Yet there is a wonderful alternative to Chardonnay already here in the
form of a wine called Pinot Blanc, which can often pass for
high-priced Chardonnay in a blind tasting. It's necessary to
distinguish between the name of the wine and the grapes used in its
production because, at least until recently, virtually all of the
grapes used to make California Pinot Blancs were, in fact not pinot
blanc grapes, but melon, also known as melon de Bourgogne, which is
the grape variety behind the French wines known as Muscadet.
The mistake came about because the University of California at Davis,
which provides certified winegrape rootstock to California nurseries
through its Foundation Plant Material Service, initially misidentified
its vines; university experts believed all along that they really had
pinot blanc in their vineyard.
Davis' error wasn't discovered until 1980, when the highly respected
French ampelographer Dr. Pierre Galet identified the so-called
"pinot blanc" in the experimental vineyard at U.C. Davis as
melon. Davis acknowledged its error in 1984, when it advised growers
who had purchased the university's "pinot blanc" rootstock
of the mistake. Nevertheless, most wineries continued to call the wine
made from their fruit "Pinot Blanc."
Eventually, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF)
entered the picture by enacting federal regulations restricting use of
the name Pinot Blanc on wine labels, which set many vineyard owners to
the task of sorting through their plantings of vines called
"pinot blanc" to determine whether they are the real thing
-- the white clone of the noble pinot noir grape -- or actually melon
BATF's regulations specify that after February 7, 1996, "Pinot
Blanc" is not an acceptable alternative name for a wine made from
melon grapes, although the winery could call it Melon de Bourgogne so
long as the region of origin was connected to the name, such as
"Napa Valley Melon de Bourgogne." Since paperwork
surrounding BATF's regulatory process in this affair makes it clear
that the agency is aware that most of California's pinot blanc vines
are really melon, it's conceivable that wineries could be compelled to
discontinue use of the Pinot Blanc name if they couldn't certify that
the grapes used were, in fact, true pinot blanc.
Very few wineries are enthusiastic about calling their wine
"Melon" or even "Melon de Bourgogne." Among the
rare exceptions are Coeur de Melon made in the late 1980s by
now-defunct Merlion Winery; the first few releases of Murphy-Goode
Winery's Pinot Blanc beginning with the initial release from the 1991
vintage, with the label indicating on one line Pinot Blanc, and on the
next line Barrel-fermented Melon de Bourgogne (after 1993, the winery
called the wine simply Barrel-Fermented Pinot Blanc); the bottlings of
Melon de Bourgogne from tiny Eagle Ridge Winery in Penngrove (Sonoma
County); and the Melons from J. Fritz Winery in the Russian River
Beaulieu Vineyards offered only two bottlings of a wine called Melon
-- from the 1982 and 1983 vintages -- and herein lies a relevant piece
of history. In an interview many years ago, Tom Selfridge, who was
then president of Beaulieu Vineyards, said that the grape BV called
pinot blanc was also known to the winery for many years as melon de
Bourgogne and was used in BV's Chablis. It was pulled out of the
vineyard in the early 1960s because of a virus disease, and some of
the cuttings were sent to the University of California at Davis to be
placed in their virus eradication program. That was when the pinot
blanc name was mistakenly attached to what was really melon. Later, BV
thought it would be interesting to try the variety again and put the
now virus-free U.C. cuttings back in the original vineyard (BV #2). It
was from these grapes that the 1982 and 1983 BV Melons were made.
When I tasted those wines in March of 1994, the 1982 smelled of old
Madeira and was well over the hill, while the 1983 was drinkable, but
not very flavorful, offering faint traces of apple and citrus and
moderate viscosity. The technical sheets for both wines noted that
Georges de Latour imported melon budwood from France in 1939 to be
planted in BV #2, which was then believed to be the only planting of
melon vines in the United States.
Enforcing the Pinot Blanc-Melon regulations has not been a top
priority of BATF, and so the situation is still somewhat fluid.
According to Tom Selfridge, who is now president of the Chalone Wine
Group, as of today, he's not aware of any BATF pressure to make
changes in the labels used for Chalone's benchmark Pinot
Blancs. Another Pinot Blanc producer of note, Wild Horse Winery in the
Central Coast, specifies in the background information for its
current-release 1997 Wild Horse Pinot Blanc that the varietal
composition is "100% Melon de Bourgogne," and indicates that
"Future bottlings of this wine may be labeled as 'Melon de
Bourgogne' or as a proprietarily-named white wine."
Interestingly, California state agricultural officials seem to be
ignoring the controversy entirely. The latest acreage reports of the
California Agricultural Statistics Service report that total acreage
(bearing and non-bearing) of pinot blanc winegrapes in California as
of 1997 amounts to 1025 acres, down from 1061 total acres in
1996. Melon grapes are not mentioned at all.
Chalone Vineyard is one winery in particular that would be adversely
affected by BATF's regulations, if enforced, since it has long been
California's star producer of Pinot Blanc, with vineyard plantings of
the variety going back to 1946. It has been assumed all along that
old-vine pinot blanc in Chalone's barren, windswept, limestone soils
near the Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County was the real
thing -- pinot blanc vrai or true pinot blanc. Selfridge explained in
a telephone interview last October that after the controversy began to
unfold in Washington, Chalone brought in a plant pathologist from
U.C. Davis to certify the identity of these old vines, and the expert
concluded they are, indeed, the real thing.
Another Chalone vineyard, planted in 1972, is without doubt melon,
which was obtained from the Foundation Plant Material Service.
Subsequently, Chalone planted another 12 acres of pinot blanc, using
cuttings from the mother vineyard planted in 1946. Eventually, all of
the melon vines will be budded over to true pinot blanc.
While this tempest in a wine glass has been raging, wineries and
growers have been planting certified pinot blanc vines in several
California locations. Significant acreage of pinot blanc vrai now
exists in the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley (Santa
Barbara County), which is used by Jim Clendenen to make his Au Bon
Climat Reserve Pinot Blanc. The Bien Nacido also has plantings of what
is probably melon, but these grapes are harvested separate and apart
from the true pinot blanc. Byron "Ken" Brown reports that
nearby, at Byron Vineyard, about three acres of certified pinot blanc
were planted using cuttings of Colmar Clone 159 obtained from the
O'Connor Vineyard in Oregon's Eola Hills area. Another planting of
true pinot blanc is at Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley,
which goes into Arrowood's excellent Pinot Blancs.
That still leaves a lot of melon masquerading as pinot blanc, and the
question arises whether there is enough of a difference between the
two grapes to show up in the wines. The answer is: not much, really,
if both grapes are made into wine using the same techniques. Vintners
Club blind panel tastings over several years have conclusively
demonstrated that when vinified or made into wine in the same manner
as expensive Chardonnay -- using barrel fermentation, secondary
malolactic fermentation (either partial or complete), extended lees
contact and ageing in new or mostly new French oak -- these grapes,
whether melon or true pinot blanc, can produce a wine every bit as
good as excellent Chardonnay, exhibiting a Burgundian character that
could never be mistaken for simple, austere Muscadet.
And it doesn't seem to make a huge difference whether the base grapes
are melon or true pinot blanc. The fruit flavor descriptors are often
different -- apple, pear, white melon for Melon and creamy citrus for
Pinot Blanc -- but the same distinction can be made for Chardonnay
made from grapes grown in different California appellations. Moreover,
it may well be that after all this time in California, melon grapes
have mutated or evolved into a grape variety totally dissimilar to
that used to make Muscadet in the Loire Valley.
The fact that melon originated in Burgundy tends to reinforce this
similarity to Chardonnay, which is also a native of Burgundy. It is
this Burgundian-style Pinot Blanc that consumers have come to know and
appreciate -- from producers like Chalone, Steele, Au Bon Climat,
Makor, Murphy-Goode, Villa Mt. Eden and Wild Horse.
And even when the grapes are not vinified in such an exalted style,
they still produce a wine clearly distinguishable from Loire Valley
Muscadet. Good examples are Mirassou's Harvest Reserve Pinot Blanc and
Pinot Blancs from Lockwood, Saddleback Cellars and Benziger, which
show considerable depth of fruit and a rich mouthfeel.
is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco.
He is Contributing Editor, The Wine News;
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Section (freelance);
President, German Wine Society, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter.