Elena Walch, Alto Adige Pinot Bianco Kastelaz 2006 (American Wine Distributors, Inc., $28): It is no secret that I am a big fan of Pinot Blanc wines from Italy's northerly Alto Adige region. For me, they offer just the right combination of character and easy drinkability. Moderately flavorful and food-friendly, they sit somewhere in the middle distance between simple Pinot Grigios, at one extreme of white wine styles, and ponderous, oaked Chardonnays at the other extreme.
At a recent tasting of Alto Adige wines, I sampled the wines of twelve producers and rated none of them lower than 87, although some cost as little as $12 a bottle. One wine that captivated me was this single-vineyard Pinot Bianco from Elena Walch, a former architect who is one of the most admired winemakers in the region.
Cooperatives dominate wine production in Alto Adige, achieving a level of quality that many co-ops elsewhere in the wine world would do well to emulate. Elena Walch runs a private winery, however--in fact two private, family-owned wineries in different districts of Alto Adige. Like most Alto Adige producers, she makes a wide assortment of wines, mainly whites but also reds, which fall into different ranges and price points. Kastelaz Pinot Bianco is her finest wine from this variety.
Unusually for a Pinot Bianco, this wine aged partially in oak: 30% of the wine aged in barriques, while the remainder remained in stainless steel until bottling. Another influence on the wine's taste is that it comes from low-yielding, south-facing vineyards that lie in a fairly southerly part of the region.
These two factors make this wine richer and a bit more exotic than the typical Alto Adige Pinot Bianco. It is, among Alto Adige Pinot Biancos, the Alsace-like wine in an Italianate lineup. Its aroma suggests very ripe apple and pear, a honeyed note and very slight smokiness of oak. In the mouth, it has a rich, viscous texture that is cut through by a razor edge formed by medium-plus acidity and the slightest bit of tannin; richness dominates on the fore-palate, while the rear palate is all clean freshness. Flavors include ripe apple, minerality and a suggestion of peach. The wine's fascinating interplay of richness and cleanness speaks to its quality.
This is a powerful Pinot Bianco, with a softer focus than those made in the crisp, precise style that less expensive versions tend to have. But it is no less food-friendly. Its rich flavor perks up spring vegetable risotto and similarly delicately-flavored dishes. It also has enough weight to complement poached salmon, chicken breast fillets in a creamy sauce, or a cheese-laden white pizza.