What do you get when you pick cool-climate pinot noir grapes early, press them ever so gently, and limit skin contact? White wine.
But not just any white wine. Pinot Noir blanc, a rare, dry wine that's popping up in the Anderson Valley, is a bracing beauty: Complex, earthy and clear as crystal, it's unusual enough to stump even the geekiest oenophiles.
The method isn't unusual. In Champagne, it is how producers craft blanc de noirs, sparkling wine made from red grapes. The still version is becoming increasingly common in Oregon, too, where WillaKenzie, Domaine Serene, Anne Amie and others are making luscious examples of white pinot noir.
But, it's pretty new in California, and it's hard to tell who thought of it first, as Balo, Lichen, Champs de Rêves and Angel Camp Vineyards all released their first vintages in 2012 out of a desire to make something unique (read: not rosé) from their 100 percent estate pinot noir vineyards. Taste them or the newly released 2013 vintages at the 17th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival May 16-18.
Proprietor Tim Mullins of Balo Vineyards also wanted something to offer customers who don't drink red wine -- a risky economic decision if you consider that organically farmed artisanal pinot noir fetches way more than white wine.
But he can also take a hint. With demand for white and rosé up -- Balo more than doubled production of those wines in recent years -- Mullins made 20 cases of pinot noir blanc in 2012. Then, he watched it fly out of the tasting room.
"It created a buzz," says Mullins, of the lush, almost beige-colored wine. "It was out of necessity but it turned into something that our customers really wanted. It's like we stumbled upon a niche in the pinot noir market."
Eric Johannsen of Champs de Rêves had his own kind of kismet. The Swiss clone of pinot noir he had growing in the Boone Ridge Vineyard always struggled to ripen enough to make memorable red wine.
"Bud break was always late on that site, and the color of the wine was light," he says.
His team hand-harvested grapes into 10-pound boxes to minimize color extraction on the way to the winery. The grapes were then whole-cluster pressed, slowly and gently -- "about half of what we would normally press for a white wine made from white grapes" -- to further minimize the skins' ability to impart color to the juice.
Finally, the wine was cold-fermented for a month at 50 to 56 degrees to preserve the delicate fruit aromas, then aged in neutral oak for four months before bottling. The wine's brisk acidity and pink grapefruit flavors are counterbalanced with a long, earthy finish.
You get similar earthiness from Doug Stewart's Lichen Estate Les Pinot, a rather innovative white blend. Stewart, founder and previous owner of Breggo Cellars, uses 60 percent pinot noir -- most of which is base wine from sparkling wine press cuts -- and 40 percent pinot gris. The 2012 vintage finishes dry with gorgeous tropical fruit, marvelous aromatics and a substantial finish -- like sparkling wine sans bubbles.
Lichen Estate 2012 Les Pinots Noirs & Gris ($32): Aromas of peach and lychee, and flavors that begin sweet and viscous in the mouth but finish bone dry with bracing acidity.
Champs de Reves 2012 Pinot Noir Blanc ($28): Aromas of guava and apricot with pear and pink grapefruit flavors and wet stone elements. Lush, long and seductive.
Balo Vineyards 2013 Pinot Noir Blanc ($32): Light beige with mild strawberry and herb flavors plus a touch of earth. Lighter-bodied with crisp acidity and a clean finish.
Angel Camp Vineyards 2013 Pinot Noir Blanc ($32): Light straw color with stone fruit, cranberry, and spice aromas. Medium-light bodied with a smooth yet lively texture and finish.
Grand Tasting: Anderson Valley
Pinot Noir Festival
Taste Anderson Valley pinot noirs from more than 45 producers and savor paired paella, handcrafted pate and hand-thrown pizzas. Talk with the winemakers and listen to live music. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 17, Goldeneye Winery, 9200 Highway 128, Philo. $105. For information on other festival events, visit www.avwines.com.