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The question

Your mention in March of Hester Creek Pinot Blanc 2017, from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, set me in search of pinot blancs in Ontario. I stopped in at the flagship store in Ottawa, where, sheepishly, the staff could find only one in the Vintages section, the Sander Pinot Blanc 2016, from the Rheinhessen. On the label it says: “Pinot blanc trocken,” which I guess is a warning that it’s dry. It also says “Weissburgunder,” which I guess means it’s the equivalent of a “White Burgundy.” I haven’t tried it yet … waiting for a quiet moment in my noisy house.

I’m writing to ask: Why is pinot blanc not more popular? (I guess my question might be answered when I finally get a moment to sip the stuff.)

Hester Creek is presumably not available in Ontario. I’m going to cross the river to Quebec in the near future, but I suspect my search will be frustrated there too (although the delight of taking spirits illictly across provincial boundaries might just offset that frustration, even if I settle for pinot grigio).

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The answer

With wine as with people, there are attention-seekers and there are more subdued characters. Pinot blanc is a humble member of the latter. Its flavour is not as distinctive as most of the common grapes out there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make very good wine.

I’m guessing that you’re asking because there are two other pinots that enjoy much greater popularity nowadays, pinot noir and pinot gris (a.k.a. grigio). Oddly enough, there’s essentially no genetic difference. They all belong to the same grape variety, botanically speaking. Pinot blanc, like gris, is just a pale-coloured mutation of the dark-skinned grape.

With grey-skinned pinot gris, you get wines that, depending on region and vinification techniques, can range from light, lemony and zippy to full-bodied and spicy. With blanc, the band is narrower, and the flavours are more neutral. Usually medium-bodied, it tends to have a rounded mouth feel and vague orchard-fruit notes along with refreshing but more moderate acidity than many white wines.

Although it’s sometimes compared with chardonnay, there are differences. Unless cropped to very low yields, pinot blanc usually lacks the big fruit and body, for example, that makes chardonnay a better candidate for heavy oak aging. That said, it’s no accident that the vine historically was often mistaken for chardonnay, the dominant white grape of Burgundy. Indeed, in Germany pinot blanc is known as weissburgunder – literally “white Burgundy.”

The variety is strongly associated with the region of Alsace in northern France, where it most often is deployed as a component in blends with such grapes as pinot gris and riesling. These days, some of the most exciting examples of pure pinot blanc, in my estimation, come from northern Italy and British Columbia. In the Okanagan Valley, intense daytime sunshine amplifies the variety’s fruitiness while cool nights help preserve acidity for more verve. Maybe we’ll see more recognition for, and supply of, pinot blanc in the future.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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