Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc to the French) is the most misunderstood grape variety cultivated in Italy today. A lighter-skinned mutation of Pinot Noir, the grape was historically confused with its cousin Chardonnay in the vineyards of Italy, particularly in the hills of Alto Adige. But even when growers recognized the variety as Pinot Bianco, it was seldom treated with respect. At best, winemakers would produce everyday, inoffensive white wine for early consumption. Blandness was its trademark.

Pinot Bianco grapes

Yet Pinot Bianco has the potential to be so much more. After an inauspicious beginning, Italian winegrowers have (finally) started to test the limits of the grape, producing a range of styles – sweet and dry – in several regions across northern Italy. Whether Pinot Bianco can truly rival the brilliance of Chardonnay is a subject of fierce debate. But the finest dry whites of Alto Adige deserve a lot more recognition.

History and viticulture

Pinot Bianco is one of wine’s great travelers. You’ll find the grape in many regions and nations, including Alsace, northern Italy, Austria, Germany, and Burgundy. It has also been adopted with relish in parts of the US and Canada, albeit high-quality examples are relatively thin on the ground. Today, its Italian stronghold remains the mountainous vineyards of Alto Adige; ancient Greek settlers introduced wine growing to several European countries in the 8th century BC. Willingly adopted by farmers across northern Italy, the Roman conquest of Alto Adige in 15 BC did not dampen local enthusiasm for the grape.

On the contrary: wine became a vital part of Roman social and cultural life. However, the Western Roman Empire disintegrated in 476 AD, paving the way for the Dark Ages. Numerous civilizations fought for control of the region – Alto Adige was eventually divided between the Lombard, Alemanni, and Bavarian leaders. Nonetheless, viticulture remained at the center of agricultural life in Italy, despite the political upheaval of the post-Roman era.

However, Pinot Bianco is a relatively late arrival to the vineyards of northeastern Italy. The grape is not believed to be indigenous to Alto Adige; historians say it is native to the hills of Burgundy. Once prolific across much of the Cote d’Or – and indeed Champagne – Pinot Bianco is now limited to a few parcels here and there. In the case of the Cote d’Or, this is largely due to the edicts issued by the Dukes of Burgundy; this powerful group of families assumed control of the region in the 11th century. They ordered growers to grub up Pinot Blanc and replace it with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir. Many centuries later, the Champenoise decided to replace the variety en masse in the 1800s. Therefore, it is difficult to say precisely when Pinot Bianco was first cultivated on Italian soil. Nevertheless, the grape has remained a vital part of the winegrowing industries in Alto Adige and Franciacorta, despite the political and economic turbulence of the last 1000 years.

In the 9th century, Trentino-Alto Adige became part of the Holy Roman Empire. This broad political structure encompassed territories in Germany, France, and Italy – it survived until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. After that, however, jurisdiction over Alto Adige was given to the religious establishment: it became an ecclesiastical province known as the Bishopric of Trent. Nevertheless, competing interests saw part of the region handed over to the Habsburg dynasty in the mid-14th century. But it was not until 1805 that the entire province fell under Bavarian control following the battle of Austerlitz. After that, Alto Adige was known as the Südtirol – it remained outside of Italian jurisdiction until 1918, following the armistice signed at the end of World War 1. This accounts for the distinctly multicultural atmosphere that defines Trentino-Alto Adige today. Indeed, German is a more common language in south Tyrol than Italian: French, German, and Italian grape varieties are all found in the zone. However, perhaps the most captivating thing about the local wine industry is its diversity. One minute you’re enjoying a glass of the esoteric Lagrein; the next, you’re drinking an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc from the Valle Venosta.

Pinot Bianco is an important part of this story. In addition to its role in Franciacorta, the grape is responsible for some of northeast Italy’s finest dry whites: perfumed, structured, and complex. Moreover, it is also relatively straightforward to grow. An early-ripening variety, Pinot Bianco will usually deliver a good yield – occasionally excessive – unless the vintage is particularly difficult. However, it can produce high-quality wine even if the yield approaches 60 hectoliters per hectare. Only a greatly inflated crop will result in disappointing wine. There is also the considerable risk of fungal diseases in wet weather: Pinot Bianco tends to grow very densely packed bunches, which can hinder air circulation. Spraying the vines with a copper sulfate mixture may be unavoidable if this scenario occurs. Nevertheless, most growers now limit the use of synthetic fungicides as much as possible.


Winegrowers in northern Italy are experts at handling Pinot Bianco. The grape is used to add structure and weight to sparkling Franciacorta. At the same time, producers in Alto Adige have become adept at crafting superlative dry white wines from Pinot Bianco – every bit the equal of Chardonnay. The variety can also be used to make excellent dessert wines – the Trockenbeerenauslesen of Austria can rival the best of Sauternes. However, the overwhelming majority of Italian expressions are fermented dry.

franciacorta vineyards

Scenic vineyards of Franciacorta

In Franciacorta, Pinot Bianco plays the (vital) role of supporting act. A small percentage is usually incorporated into the final cuvée before it undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle. Base wines are typically vinified in stainless steel after the grapes have been gently pressed. Under the regulations, NV Franciacorta must be aged for a minimum period of 18 months on the fine lees before disgorgement. However, certain Saten (Blanc de Blancs) wines can contain up to 50% Pinot Bianco – Chardonnay is always the other 50 percent. This stringent process is one of the reasons why Franciacorta is such a consistent sparkling wine. It is an appellation defined by quality.

The production of still white wines, meanwhile, can vary significantly. One approach prioritizes fruit and aromatics above weight and power: berries are gently crushed, dosed with sulfur (to prevent oxidation), and transferred to a settling tank. The must is then chilled to allow solid matter to sink to the bottom of the vessel. Cool fermentation in stainless steel will then occur – low temperatures help preserve fruit and freshness in all-white wines. The wine may then be matured on its fine lees for several months to add richness and texture. It will then be fined, sterile-filtered, and bottled. In the vast majority of cases, these fruit-driven expressions of Pinot Bianco are on the market within 12 months of the harvest. They offer clean, ripe fruit and good acidity. But complexity and structure can be lacking.

Yet Pinot Bianco is more than capable of offering all of the above. Like Chardonnay, it is a very malleable and flexible grape, used to make a range of dry styles. If weight and structure are desired, the winemaker will vinify the wines in barrel – concrete and amphorae are also in vogue – allowing them to oxidize for up to 30 months post-fermentation gently. The result is a full-bodied interpretation of Pinot Bianco, with aromas of wood smoke, butter, hazelnut, and almond. It is one of Italy’s most voluptuous white wines.

A tale of two regions

In northern Italy, there are two principal sources of delicious Pinot Bianco wines – mono-varietal and blends. The first is slowly gaining recognition for the stupendous quality of its bubbly. Curiously, although Italy has over 100 designations that can legally market sparking wine, Franciacorta is the only appellation exclusively dedicated to fizz. The vineyards are situated east of Milan in an undulating region called Brescia. It is breathtakingly picturesque – vines are sheltered by a chain of hills that have been used for viticulture since Roman times. The climate is continental, with bright sunny days, cool nights (exacerbated by the high altitude), and cold winters. Pinot Bianco yields fantastic base wine in these Alpine conditions: fragrant, fresh, and rich in flavor. It has also developed a powerful synergy with the zone’s sandy soils – the terroir is both free-draining and rich in minerals from the glacial deposits. Although Chardonnay- and Pinot Noir-dominant blends tend to receive the most adulation from critics, Pinot Bianco is an invaluable part of the Franciacorta industry today. Admittedly, the area under vine is negligible compared to Champagne – about a tenth of the size – but in terms of quality, they are close rivals.

The second is, of course, Alto Adige. Again, all the cards are in order: the region’s vineyards bask in fresh Alpine air, enjoying many hours of uninterrupted summer sun. Meanwhile, the high elevation and mineral-rich soils help growers craft structured, elegant wines that speak of their origins. The eastern Adige slopes around the town of San Michele have long been regarded as the zone’s seminal terroir due to the abundance of colluvial matter (rock sediment that has been transported to the lower mountain slopes) and vine-nourishing minerals. Some of Italy’s finest Pinot Bianco is made here – aging in clay amphorae has brought a whole new dimension to the grape, capturing the attention of hipster sommeliers abroad. As the gatekeepers to restaurant success and consumer notoriety, this has become a vital ingredient in the region’s marketing. Once maligned for its ubiquitous, bland output, Alto Adige is now making waves.

Top producers of Pinot Bianco wines:

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