Blessed Innocence” Estate Willamette Valley White Pinot Noir

This copper-colored “ballet pink” wine looks and feels like a sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir, including yeasty notes but minus the bubbles. A creamy texture with flavors of rose petals and strawberries is reminiscent of a jelly-filled macaroon. Named “Blessed Innocence” because it began life as a family member’s wedding wine, this sweet representation of white Pinot Noir would pair nicely with a light dessert course. $12

Aberrant Cellars 2014 “Philtrum” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Blanc

Delicately golden, Philtrum is a serious, savory wine marked by interesting textures. White pepper and forest floor on the nose lead to minerality on the palate. One tasting panel member was reminded of Pinot Noir from Sancerre in the Loire Valley. The chalky minerality dries the mouth just enough to cause craving for another sip. Fruit was sourced from Hawks View in Chehalem Mountains AVA and Brisco and Johnson (Lemelson) in Yamhill-Carlton. For the holidays, serve with a smoked turkey, savory ham or hearty seafood like sea bass or seared tuna. $34

St. Innocent Winery 2014 “Oeil de Perdrix” Zenith Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Pretty and pale pink, this wine named for a partridge’s eye is like a light version of a Pinot Noir rosé. Rose petals and strawberries perform a little dance on the palate due to a slight spritz. This wine is typically made in an off-dry style that varies in degree by vintage. For the holidays, serve as a welcome wine or with a cheese and fruit course; it would also pair well with spicy dishes. $20

Blakeslee Vineyard 2014 Estate Reserve Chehalem Mountains White Pinot Noir

A first of its kind from Blakeslee, this white Pinot is very well structured. Barrel fermented in mostly neutral French oak, the wood influence adds texture and pleasantly accompanies the other flavors. Aromas of white pepper, honeysuckle and lilies are followed on the palate by additional flavors of smoked cherry. Lovers of cool-climate, intricately layered, carefully oaked Chardonnay will enjoy this wine. Pairing recommendations include pork seasoned with peppercorn, roasted root vegetables and creamy soups topped with herbs. $50

Brandborg 2014 “Fleur de Lis” Elkton White Pinot Noir

A delicate, light gold in the glass, this wine invites with aromas of strawberry blossoms and stone fruit. Jasmine tea, peach, and an undertone of grapefruit are present on the palate. Its structure truly makes this selection stand out — it is so lively, it almost seems to bubble. Older “neutral” oak and the influence of time on lees round out the high acidity without masking overall finesse and flavor. Grapes were sourced from Bradley Vineyard. Possible pairings include turkey pot pie, salmon spread, creamy mushrooms in puff pastry and pan-seared salmon with mandarin orange gastrique. $25

Swick Wines 2014 Cancilla Vineyard Willamette Valley Blanc de Noir

Very lightly colored with a fresh nose of floral, peach and white strawberry, this selection appears delicate at first. On the palate, ruby red grapefruit, peach tea, woody notes, acidity and a slight oily texture present a “bigger than expected” wine that would love a hard, salty cheese. $20

 Tendril Wine Cellars 2013 Pretender Willamette Valley White Pinot Noir

Called “Pretender” because it is a red varietal impersonating a white, this wine will appeal to lovers of big, white Burgundy (cool-climate Chardonnay). Flavors of fine oak — from used barrels — takes center stage with creamy, woody notes and citrus highlights. A full-bodied mouthfeel make this one of the “more substantial” wines of the selection. Fruit was sourced from Schindler Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. Pair with smoked turkey. $60

J.K. Carriere Wines 2014 “Glass” Willamette Valley White Pinot Noir

One of the more deeply pigmented of the group, this wine’s beautiful color is likened to wild-caught salmon. Its savory and Old World taste profile is fitting as the wine is aged in older French barrels, which lends an autumnal leaf tannin and flavor lifted with notes of cranberry tartness — acidity lives within this tannin frame and drives the length. Grapes were sourced from Temperance Hill’s 34-year-old original Pinot Noir plantings as well as Barron-Wahl and Louis vineyards. Pour a glass to accompany a turkey, cranberry and Brie sandwich served on crusty sourdough bread. $24

Ghost Hill Cellars 2013 Bayliss-Bower Vineyard Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir Blanc

Of all the wines tasted, this most resembles a rosé. Light copper-colored, its flavors are fruit-forward with orange, red currant, pomegranate and strawberry. Texture from limited skin contact — instead of barrel — creates a substantial, rounded mouthfeel, well balanced with bright acid. Easy to pair with holiday favorites or to sip with passed hors d’oeuvres. $25

Left Coast Cellars 2014 Estate-Grown Willamette Valley White Pinot Noir

Very pale gold, this selection presents like an acid-driven, aromatic white wine. Stainless steel fermentation preserves pure floral aromas of honeysuckle with white peach, and a touch of grass. Fuller-bodied than expected, yet refreshing, the long honey-toned finish is lifted by a hint of green pear. A super food-friendly selection, consider enjoying with winter squash dishes like butternut squash soup. $24 (NOT PICTURED)

Why aren’t there white versions of all of the red varietals? Maybe the following winery is starting a new trend.

Leah Jørgensen Cellars 2014 Limited Edition Mae’s Vineyard Applegate Valley Blanc de Cabernet Franc

This tart, zesty, acidic wine retains the capsicum flavors of Cabernet Franc without the red fruit profile. Reminiscent of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, expect a clean, fresh presentation with notes of jalapeño pepper on the long finish. $30

Jade Helm is the primary author of Tasting Pour, a blog about wine, cocktails and food. She is a Certified Specialist in Wine; she has earned a Diploma in Wine and Spirits. Andrea Johnson is an award-winning photographer and video director/producer serving the wine and travel industries. 

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