Whether for a Fourth of July picnic -- or perhaps a Bastille Day celebration -- pinot blanc from Alsace is an engaging choice for summer dining, indoors or out. While many chardonnays, white Burgundies and some sauvignon blancs seem to lose their lust for life in the summer heat, Alsatian pinot blanc seems to relish the chance to match up with barbecued chicken, fish or even a well-grilled hot dog.
Moreover, on the complexity-per -dollar scale, pinot blanc from Alsace, France's most under-appreciated fine wine region, outshines even its somewhat costlier Alsatian cousin, dry Riesling. At prices ranging from $5 to $10, good pinot blanc delivers abundant, racy fruit and an often dramatic balance of flavors. Though Riesling generally has more aging potential, some pinot blancs can improve in the bottle for several years -- provided one can resist the understandable temptation to pluck bottles as the mercury rises.
Pinot Blanc d'Alsace, as it is formally referred to, may legally be made from up to five different grape varieties. However, most are made up predominantly of pinot blanc and the supposedly closely related pinot auxerrois. In fact the two grapes produce distinctly different wines, the auxerrois being softer, spicier and more aromatic. It's little known that many, if not most, of the best Pinot Blancs d'Alsace are actually 100-percent pinot auxerrois.
Many Pinot Blancs d'Alsace exude an apple-like freshness on the bouquet reminiscent of young Riesling. On the palate, however, the taste and scale is closer to that of a crisp, non-oaked chardonnay. Compared with most chardonnay in its price range, Pinot Blanc d'Alsace is more complex, racier and drier, making it a better match with most foods and a far more appropriate choice as the cuisine becomes more ambitious.
The following Pinot Blancs d'Alsace are listed in order of preference. All are available locally, though the best selection in the area is at Pearson's Liquors, which directly imports much of its selection from Alsace. (Importer is listed in brackets; prices are approximate.)
A. Mann 1988 "Pinot Auxerrois" ($7): Racy, appley fruit, on the palate with a subtle hint of smokiness on the bouquet. Refreshing balance of acidity and fruit. As complex and age-worthy as many wines at twice the price. (Weygandt-Metzler Imports; in the District, exclusive at Pearson's)
Pierre Sparr 1988 "Diamant d'Alsace" Pinot Blanc ($6): Fresh, Riesling-like perfume on the nose. Bold and lush on the palate; extroverted. Great value. (Hand Picked Selections)
Zind Humbrecht 1988 Pinot Blanc ($8): The entry level offering of a great estate, really shows its breed. Deep color; very ripe style, with unusual buttery notes. (Various sources)
Marcel Deiss 1988 Pinot Blanc "Bergheim" ($8): Abundant, yet tight-packed fruit needs some cellar time to fully open, but still quite enjoyable; complex; expansive, full finish. An age-worthy pinot blanc. (Robert Kacher Selections, Washington Wholesale)
Trimbach 1988 Pinot Blanc ($6.50): Understated, highly charming. Has the raciness one looks for, combined with deep fruitiness. (Chateau and Estates, Kronheim)
Marcel Deiss 1988 Pinot Blanc "Bennwihr" ($8): Bigger and more aromatic than the Deiss Bergheim, above; lush fruit, full on the palate; good acidity. (Robert Kacher Selections)
Josmeyer 1989 "Mise du Printemps" ($6); Josmeyer 1987 "Les Lutins" Pinot D'Alsace ($6): Contrasting styles and stages of evolution, but both are quite pleasurable. The first has a remarkable bouquet of fresh-cut greens and a youthful raciness on the palate. The second has a nutty, maturing nose and is rich on the palate, with enticing toffee-like notes. (Pearson's Imports)
Domaine Weinbach 1988 "Clos des Capucins" ($12): From a top estate, opulent, fleshy, drink-now style; with botrytis ("noble rot") and muscat notes on the nose. (Vineyard Brands)
Schaller 1988 Pinot Blanc ($6): Fresh, minty notes on the nose. Spicy, soft on the palate, highly quaffable. (Robert Kacher Selections, in the District, exclusive at Pearson's)
Josmeyer 1988 Pinot Auxerrois "H" Vieilles Vignes ($10): Often among the very best, the 1988 is good, but lacks focus and dimension. A magnificent 1981 tasted along with it showed how well the best vintages of Josmeyer "H" can age.(Pearson's Imports)
Kuentz-Bas 1988 Pinot Blanc Cuve'e Tradition ($8): Racy, crisp and well-made. (Sarrau Wines)
Pierre Frick 1987 Pinot Blanc ($6): Mature, nutty nose. Crisp, firm texture, good complexity. (Weygandt-Metzler; in the District, exclusive at Pearson's)
Mure' 1988 Pinot Blanc ($8): Fine, spicy/floral bouquet; on the palate, not very concentrated, but has charm. (Country Vintner, Richmond)
Hugel 1988 "Cuve'e Les Amours" Pinot Blanc ($7): Tasted twice; first bottle was vivid and fresh; second was closed in, a bit sulfury on the nose, but still had good depth. Final judgment reserved -- normally a top performer. (Dreyfus Ashby Imports, Forman)
Sick-Dreyer 1988 Pinot Blanc ($7): Softer style with some botrytis on the nose. A pretty wine, but could use more structure. (Weygandt-Metzler Imports)
Lucien Albrecht 1989 Pinot Blanc ($6): Pleasant quaffing style; soft, fruity, somewhat low acidity. (Robert Kacher Selections, Washington Wholesale)
Willm 1988 "Cordon d'Alsace" ($6.50): Somewhat bland, but pleasant enough stuff. (Frederick Wildman, Forman)
Also offering outstanding value for picnics or summer parties is the M.G. Vallejo 1989 "California" Chardonnay ($7 for 1.5 liters). Very crisp, fresh and appley, this wine has legitimate chardonnay varietal character, is moderately complex, and unlike the vast majority of low-cost chardonnays, finishes pleasingly dry. (Forman)
Ben Giliberti is a Washington freelancer who writes regularly about wine.