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Ssssh! Let's keep pinot blanc between us

Warning: Pinot blanc is not, repeat, not the Next Big Thing.

In much of the wine world, it is a common and rather silly old thing, usually hidden in blends.

But it would be a shame to miss the good ones.

This wine did grow up with chardonnay in Burgundy and is a member of the famous pinot family. Close kin of the quite elegant pinot noir and the oh-so-popular pinot grigio (nee gris), pinot blanc is a forgotten relative, almost Uncle Bland, undistinguished and harmless.

Pay this pinot a little respect and it rewards you with a surprisingly lovely white wine, with more flesh than pinot grigio and more character than many chardonnays. Mild-mannered yet truly intriguing.

When poorly made and aged in too much wood, blanc is bland and flabby, as insipid as the generic chardonnays it copies. And years ago, the pinot blanc name was wrongly attached to some lesser vines.

Planted in cool vineyards and made with care, pinot blanc may seem mild, yet it's full of exciting contrasts, a distinct alternative to chardonnay that costs from $10 to $20.

Good pinot blanc is crisp, brisk and refreshing while also round, creamy and lush.

The flavor and aroma have charming dual personalities, too, mixing both fruit and spice.

"It is different from chardonnay, expresses a real lively fruit and unusual spices. It has those tangerine, citrus and apple fruits, and the spices, brown spices, like cinnamon" says Jonathan Nagy, the winemaker at Byron Vineyard and Winery north of Santa Barbara, Calif.

Plus it's an easy food wine with simple shellfish or spicy Thai and Indian dishes. Byron's chef serves pinot blanc with coconut shrimp at the winery, but Nagy and his wife, Clarissa, also like it with sushi. "That's our once a week treat: We get some sushi and pinot blanc."

Byron is one of a few U.S. wineries that give pinot blanc a small place in their vineyards. While the grape still grows in Burgundy, its modern European bases are in Alsace and as pinot bianco in northeastern Italy. A small amount can be found as weissburgunder in Austria and Germany.

The most respected pinot blancs come from Alsace, where they get the same cool weather and precise practices of Franco-German winemaking that make Alsatian rieslings and gewurztraminer, crisp, balanced and aromatic, although the pinot blanc grapes are much cheaper.

In North America, dabbling in pinot blanc appeals to two kinds of winemakers. The first are passionate about pinot noir and its cousins, such as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat or Jed Steele, formerly of Kendall-Jackson. The other are explorers who look beyond chardonnay, cabernet and merlot for less popular grapes that better match their vineyards or palate. They found pinot blanc in Alsace as they found viognier in the Rhone.

Both groups have vineyards in the coolest parts of Oregon, the central California coast around Santa Maria, and the right spots of Napa and Sonoma where delicate flavors and aromas will not be cooked out. Pinot blanc also grows in still colder, pioneering vineyards of Canada, Michigan and New York.

Even in Oregon's Yamhill at Willa Kenzie Estate, proprietor Ronni Lacroute says pinot blanc is not easy to grow. It's the last to ripen and can risk rot.

"Those who take the time and do it well, have an exquisite wine. People love it. It's the first wine we serve when people come to the winery, it's so exotic," says Lacroute.

Then there's Jacques Schlumberger, "an Alsatian by way of Houston." Born in Texas of an Alsatian wine family, he moved to California and now has Michel-Schlumberger estate in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. Best known for his cabernet, he still found room in the coolest, shadiest parts of the land for pinot blanc cuttings from Alsace.

"Pinot blanc tends to be misunderstood here," Schlumberger says, and perhaps in Alsace, too. "It can be a delicious wine, but Alsatians do not consider it to be noble (like riesling)."

The hardest part is to make the wine cleanly and avoid the barrel aging and overfermentation that makes it a look-alike chardonnay.

When a winery does let pinot blanc shine, it's a delicious taste of the careful winemaking that goes into fine white Burgundies and crisp Alsatians at a fraction of the price.

But let's keep that our little secret. There's not enough pinot blanc to be a very big thing.

Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of "The Buzz on Wine" (Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95). He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or shermansptimes.com.

TASTING NOTES

Names: Pinot blanc, also called pinot bianco and weissburgunder.

Shopping: Look in wine shops and liquor stores. Among Italian wines, choose those from Collio, Friuli and Alto Adige. French pinot blancs will be with Alsatians. U.S. choices will likely be grouped with miscellaneous whites.

Eating: Serve as an afternoon refresher, before meal or with shellfish, sushi, Thai, Chinese or Mexican food.

Drinking: Best cold and given time in the glass. Most are best young, but some age well.

+ Pinot bianco, Lucia, Alto Adige, Italy, 2000 ($9). Light green-gold, smelling of honey, pine, oak and smoke. Smooth buttery texture and tastes of fruit and licorice, but ultimately tart. Possibly better in its youth.

+ Pinot blanc, Trimbach, Alsace, France, 2001 ($13). Pale gold, with hints of ginger and cinnamon; lively yet thick. Initially tart, but opens up more sweetly with flavors of fig and nutmeg. When perfect, it's like Christmas in summer.

+ Pinot blanc, Byron, Santa Maria Valley, 2001 ($12). Grassy yellow of brilliant clarity with a bouquet of peach, honey and figs. Crisp, almost bubbly sensations, followed by full, creamy licorice and honey, and a long tart finish. A mouthful of fun.

+ Pinot blanc, Valley of the Moon, Sonoma, 2002 ($11). Golden with figs and honey in the nose, spritzy at first and full-bodied on the tongue. Taste of licorice; ranges clash tartly but settle down to peach. A split personality, but patience pays.

+ Pinot blanc, WillaKenzie Estate, Yamhill, Oregon, 2003 ($15). Pale, clear straw color, but bouquet bursts with honeydew, papaya and spice. Mouth-filling texture that's both crisp and creamy; tropical fruit with notes of honey and clove, and a sweet finish. A surprise package that keeps on giving. Keep plenty.

_ CHRIS SHERMAN

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