Pinot Grigio is all over Italy. Set a course to the north of the country and explore the charms of Pinot Bianco.
If there’s one wine I’d love to see on more wine lists in the U.S., it’s Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige and select parts of Friuli. There are some gorgeous Pinot Biancos from these areas. If you haven’t tried any, then you’re missing out on some fantastic wines.
Made with the Pinot Blanc grape (also known as Weissburgunder in German), Pinot Biancos from northeast Italy are extremely elegant and offer a tantalizing combination of creamy and crisp, dry and mineral-driven.
When compared to Italy’s most popular white, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco generally has more finesse and is more delicately scented, typically offering apple, pear and hints of white flower. Even though Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio from this corner of Italy have lively acidity, Pinot Bianco boasts an alluring, creamy texture almost never found in Pinot Grigio.
And while there are some outstanding Pinot Grigios with personality and structure from Alto Adige and parts of Friuli, these are the exception. The vine is ubiquitous throughout Italy. In most regions, it’s grown on the plains and valley floors and is produced in massive quantities, resulting in a plethora of thin, watery wines.
The quality bar is higher across the board with Pinot Bianco, which is made in limited quantities compared to Pinot Grigio. Even though producers make several distinct styles of wine, from vibrant and linear to medium-bodied with complexity, Pinot Bianco usually guarantees a decent to high-quality wine. That’s reflected in its generally higher price tag in comparison to cheap, cheerful Pinot Grigio.
Pinot Grigio is meant to be enjoyed within the first year or two after the vintage (with a few extremely rare exceptions). Pinot Bianco has more staying power, however, with some high-end Riserva bottlings evolving beautifully for up to a decade.
But Pinot Bianco (which, like Pinot Grigio, is a mutation of Pinot Nero) hasn’t always produced such impressive results. Though cultivated in Alto Adige since the mid-1800s, the bulk of the region’s Pinot Bianco in the past resulted in bland, diluted wines that were primarily consumed locally. That changed in the early 1990s as Alto Adige, and most of Italy, began to shift from bulk wine producer to quality production.
Pinot Bianco, which for years was confused with the similar-looking Chardonnay grape, presents a number of challenges for quality-minded growers. According to Hans Terzer, esteemed winemaker at one of Italy’s most celebrated cooperative cellars, San Michele Appiano (also known as St. Michael-Eppan), improvements in the vineyard improvements have been key to reviving this long misunderstood variety.
“Pinot Bianco needs very specific growing conditions to excel, including high hillside vineyards, generally above 450 meters (1,476 feet), where the combination of altitude and fresh breezes generate cool temperatures during the growing season,” says Terzer. “When compared to Pinot Grigio, for example, Pinot Bianco fares better when it’s exposed to less direct sun and heat. Pinot Bianco also needs complex soils, mainly limestone with some clay. Choosing the best sites has been crucial for improving Pinot Bianco.”
Terzer points out that Pinot Bianco vines naturally produce a lot of grapes, so keeping yields down has also been fundamental for improving wine quality. Growers control yields through bunch thinning or green harvesting, as well as planting lower-yielding clones.
Terzer has been one of the pioneers in elevating Pinot Bianco’s status. While the grape is the third-most planted white variety in Alto Adige, it’s the No. 1 cultivated white grape in the Eppan growing area.
Pinot Bianco also does well in parts of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, namely in select areas of the Friuli Colli Orientali denomination and in Collio. There, the vine excels in hillside vineyards and in the areas’ complex soils: flysch made up of layers of marl and sandstone, known locally as ponca, that lend mineral energy.
Pinot Bianco production is tiny in Collio, accounting for less than 4% of total plantings. However, the quality is stunning. Some of the best come from the Capriva del Friuli zone of Collio, which benefits from cool Adriatic breezes that keep vines fresh.
When compared to Alto Adige’s dazzling expressions, Pinot Bianco from Collio and Friuli Colli Orientali tends to be a bit fleshier, with some verging on opulent. They also have fresh acidity, thanks to the hillside vineyards. They have subtle aromas that go from green apple and chamomile to yellow peach that carry over to the palate, accompanied by pronounced mineral energy that lends intensity.
Producers in both regions make different styles, from crisp offerings made entirely in steel destined to be enjoyed young, to more complex, concentrated bottlings either wholly or partly aged in oak, although aging in barriques is rare. The few producers who employ barriques use them sparingly to avoid overwhelming the wine. Most producers ferment Pinot Bianco in steel to keep its flavors crisp, and leave the wines on its lees for several months after fermentation for added depth.
In Alto Adige, many firms make three Pinot Biancos: a steel-aged, entry-level bottling, a mid-weight bottling and a Riserva, or single-vineyard selection. The second bottling is often made in a combination of large oak and steel to add complexity while maintaining freshness.
Riserva and single-vineyard offerings, usually fermented and/or aged in wood, boast structure, depth and wonderful mid-term aging potential (usually between 5–10 years), where they develop even more complexity. Riserva Pinot Bianco isn’t common in Friuli, but Russiz Superiore makes a gorgeous Riserva with good aging potential.